HBCU Presidential Hirings and Firings – a 2018-19 Mid-Term Report

The recent passing of the vernal equinox guarantees one thing and portends another: longer days and bluer skies.

Whether the slower turnover of HBCU presidents and chancellors this fall predicts one or the other remains to be seen, but it is a welcome trend given the extremely high turnover associated with the sector in recent years.

Since I began studying the turnover of HBCU executive positions in 2015 (see reports here, here, here, and here) and its impact on professionals attempting to build and advance careers in their wake (see reports here and here), the resignation or termination of preceding presidents and chancellors or their subsequent replacement affected, on average, a third of all HBCU campuses annually.

Even though executive tenures are decreasing nationally, down to just over 5.5 years on average according to the American Council on Education, several HBCUs in recent years have had multi-year streaks of replacing executives nearly annually on their campuses.

Two universities on the 2018-19 mid-term report fit this description. Alcorn State University named Donzell Lee interim president as of July 2018 and is currently conducting its search for a full-time replacement. That will mark the fourth leader of the campus and the fifth leadership turnover since M. Christopher Brown (now president at Kentucky State University) resigned in fall 2013. While it may be argued that two of those leaders were on an interim basis and another resigned to take the helm of the Mississippi Public Universities as commissioner, the impact on campuses in such a condition is often felt, nonetheless.

Interim presidents are often tasked with steadying the helm while a replacement is sought; however, as I detailed in “Avoiding Forced Turnover(s): Best Practices for HBCU Senior Level Executive Recruitment,” it is often the case that they are asked to clear the way for their subsequent replacement, often involving terminating the employment of directors and cabinet-level employees.

Another university noted in this report with frequent turnover of the executive leadership is Elizabeth City State University. When Karrie Dixon was named permanent chancellor in December 2018 after being named interim chancellor in April, it was the fourth time the campus made an executive leadership decision since Willie Gilchrist’s resignation in May 2013. Following two years of increased enrollment and a record-breaking fundraising year on campus, Dixon inherits a campus in stable condition after several years of threats from the UNC System to shutter the campus due to financial and enrollment struggles.

2018 has been a surprisingly strong year for HBCUs nationally. Many campuses reported strong fundraising and enrollment trends. The slowed pace of executive turnover at HBCUs is certainly welcomed among a contentious political climate in Washington, D.C. and in many southern states, especially given the increased coverage of divided political ideologies in southern states due to the recent mid-term elections. Other positives for HBCUs include increases in federal funding and Pell Grants, debt forgiveness for several HBCUs participating in a federal loan program for capital financing after rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and debt forgiveness for several HBCUs participating in the Department of Education capital refinancing program. And while Cheyney University, Paine College, and Bennett College continue to engage in protracted battles to restore or maintain accreditation, and Prairie View and Denmark Tech were placed on probation and warning respectively by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), while St. Augustine’s University and Johnson C. Smith University successfully restored full accreditation of their campuses in 2018.

As we enter 2019, HBCUs nationally appear to be more stable with regard to leadership turnover than any year in the past five years. As this stability typically correlates with growth associated with strong campuses—alumni engagement and fundraising success, better legislative outcomes, enrollment growth, and retention let’s all hope that HBCUs follow the leadership of their campus executives and serve in ways that both are emblematic of their missions and predictive of ever-brighter futures.

Campuses announcing executive leadership changes in 2018-19:

Clark Atlanta

Florida Memorial



Albany State


Morris Brown



Elizabeth City State

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