HBCU DIGEST – The Quiet Success of Billy Hawkins

We could have, and probably should have, heard from him more often.

Dr. Billy Hawkins to be first Black president of Talladega College with  building named in his honor | The Birmingham Times

Talladega College President Billy Hawkins resigned as president last week, nearly a year early than his previously announced departure plans and with health concerns as the driver for his decision.

Hawkins led Talladega to respectable growth and brand awareness in Alabama and personally carved out as an HBCU figure who loomed large in important board meetings with accreditors and advocating organizations like the United Negro College Fund.

Prior to his leaving, it appeared that Talladega was prepared to send Hawkins out with a parade of accolades. Enrollment was on a multi-year upswing and the college was marching towards what appeared to be a reboot of its football program.

Sizable donations were coming into the institution, punctuated by a million-dollar gift from prominent alumnus and Hampton University President William R. Harvey. And the school was just a year removed from one of its most prominent recent graduates, Jackson State University head football coach and NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, boosting the profile of its competency-based degree program for adult learners.

But with all signs of a successful presidency coming to a spectacular close, Hawkins remained outside from the collective of presidential voices speaking out on key issues impacting Black colleges. Save for local press and the once-in-a-lifetime radar blip of Talladega band’s participation in Donald Trump’s inaugural parade, he was not someone who demanded or commanded national attention while TC seemingly moved in the opposite direction of the very real doomsday narrative for private HBCUs.

Hawkins doubled up the average tenure for a college president and nearly tripled the life expectancy for an HBCU president. He raised money, built programs and facilities, and navigated the politics of a historically Black campus in the center of rural Alabama, all while quietly serving as a peer confidant for other HBCU presidents and chancellors nationwide.

His story echoes that of Henry Tisdale, who quietly built Claflin University into a significant hub of Black professional training, fundraising, and stability while remaining out of the ‘celebrity circuit’ of HBCU leaders.

The adages of ‘moving in silence’ or ‘allowing their work to speak for them’ may be marks of the previous generation of HBCU leaders as it is for newer presidents to be active and branded in traditional and social media. But in an age of heightened competition for students and resources, the sector can benefit from tenured leaders taking more of a public position on how to lead, what is important, and how to view the future of the sector.

Hawkins deserves kudos, long life, and a place on the list of great presidents in the HBCU sector. If the mark of remarkable leadership is to leave a place better than it was found, then the bullseye is his to claim.


Headlines

HBCUs grapple with state vaccine mandates [NBC News]

White House reveals executive order on HBCU Initiative [The Hilltop]

UCLA to pay HBCUs $500k, but guaranteed games may dwindle [Sportico]

Eighth consecutive year of enrollment growth at North Carolina A&T [North Carolina A&T State University]

Virginia State announces nation’s first HBCU Center for Policing and Social Justice [Virginia State University]

Delaware State receives $1.8 million in NSF funding [Delaware State University]


Read & React

“That’s the kind of stuff we take for granted. I don’t. I’m very detailed. That guy worked his butt off, did what he had to do, changed his whole composite of his thought process. We could at least put his darn name on the back of his jersey.”

Deion Sanders on Southwestern Athletic Conference teams placing players’ names on game jerseys

ReactInteresting that this is a talking point for Sanders after a 7-6 win for Jackson State over Florida A&M, in which the headline otherwise would’ve been the lack of offense under his son and starting quarterback, Shedeur Sanders.

For example, average daily temperatures across the South are increasing annually, and according to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can expect more of that unless there are massive changes in behavior worldwide. By 2050, the Southeast region is projected to experience even more extreme heat days (heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit). Along with these concerns, coastal HBCUs must also contend with rising sea levels, changing coastal ecosystems and increased vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather events like hurricanes.

Florida A&M University Assistant Professor Mila S. Turner, Ph.D. on the impact of climate change on HBCUs with struggles in deferred maintenance

ReactThe article is spot on, and must be a critical conversation among HBCU boards and presidents in how to prioritize capital improvement projects. It also makes more urgent the need for advocacy behind the HBCU IGNITE Act.