HBCU DIGEST – Executive Turnover at HBCUs Outpaces Predominantly Black Institutions

Since 2016, I’ve written about the high rate of turnover in executive leadership positions (Chancellors and Presidents) at Historically Black Colleges and Universities 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 executives as well as those recruited to and serving in management roles across those campuses (here, here, and here).

In my most recent annual report, I noted that this pace slowed somewhat, likely due to complications related to COVID-19, which made stability in leadership evermore critical (as well as the difficulties that a pandemic place on recruitment, as well a the manifold cultural and political issues nationwide that increasingly make executive leadership less desirable across the industry). However, as life crept ever so slowly back to “normal” this summer (nevermind what an illusion that was, now as before), the pause on retirements, resignations, and terminations ended. In the mere seven weeks since the 2022 fiscal year began on July 1, a whopping ten (10) institutions have announced executive leadership changes by the end of the year (see my up-to-date thread, via Twitter), and HBCU Digest Founding Editor Jarrett Carter believes there are many more to come (here and here).

I recently wondered if this leadership turnover phenomenon is prevalent only on HBCU campuses, or, is it one that is more widespread across Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). After all, institutions that serve the most ethnically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse populations, and many with the same resource challenges, are likely to have other characteristics in common. While not a category defined by federal statute, per se, several executive orders have been established to identify this category of institution, and institutions fall into seven distinct sub-categories, including:

  1. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) (institutions founded prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that were created primarily to educate African Americans);

  2. Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI) – institutions that do not meet the legal definition of HBCUs, but primarily serve African Americans; 

  3. Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) – 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%; 

  4. Tribal Colleges or Universities (TCU) – institutions of higher education which are formally controlled, or have been formally sanctioned, or chartered, by the governing body of an Native American tribe; 

  5. Native American Non-Tribal Institutions (NANTI) – institutions other than TCUs that serve an undergraduate population that is both low income (at least 50% receiving Title IV needs-based assistance) and in which American Indian students constitute at least 10%; 

  6. Alaskan Native- or Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions (ANNHI) – institutions that serve an undergraduate population that is both low income (at least 50% receiving Title IV needs-based assistance) and in which Alaska Native students constitute at least 20% or Hawaiian Native students constitute at least 10%; 

  7. Asian American- and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI) –  institutions that serve an undergraduate population that is both low income (at least 50% receiving Title IV needs-based assistance) and in which Asian American or Native American Pacific Islander students constitute at least 10%. 

Given that one of the MSI categories specifically identifies institutions that serve predominately Black and low-income student populations, but are not themselves HBCUs, I examined their member institutions. 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. Focusing on 4-year institutions, and comparing executive leadership tenures to the national average of 6.5 years, I marked the tenures of presidents/chancellors at these 88 four-year HBCUs and 18 PBIs in the past two decades, I searched for institutions with three or more presidents since 2000 (indicating that a current president’s shortened tenure may bring them below the 6.5 year average), or, institutions with more acute turnover concerns, such as 3 or more presidents in the past decade (not including interim presidents).

A casual hypothesis would be that given their student population similarities and shared political, social, and financial objectives, that maintaining consistent executive leadership would prove to be equally challenging. The degree to which that hypothesis is staggeringly incorrect is worrying, and predicts the need for closer examination and analysis. 

PBI Executive Leadership Tenure since 2000

There are 16 PBIs, as previously defined, in the federal government’s most recently defined cohort. They include: Metropolitan College of New York; Trinity Washington University; Belhaven University (MS); Bloomfield College (NJ); Chowan University (NC); Johnson & Wales University-Charlotte; Limestone College (SC); North Carolina Wesleyan College; Peirce College (PA); Clayton State University (GA); CUNY York College; Atlanta Metropolitan State College; Chicago State University; CUNY Medgar Evers College; East Georgia State College; and the University of Baltimore.

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, the ACE average identified in 2017. Only three (3) of the 16 institutions had turnover more frequent than this average. 

Institution #1 is a regional campus of a university historically located outside of the geographic region where this satellite campus is located, and has had seven executives in the past 17 years, with one person serving two interim terms as the university searched for permanent leadership. The university has a chancellor that oversees all of its regional campuses, and the chancellor has served in the role for three years and has been affiliated with the institution since 1988. While the regional campus struggles to get its footing in terms of executive leadership, the university is a stable, regional institution.    

Institution #2 has also had seven executives during this time, but has had five since 2015 after the two previous presidents served a combined 14.5 years. A significant deterrent to its stability is its state’s failure to pass a statewide budget for several consecutive years between 2015 and 2019, leaving state institutions languishing as they vied for ad hoc budget allotments on an annual basis, diminishing their ability to set long-term goals and engage in strategic planning.

Institution #3 has had five executives in the past 20 years, hiring a new president in 2020. 

The average executive tenure at all of the other institutions, excluding their most recent hires, is 13.29 years for the institutions since the year 2000, with a median executive tenure of 12 years. 

HBCU Executive Leadership Tenure since 2000

Comparatively speaking, the executive tenures of presidents and chancellors at four-year HBCUs are considerably shorter. Half of the four-year HBCUs either have had executive tenures shorter than the ACE average, or are on the precipice of falling below the average. Of the 82 HBCU’s I examined, 37 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). For example, one HBCU in the rural southeast has had four presidents in the past twenty years, serving tenures of nine, eight, and three years respectively. Their current average is 6.66 years. If the current president serves fewer than 5 years, their average could drop to a range from 5.75 to 6.25 years). 

A total of 196 presidents and chancellors have served at these 41 institutions since 2000, not including interim executive appointments. On average, an executive appointment lasted fewer than 5 years at these institutions, based on this data (4.58 years), with the median appointment lasting an even shorter 4.195 years. The institutions included in this group are regionally diverse (as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as Florida) and range from mid-size public regionals with enrollment exceeding 10,000 students to small, private institutions with enrollment under 500 students. They are located in large, metropolitan areas and rural towns, and some are independent institutions while others operate as members of larger university systems with governor-appointed boards. They are as diverse as their PBI counterparts and comparable in every way—except that the executives who are appointed to lead these institutions can reasonably expect their appointments to be interrupted more often and cut short more unceremoniously than their PBI peers.

This may serve to explain the increased likelihood that HBCU executives will rotate and be recycled among HBCUs (brief tenures served previously at HBCUs do not appear to deter other HBCUs from subsequently hiring executives as it might at non-HBCUs, as those brief tenures do not always correlate with poor performance or scandal). It may also offer an explanation of the phenomenon of executives serving at a segment of HBCUs to gain experience and demonstrate competence in order to gain opportunities at more prominent HBCUs, a feature common in non-HBCUs as well.

Still, given the tens of thousands of students educated at and the faculty and staff serving and building resumes at these institutions, not to mention the regional economies significantly (and sometimes, nearly wholly) dependent upon their stability and growth for their economies, the high turnover of these key leadership positions remains a growing crisis, and one worthy of closer examination, research, diagnosis, and ultimately, solutions.