Conventional wisdom always dictates that you never follow in the footsteps of a legend. Still, the search for the next president of Hampton University is anything but conventional.
Months after announcing that he would depart in the summer of 2022, the Home by the Sea has yet to publicly announce much movement on who will replace the iconic William Harvey. Over nearly 50 years, he made Hampton into a blueprint for how old school autocracy and new-age collaborative management meld to create a world-class historically Black educational machine.
Now only six months remain for the university’s board to make sure that its G.O.A.T. feels good about moving from one side of the glittering peninsula to the other, transitioning from sitting executive to treasured president emeritus.
Harvey will always be known for his vision, personality, and boldness to make big dreams into even bigger realities for Black people. But at the core of his success are two straightforward guidelines; develop good plans and hire good people to carry them out.
No one doubts that Hampton’s board is moving carefully and intelligently to replace their irreplaceable president. Still, there are legitimate questions about how timing will mesh with the tall order. As the challenges of HBCU leadership seemingly grow more perilous by the day, the obstacles parallel a stark truth; Hampton’s board just hasn’t had to think about what it means to replace a president or evaluate a successor for more than 40 years.
Despite being more than a year in the making, springtime will have to be enough time for Harvey to meet and embrace his successor. He should have both the latitude and calendar dates to translate Hampton’s institutional secrets, to explain how institutional history and strategy intersect. He and the board have to collaboratively lay out how a near half-century of growth will springboard into Hampton’s next 50 years, regardless of how many presidents will lead over that period.
The soon-to-be president needs the time to match spirits with a campus in transition. Some of Harvey’s most trusted generals have already departed for new work, and the remaining men and women of the infantry will need time to learn how a new president will interpret the Harvey Way.
The man or woman who replaces Harvey must find how their personality will mesh with that of Harvey, who will remain a presence both seen and felt for years to come. No one wants to be seen as a shadow actor for an extension of his leadership, but they should want to embrace him and his family for the goodwill they add to the Hampton brand.
Harvey will leave Hampton this summer as its greatest president and among the greatest college presidents of all time. He will return as its most extraordinary living fundraiser, ambassador, historian, and consultant.
Even the greatest of ships at sea are always simultaneously departing and arriving. That’s what makes this presidential search bittersweet but exciting to see just how the institution fares before the task.