HBCU DIGEST: Executive turnover at HBCUs outpaces Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs)

This HBCU President Joined a Covid-19 Vaccine Trial. His Call for More  Volunteers Stirred Outrage.

Since 2016, I’ve written about the high rate of turnover in executive leadership positions (Chancellors and Presidents) at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for HBCU Digest. Over the course of the past six reports, I’ve noted the annual 25-35% turnover in these key leadership positions at HBCUs and the impact of reputational harm, growth, momentum, and negative career impacts for these executives as well as those recruited to and serving in management roles across those campuses (here, here, and here). 

In last year’s annual report, I acknowledged a slowing of the pace of executive turnover and predicted that it slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also meant the pace would likely resume this year. Midway through the 2022 academic year, twelve (12) institutions have announced executive leadership changes (see my up-to-date thread, via Twitter), with several prominent HBCUs slated to replace long-serving leaders at crucial points in the trajectories of these universities.

In a report released last fall (here), I examined the differences between HBCUs and Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs), which are institutions that do not meet the federal standard set for HBCUs, but primarily serve African American students. In that report, I noted that HBCUs were nearly 2.5 times more likely to have presidents serve tenures below the American Council on Education (ACE) national average of 6.5 years.

More alarmingly, at the 41 of 88 HBCUs whose median presidential tenures have fallen below this average in the past two decades, the median tenure is nearly three times shorter (4.195 years) than those of their PBI peers (12 years). 

As a follow-up, I examined the executive tenures at another category of institutions, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), which are defined as institutions that serve an undergraduate population that is both low income (at least 50% receiving Title IV needs-based assistance) and in which Hispanic students constitute at least 25% of the student population. Over 2 million Hispanic students attend HSI’s at over 400 institutions across 24 states and Puerto Rico. Like HBCUs, they serve diverse populations, offer 2-year/4-year/and graduate degrees, are geographically and population diverse, and are designated as public and private institutions. These institutions are linked by similarities in student-population rather than historical missions like HBCUs.

Focusing on 4-year institutions, and comparing executive leadership tenures to the 2017 ACE average presidential tenure of 6.5 years, I marked the tenures of presidents/chancellors at 50 randomly selected institutions. Again, my casual hypothesis would be that given the focus on serving low-income, ethnic minority populations, despite their diverse geographical locations, historical missions, and political, social, and financial objectives, maintaining consistent executive leadership would prove to be equally challenging.

Again, the data suggests that executive turnover at HBCUs is a unique and acute challenge worthy of increasing scrutiny as comparing HBCUs to peer institutions reveals that their leaders’ tenures are more often interrupted and terminated. 

Executive Leadership Tenure since 2000 at HSIs and HBCUs

Excelencia in Education’s database identifies 330 4-year institutions as HSIs, with 155 public and 175 private universities/colleges.  They include all institution types, such as Carnegie Research 1 designated institutions (e.g. University of New Mexico, University of Colorado-Boulder); public regional institutions (University of Houston-Downtown and City University of New York—Brooklyn); and private liberal arts colleges (Adelphi University and Whittier College). Of these institutions, I examined the presidential tenures at each institution over the past 20-25 years to determine which ones had average executive tenures below 6.5 years. Of the 50 selected institutions, 15 of them had presidential tenures averaging fewer than 6.5 years in the past two+ decades. 80% of the private institutions had presidents whose tenures exceeded this average and 60% of the public institutions had presidents who exceeded this average.

For comparison, only 52% of HBCU presidents’ tenures exceeded this average in the same time period. Of the 82 HBCUs I examined, 38 of them have had average executive tenures below 6.5 years over the past two decades, and an additional four institutions could have those averages dip below 6.5 years if the current executive serves a tenure of five (5) years or fewer (i.e. the average tenure is higher because of a president/chancellor who served a longer term over the past twenty years).

Among the HSIs examined, which span 16 states and have Hispanic enrollments from as low as 25% to as high as 96% of their student bodies, and with half of those institutions featuring Hispanic enrollment of at least 40%, there was no definitive identifying factor which predicted that executive tenures would be shorter at any institution type. Presidents had slightly longer tenures on average at public institutions vs. private institutions (10.82 vs. 10.19 years) while presidents at private universities were more likely to serve tenures of 10 years or more (24 presidents served tenures of 10 or more years at 20/25 institutions during this period versus 18 presidents at 14 public institutions).

An increased percentage of Hispanic students had no noticeable impact on presidential tenures, as among the 20 institutions examined with Hispanic student populations above 50%, 14/20 institutions’ presidents tenures exceeded the 6.5 year average. Even among the 15 institutions where presidents/chancellors’ tenures did not exceed the ACE average of 6.5 years, HSI presidents had average tenures longer than HBCU presidents at similar institutions (5.08 years vs. 4.58 years). 

There are some similarities among the institution types. A total of 196 presidents and chancellors served at the 42 HBCUs with tenures below the average of 6.5 years in the past two+ decades. By comparison, the total number of presidents serving at the 15 HSI institutions in similar circumstances is 78, which means that there have been many more interim/acting presidents at HSI institutions, which can cause serious disruption and transitional issues. Additionally, as Hispanic student enrollment increases to above 60%, just under half the institutions have comparably high turnover to HBCUs.

Also, while being geographically located in the Deep South strongly correlates with executive turnover concerns at HBCUs (80% of the HBCUs with high executive turnover are in Deep South states) there is a similar correlation with HSIs located in Western states, as 80% of the institutions identified with high executive turnover are in the West.  

Overall, however, HBCUs continue to present more consistent challenges to executive leadership tenures than their minority-serving institutional peers. As several high-profile HBCUs (Hampton University, Southern University System, Bethune-Cookman University, and Spelman College) seek new leadership and some of the longest-serving presidents step down (William Harvey is retiring after 44 years; Billy Hawkins is leaving Talladega after 14 years; Walter Kimbrough is stepping down at Dillard after 10 years), it appears increasingly likely that their replacements will serve significantly shorter terms. As I’ve noted elsewhere, these threats not only impact executive leadership but aspirant HBCU administrators who are in the pipeline for such positions: 

“Even though a significant number of talented persons of color consider it a career goal to work at HBCUs in middle manager and senior-level roles, they opt to be employed at PWIs or higher education associations as a result of this unknown. For those senior-level executives that do elect to assume leadership roles at HBCUs, when presidents are ousted, potential negative experiences may occur. These experiences may include depression, indefinite unemployment and salary interruption, and the potential of harming one’s reputation to gain entrée to academe in the future.

In addition, aspirant, well-credentialed, and competent individuals building solid curriculum vitae and serving student and institutional needs admirably can find their careers derailed for no other reason than the fact that the executive who hired them has been terminated, non-renewed, or has resigned. These negative experiences will continue to keep dynamic persons from leadership roles at HBCUs, despite their cultural importance, historical relevance, and rich traditions.”

The trend continues uninterrupted, despite a national reckoning focusing interest and investment in Black-owned and minority-serving institutions in recent years. Executive turnover in HBCUs continues to be an issue that needs focus, scrutiny, engagement, and whenever board manipulation or legislative chicanery repeatedly rear their heads, resistance and the leveraging of accountability by alumni and supporters.   

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