HBCU DIGEST: The Alabama A&M presidential search delivers the unexpected

Alabama A&M President Andrew Hugine updates trustees on SACS response; 3  trustees leave meeting - al.com

Philander Smith College President Roderick Smothers, we’re sure, never imagined that he would be the sole catalyst to change the fortunes of two HBCUs in a single day.

But with his decision to stay in Arkansas for a five-year contract extension that essentially buys out his candidacy for the Alabama A&M University post for which he was a finalist, Smothers exit clears the way for AAMU Provost Daniel Wims’ grand entrance into the role, something that the university’s board of trustees has wanted but has hesitated to vote up as politics and controversy have pulled Wims down in the public space.

Smothers’ exit adds to the intrigue of a very important search for Alabama’s HBCU culture. But it has also delivered two things which we never thought were possible in our sector. First and the headline that should be most celebrated is Philander Smith’s board of trustees allowing talent and fit to remain in place and not allowing ego to rule the day on the institution’s future.

Rare is the occasion where a sitting president can be a part of a public search, advance to the finalist stage, and do well enough to be in a position for an appointment, only for the current oversight board to say “not so fast.” Trustees often take such ambition as a personal affront to their leadership, but most often that ambition is a byproduct of talent and experience refined by the board itself.

Institutional growth is the result of a patient and involved board that allows a president to grow and to guide them towards success. It also requires a president that can appreciate varying voices with individual agendas, and who can embrace the challenge of attaching each voice to the mission of the institution.

It is not often that an HBCU board earns flowers for competence, but Philander Smith has demonstrated that leadership can be strengthened through a responsible and transparent approach to the culture of executive talent searching and retention.

The other new thing that we’re witnessing is the fight to preserve a legacy, and that is from outgoing Alabama A&M President Andrew Hugine. There is no doubt about what Hugine has done to raise up A&M in research, profile, and execution. He is a dean of presidents and has earned the mantle of president emeritus.

But his recent activity to influence or to engage the search process at the institution is, and perhaps unintentionally, sullying that grand reputation. In what seems to be an effort to seal the deal for Wims, Hugine has written three public letters to shame alumni and political actors who might be pushing the search away from a Wims selection.

The last of the three was published in the Alabama Political Reporter today and consequently removed, but not before being widely circulated through the HBCU community. It is an unprecedented, outright endorsement of Wims for president that specifically addresses all of the perceived shortcomings in his character or executive profile as provost.

It concludes in part:

“Finally, I cannot on the one hand espouse my love and concern for AAMU and her future developed over the past twelve years, and on the other hand remain silent as one of the most critical decisions that will affect her is being made. It is my fervent prayer that those making the decisions will “lean not on their own understanding,” but will seek guidance from a higher power. The children of Israel had only a two-week journey to the Promised Land, but the journey ultimately took forty years but of the decisions that they made. Alabama A&M University is on the cusp of moving to the next level of greatness. It can happen in short order or the university can wander around as the children of Israel did. We all know of institutions that have erred at this critical juncture and they are still experiencing the negative impact of wandering around in the wilderness. Alabama A&M University can avoid joining this wandering caravan by making the right decision.”

If you know Hugine and his work, you know that this is not in character for the man whose career has been defined by a graceful solemnity about his own greatness. This is a presentation somewhere in the middle of rage and desperation. But for what?

No one would doubt that Hugine loves Alabama A&M as both advocate and architect, but to fully cast a lot with a second-in-command who seemingly no one but the board wants to be seated is way beyond Hugine’s usually keen political instincts. The question is why? Why emphasize that claims have never been proven against Wims when an entire #MeToo movement was created to call out the injustice of legitimate claims never being proven or perpetrators brought to justice?

Why explain to the board publicly how they should proceed in making a decision, and say outright that going against his view of conventional executive wisdom could jeopardize the institution, literally, in Biblical proportions?

Why would Hugine risk his own legacy to help establish the legacy of one who clearly couldn’t himself affirm it in interviews set up for his success? Had Wims done a better job explaining allegations against him, appearing with more humility, and with more focus on institutional objectives beyond academic affairs, the decision would’ve been quickly made two weeks ago in his favor.

Philander Smith and Alabama A&M have turned their institutions in new directions today, but we can only guess which one leads to prosperity and which one is headed towards unfamiliar territory.