HBCU DIGEST: The Art of the Presidential Search at Southern University

Southern University aerial view

Southern University has revealed three finalists to lead the system and flagship campus following the retirement of current president/chancellor Ray Belton. 

University of Arkansas Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander, outgoing Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, and University of Wisconsin Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields will visit campus next month to meet with campus community members and final interviews.

Like most presidential searches, the art of the selection is pairing campus needs with the skill set of a leader who can outwardly communicate the board’s vision for addressing those needs. That art is more displayed in Baton Rouge than at any other HBCU nationwide. The SU Board of Supervisors is well-known for its hands-on leadership approach to oversight, political gamesmanship, and relationship leveraging. 

Any president of the Southern University System or chancellor within it, especially the flagship Baton Rouge campus, accepts the job under certain conditions:

  1. The concession that the Board is always right.

  2. The Board doesn’t want to hear from a president when it may be wrong because it is always right.

  3. In the rare event that the board is wrong, it is because the president/chancellor failed to provide adequate leadership. 

In many ways, Southern has only survived this long against political and economic forces threatening it at every turn because of this model. And when it has struggled, it has been because there have been stages in the system’s history where the model has created tension and friction with standard higher education best practices in the face of enhanced pressure from those forces. 

Once a candidate can understand that dynamic, it comes down to a concept of who can be the best fit and face for the Southern brand. The best pathways to success in Baton Rouge are:

  • An understanding of Louisiana culture.

  • A respect for the autonomy of the system campuses.

  • A value for athletics.

  • An appreciation for political jockeying.

  • Coddling key individuals and groups. 

If you don’t know how to make calls and hold meetings before meetings, if you don’t know which promises are required to be made to specific SU faculty members, alumni federation members, and athletic boosters, and you don’t know which ring of Leon Tarver’s to kiss on which day, the tenure will not be successful. 

The details about the finalists’ skills, and the names not advanced to be finalists, seemingly say a lot about a new direction Southern may be traveling. James Ammons was brought to Baton Rouge to succeed outgoing president Ray Belton, a Southern system lifer. Ammons had successful-yet-controversial tenures at two HBCUs but has remained relatively inconspicuous in SU scuttlebutt since arriving in 2018. 

That Ammons is not a finalist for a job set up for him just four years ago says a lot about relationships he may have failed to cultivate over the years. The same might be true for Langston University President Kent Smith, another candidate and Southern U alumnus whose land-grant experience, family ties, and youth also made him an ideal selection. 

He also is not in the final crop. 

The backgrounds for each candidate and the skills needed for success seem to shift the odds in favor of one candidate over the others as the preferred choice. But in Baton Rouge, one phone call or a conversation that goes the wrong way can change the entire calculus. 

The list of finalists appears to have been built that way, and the last one standing will be chosen by the same means.

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