In Defense of Messed Up HBCU Boards

Dozens of HBCU presidents over the last few years have been fired, but only a handful of them of earned the defense of University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman in the pages of national news. Today, outgoing Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson became the latest to earn the Ivy League endorsement.

Unfortunately, students (and the faculty that serve them) are being left out of conversations and their needs are being ignored by the board of trustees at Morehouse College.
Morehouse is a storied institution with a strong history and reputation, but the reputation is being damaged by in-fighting among various college constituent groups and factions among the alumni.
For the sake of students, all groups must put students first rather than their own agendas.

She did something similar for former Florida A&M University President Elmira Mangum last September, accusing its board of sexism and interference.

Rather than beating down such new, energetic, highly talented presidents committed to leading HBCUs, boards and disgruntled alumni should donate more funds, promote their institutions, spend some time reading about higher education and the specific roles of the president and the board, and focus on the needs of students over their own egos. FAMU has all the makings of a leading university, but it will not reach its potential until it embraces and empowers its leaders.

And the same was true in 2012, when Gasman defended Morgan State University President David Wilson, who was then on the verge of being fired by the board, but reversed its decision and has kept Dr. Wilson on an ‘indefinite appointment’ agreement in the years following.

The shunning of Wilson by the board leads me to ask: Why? With all of his accomplishments and strong leadership, why would it want to let him go?  I can think of no reason. What I do know is that over and over again, boards of trustees and boards of regents across the country have been making shortsighted decisions about presidential hires and contract renewals. All too often, they let petty politics get in the way of much needed leadership and the needs of students and university constituents.

Of these three examples, some startling trends reveal themselves about the nature of these dismissals and the endorsement of Dr. Gasman, who in spite of her self-heralded decades of research experience and visits to 101 of 105 campuses, and even her experience as an HBCU board member, still doesn’t seem to grasp the persistence of her white privilege in assessing HBCU issues, or basic concepts of the politics, governance, and the nature of board leadership in higher education.
All three of her charges of board incompetence have come against institutions with predominantly black, autonomous boards. Several HBCU presidents, even those serving under boards of visitors, have all been dismissed by state system boards largely made up of middle-aged white guys; all without a word from Dr. Gasman.
Alcorn State’s M. Christopher Brown II, Fort Valley State’s Ivelaw Griffith, Norfolk State’s Tony Atwater, South Carolina State’s W. Franklin Evans (whom she described as the turnaround artist for the embattled state flagship HBCU) Grambling State’s Willie Larkin, Elizabeth City State’s Stacey Franklin Jones, Jackson State’s Carolyn Meyers – all gone without a word from the would-be HBCU kingmaker.
Did they deserve to be fired? In some cases yes and in some cases no. But Dr. Gasman’s silence in all of these cases signals that she is prone to selective support for some presidents and some interpretations of why they are fired, and not others. This makes her the most unreliable resource for any campus trying to make sense of why the culture at large is suffering from these issues on a variety of campuses.
What separates some failures from others? What makes some mistakes or some leadership issues which draw a vote to terminate or for non-renewal, worthy of silence and others worthy of a UPENN push? Personal relationships could be one possibility. The other?  That when white folks fire black folks, it’s for good reason. But when we do it, it is because we are not familiar with how boards should operate.
If we’re talking trends in HBCU administration, and Gasman is free to discuss how frequently black boards get it wrong in hiring and firing presidents, then she should be among the first to examine the same trend among system boards doing the same dirt. But she doesn’t, and when you add that to her habit of telling all black colleges not to take money from organizations and people whom she deems as unfit to help black people, you begin to see why most in the HBCU community dismiss her voice, research and platform outright.
How does a white professor in Philadelphia have more insight on presidential performance metrics than trustees legally charged with the gauging the same? How can she make qualitative and quantitative judgments about how well a president is doing, with data drawn from the president under fire and the select number of faculty who support him?
There’s no data set to which she or any other respectable researcher would attach their names with that amount of unknown information. And the reason she, nor students, nor most alumni have any idea about why presidents are fired or aren’t renewed, is because it is against basic labor laws to disclose someone’s performance evaluation to the general public.

Say what you will about the board politics of Morehouse, FAMU and Morgan State; each of these institutions are among the top fifteen brands among all historically black colleges. And just because there is some level of presidential success that is apparent to casual or even nuanced observers; doesn’t mean that these presidents did not make mistakes, or weren’t too arrogant in their dealings with the board, didn’t make bad hires, didn’t lie or didn’t misrepresent their skill sets or achievements as campus CEOs.
HBCU boards have a world of problems. Morehouse’s chairman should have never released a letter essentially firing a president only to retract it days later. FAMU should have never actively worked to malign a female president and turn a political issue into a case study on gender inequality. Morgan State should have never reversed its vote on a president it intended by a sizable majority to sever ties with.
But ultimately, an HBCU board will have its way. And when it does, it could be messier, more divisive and more public than anyone could imagine. John Wilson has done an expert job of using Dr. Gasman and the Washington Post and The Root to plant stories about his successful tenure, and so did David Wilson at Morgan State. It’s what they should do to keep their jobs and to preserve their legacies.
But don’t think for a second that other news outlets aren’t privy to damaging documents and statistics that neither of these presidents would want to be publicly revealed. The Morehouse board wanted Dr. Wilson out years ago, it came to fruition this year. The FAMU board wanted Dr. Mangum out two years before she actually stepped down.
Morgan State may be the outlier in that the politics are so heavy that the board can be fed up with Dr. Wilson, but allow him to stay in order for its members to continue to receiving benefits for family members, access to executive privileges and titles, and the avoidance of “looking like every other messed up HBCU in the country.”

What Dr. Gasman and an alarming number of black folks want us to believe is that our boards are incapable of executing basic principles of business, and are so driven by politics and self-interest that they are willing to cut a good president for no reason in order to achieve their personal objectives. But what is missing from that narrative is the examination of how we define “good” and how we define “personal objectives.”
And secondly, board members can only be but so stupid and so conniving, because being overly so would ruin the school and end their capacity to exploit it for personal benefit.
Some board members are politically motivated, self-serving extortionists. Some presidents are the exact same way. All are prone to making mistakes which stakeholders cannot easily see, and usually, that is tied to a school’s capacity to make money, or its bad habit of spending too much.
If every board were that conniving and that driven to destroy an institution where millions of dollars annually circulate and thousands of lives are changed forever, then every one of these campuses would have burned to the ground years ago within the flames of incompetence and greed.
There’s always more than one side of a story and in higher education, and when it comes to why and how the presidency fails, law demands that we don’t know the details. Elements of greed, intrigue, and politics live in every decision and must bear the scrutiny and costs of an unceremonious presidential transition – historically black, predominantly white or otherwise.
But what HBCUs cannot afford under any circumstance is to allow outsiders to promote the false narrative that they know better than our people armed with data, experience, and flaws. Even with flaws, the board will always know more about what a president has done, is doing and will do than we will ever know. No president who’s done enough to be fired is going to come out and say “yeah, I completely screwed this school for the next five years.”
And a smart board will refrain from doing the same, regardless of how many students, faculty, and staff protest their lack of information and insight.
We may not have all of the answers, but we can’t afford to entertain or to accredit the opinions of those too far from our campuses and too privileged to understand our struggle to shape our own leadership identities. After all, in the end, regardless of one professor’s opinion or one president’s efforts, the board’s motivation and information will always be proven right.