Social movements, not management, are the new standard of HBCU leadership

Former West Virginia State University President Nicole Pride was forced out of her post last week, shortly after members of her executive cabinet publicly accused her of creating a culture of volatility among her employees.

Pride was at the institution for less than a year. If public letters to board members and street committees are accurate, she’s out because she simply didn’t know how to be nice to people and assumed that the presidency granted her certain hard-line interpretations about the value of soft skills in the workplace.

Corporations are returning to work after more than a year of collaboration, meeting, and producing from a distance during the beginning of the covid-19 era. This era was defined not only by a public health crisis but social upheaval following the murder of George Floyd and vestiges of the five-year period of social awakening birthed by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Me Too’ movements.

Good boards know when their institutions need a people person, a policy person, or a political person serving as president to navigate whatever period in history the school is facing. There are some HBCU presidents and chancellors who are incompetent but know how to treat people well and have people around them to manage the corporate operations of an institution.

There are some HBCU presidents and chancellors who will curse team members out, sexually harass others, and Donald Trump their way through campus leadership; but they survive because they get the job done.

But this is a new era of higher education and social awareness, one for which historically Black institutions may not be prepared and a rising generation of HBCU leaders may not be equipped to handle, simply because of the generation that trained them for executive posts. What happens when life beyond the borders of campus has as much to do with how work and life within those borders are judged?

If it is unacceptable for CEOs, coaches, managers, and other people in positions of power to mistreat employees, why should it be tolerated at an HBCU? Why should Black people, Black systems, and Black communities be exempt from standards of respectable communication and decency? For the sake of keeping our problems and issues “in-house?”

We’ve seen this question in action over the last several years among students, as they have begun to demand equity and respect for how campuses embrace LGBTQIA students, and how they handle cases of sexual harassment and assault. For generations, HBCUs were exempt from real action on these issues because we treated them like “white school problems” or assumed that the numbers of activists clamoring for justice on these matters weren’t enough to require action.

That is until there were enough activists and they had enough followers to show that a rape that may not have been known campus-wide a decade ago can be international news in a matter of seconds. Being cursed out in a meeting by a president, vice president or a dean or coach would’ve been dismissed as “that’s just how they are when they get mad” years ago. Today, social movement and awakening demands for this to be content for a post on Medium, a Tweet thread, an Instagram Live, or an interview in the local paper.

HBCU culture has always been powered by the search for community. Black administrators and faculty choose to work at these schools for the privilege of serving Black students and communities. Black students seek out and pay for education at HBCUs for the privilege of being taught by brilliant Black minds in Black communities.

And while you won’t find mistreatment or discrimination powered by racism in these spaces, the worst thing anyone can do anywhere is to make someone else feel like there is no community in the place where they thought there would always be one — especially an HBCU.

There are conditions within the concept. Black women who aren’t likable or who are deemed to be too tough are too often and too quickly dismissed for their personality clashes. They can be equally as bad of an institution fit as their counterparts who happen to be men, but they suffer an unjust standard of having to be smiling, nice and warm in the workplace when men earn respect for being gruff, serious, or cold towards peers and team members.

Also, the culture is undergoing a significant course correction on the definitions of joking, political correctness, and sensitivity. Things that used to be said in jest or under an assumed understanding of shared experiences and values among Black people are no longer just that — they are actionable behaviors that can get a good-intentioned person in a moment of misunderstanding disciplined, fired, or publicly marked as a difficult or vile person for the duration of his or her career.

Leadership in the corporate space must now be two simultaneous reflections, one of the industry within which a corporation needs to grow, and the other as an asset within the times in which we live. This is particularly true for college campuses, which make their money on the satisfaction and personal development of people.

HBCUs and the people who run them are expected to be oases of cultural affirmation and industrial expertise; in that order. Anyone who hasn’t gotten the memo about those expectations or who just doesn’t want to read it will have a heavy price in the near future for confusing today’s culture with the good old days.

People aren’t assets or plot points on a scale of failure or achievement. They know it and people in charge better get to know it real fast.