Who Wants to Be an HBCU President?

Would you take a job, in any industry, that requires you to run a multi-million dollar company with hundreds of underpaid employees, thousands of clients who can’t afford your product which, in the marketplace, you constantly have to defend as a worthwhile buy?
And with that job, would you also be willing to serve as the unofficial mayor of the town in which your company is stationed, because you are expected to have a stake in crime prevention, economic development, and social justice?
And by the way, you would also, in your spare time, have to serve as a political lobbyist, recruiter for new clients, and manage relationships with corporate stakeholders who typically aren’t in position to finance your company until they are near or past retirement age, those who vocally think the company is headed in the wrong direction, and the majority of which, you can’t even find to ask for their opinion.
If you wouldn’t take that job, you can imagine why people with PhDs and more sense than ego wouldn’t want it either. And somewhere in between governing boards with no fundraising desire or higher education acumen and dwindling financial resources for students, the shrinking talent pool for HBCU presidents, administrators and faculty members is becoming yet another black college crisis.
Like many students, talented black professors and executives are being recruited to predominantly white schools, government and non-profit organizations to lend their expertise and passion in far less stressful ways, in settings with far more resources. The few willing and selected to lead HBCUs soon become so disenchanted with the nature of higher education – the political backroom deals, the resistance to new strategy, the lack of resources and the reality that government is actively seeking to further reduce accessibility for students from working class and poor families, they leave and never return.
In HBCU communities, this nature which pervades white and black schools alike is always tagged as ‘black folks not being able to run a school the right way,’ simply because black schools don’t have the money or political clout to mask serious issues from becoming publicly glaring problems.
No one can serve two masters; at HBCUs, a president serves several thousand. Campus CEOs can be covertly fired by governors, state legislators and alumni, and publicly fired by faculty and students. Most presidents don’t recognize this fact until they are being pushed out of the door in disgrace and confusion, leaving the campus humiliated, and HBCU culture at large to suffer yet another presidential search with little optimism for a positive outcome.
Campuses are left typically with sobering choices in leadership outcomes. Boards choose an unqualified candidate from a barren talent pool because no one else wants the job, and retain the bad choice because it would be too embarrassing and costly to pay the outgoing president and to find a new one.
Because they don’t want to be criticized for ‘recycling’ presidents, proven and talented leaders like Mary Sias, Dianne Suber, Charlie Nelms, M. Christopher Brown II, Maurice Taylor, Keith Miller and others are hoping that a board soon comes to its senses.
And because many HBCUs continue to be allergic to youth and don’t invest in talent spotting, people like Tiffany Jones at the Southern Education Foundation, Crystal deGregory of HBCU Story Inc., William Broussard at the Southern University System, Tashni Dubroy at Shaw, Jason DeSousa at UMES, John Lee at FAMU, Adriel Hilton at Western Carolina, and Zachary Faison at Virginia Union have either not yet been recruited to, or are two years behind in their grooming to be HBCU presidents and chancellors.
Schools like Howard, West Virginia State, Coppin State, Lincoln (Mo.) Harris-Stowe State, Tuskegee, Florida Memorial, Philander Smith, Dillard, Delaware State and Paul Quinn have gotten younger, and from all indications, better by way of their selections. Other schools like Edward Waters, North Carolina A&T, Bennett and Savannah State selected more seasoned candidates, and have thrived.
There is a good president out there for every HBCU. And yes, finance, politics, and culture make it naturally difficult to be an HBCU president. But we must demand for our boards and legislators to bring in more resources and to help cultivate better search processes to find the right fit at the highest position on campus.
Because when you are offering a job nobody wants, and charging candidates to sell a product that no one can afford in a marketplace with growing options, the right salesperson is your last and most important resource.