Alabama A&M University’s Board of Trustees has announced a slate of finalists to replace outgoing president Andrew Hugine at the end of this year. Philander Smith College President Roderick Smothers, Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette, and A&M Provost Daniel Wims will be interviewed in the coming days to take the helm of one of the pillars of historically Black land grant and liberal arts education in the south.
A&M is working to replace Hugine’s long-standing leadership not just in institutional management, but in capacity building, research and development, and legislative positioning. For all of the years Hugine spent simultaneously building a school and fighting off public and private attempts from the governor’s office to thwart that work, those efforts are likely to be immediately rejuvenated upon Hugine’s departure.
The impact this particular search will have on the sector cannot be understated. What AAMU trustees do in the next few days in listening to state lawmakers, outside influencers or interlopers, or in prioritizing their own politics will not only shape the identity of the institution, but it will level set how similar searches will be conducted by states and their public HBCUs throughout the south.
We’ve already seen an HBCU land-grant subsector threatened in the last two years by leadership instability in varying forms. While Alabama A&M is a part of those presidential defections, its forthcoming transition doesn’t appear to be a casualty of politics or political jockeying.
Trustees would be wise to keep it that way. They have to be intentional about keeping waymakers’ expectations within the proper context of the school’s ultimate roadmap for success. They have to be diligent about carefully matching the campus’ needs with the skills and experiences of their finalists.
They must avoid the temptation to use the presidency as a colorful chip in a covert game of financial benefit, fraternal favors, or other standards of evaluation that have nothing to do with who can be a long-term leadership asset to this institution.
To the untrained eye, this list of finalists looks like a carefully curated group reflecting diverse experiences, gender equity, and executive backgrounds which all could suit Alabama A&M well in its hopes for growth. To those of us who know how searches work and the usual suspects who tend to interfere in them, the list looks like it is set up for a preferred candidate to be selected for reasons that are beyond what is actually good for AAMU.
Regardless of which view is accurate, everyone with eyes on Alabama will believe that its process could and should work in places like Orangeburg, Baton Rouge, and other cities where other flagship HBCUs will likely have leadership transitions in the next 2-4 years. If the Alabama A&M search concludes with an outcome that people even assume to be biased, compromised, or done without the best interest of the campus in mind, it will punch holes in the credibility of the incoming president and will create an environment for people to believe that other HBCU searches can be exercises in gamesmanship.
In many ways, the HBCU sector is a constant, unwilling contestant on the regrettable game show, ‘what happens to one happens to us all.’ What AAMU trustees do next is bigger than what is to come in Huntsville; they should be mindful that all of us are looking to them and expecting that they will look out for the rest of us in the form of managing a responsible search.