Is HBCU Land Grant Leadership in Crisis?

Southern University System President Ray Belton announced today his plans to retire in fall 2022.

Belton has served as system CEO and chancellor of the flagship Baton Rouge campus since 2014 and has a total of 21 years in system leadership. His departure seems natural given his length of service and the pressure associated with running the nation’s only historically Black higher education system in the midst of a pandemic.

He is also part of a predicted cohort of presidents who were figured to be leaving high-profile posts in the next few years, and more specifically, the latest among a growing list of leaders from HBCU land grant institutions to announce departure plans.

Since May 2020, leaders from seven of the nation’s 19 land grant schools have either been fired, retired, resigned, or announced future departure plans.

  • Anthony Jenkins, West Virginia State University (Left May 2020)

  • Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, Central State University (Left July 2020)

  • Andrew Hugine, Alabama A&M University (Leaving December 2021)

  • Lily McNair, Tuskegee University (Fired March 2021)

  • Jerald Jones-Woolfolk, Lincoln University of Missouri (Left May 2021)

  • James Clark, South Carolina State University (Fired July 2021)

  • Ray Belton, Southern University (Leaving Fall 2022)

This list is going to expand. Two distinguished 1890 presidents, Prairie View A&M University’s Ruth Simmons and North Carolina A&T State University President Harold Martin, are expected to retire within a few years. Others may leave to take other positions at HBCUs or in other sectors.

What are the factors that are specifically impacting the land grant sector? With historic philanthropic and funding support from state and federal governments, why is the time to leave so urgent when things seem to be going so well?

It is because things are not going so well. As schools begin to see what fall enrollment numbers are likely to be, the continuing impact of coronavirus public health concerns and job loss suggests that there will be significant revenue shortfalls at many institutions.

From Inside Higher Ed:

Over all, 27.5 percent of undergraduate students experienced a housing disruption or change: 22 percent moved back to their permanent address, 5.3 percent moved to another living situation and 3 percent had difficulty finding safe and stable housing. The percentage of students identifying as genderqueer or gender nonconforming who said they had difficulty finding safe and stable housing was, at 9.1 percent, about three times the overall average. A high rate of international students (6.5 percent) also reported having difficulty finding safe and stable housing.

Among all undergraduates, 28.6 percent reported losing a job or lost income because of reduced work hours, and 9.1 percent reported difficulty accessing or paying for food. There were notable differences across racial groups: 13.5 percent of Black students, 12.6 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students, 11.8 percent of Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander students, and 9.9 percent of Hispanic students reported difficulty accessing or paying for food, compared to 7.3 percent each of white and Asian students.

Many land grant institutions, and particularly HBCUs, are waiting for federal funding for construction and renovations to crumbling facilities.

These factors, along with the politics of state and federal elections, will also spur changes with boards that will be forced into schizophrenic decisions about leadership and outcomes. Nothing harms HBCUs more than a governor or legislative caucus with something to prove to Black folks, or a promise to deliver to white folks that involve the land, academic programs, or big contracts that make Black colleges immovable in culture, politics, and economics.

Who is the 1890 next president to leave? Will it be Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover, Kentucky State University President M. Christopher Brown II, Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson, or Fort Valley State University President Paul Jones? All have more than four years of service and all have made significant gains in academic development and institutional capacity for their respective campuses.

All have faced controversy and each of them leads in a politically contentious state where trustees, regents, and lawmakers manipulate institutional fortunes beyond the reach of their expertise and leadership ability.

No matter who is going next, they won’t be the last. And they are all exiting at a perilous period for HBCUs and higher education at large.