Perspective: Leadership Steps for Bold Change at HBCUs

The HBCU Symposium held this past June in Durham, N.C., the concluding event of North Carolina Central University’s Centennial Celebration, was a noteworthy event and deserving of further discussion. Having spent my formative years and much of my professional career in and around HBCUs, I wanted to offer my thoughts and support to Chancellor Charlie Nelms’ call for HBCUs to be “bold,” “change the narrative and (their) approach” and “… to be strategic.”

Changing the narrative means more than developing a new marketing campaign and doing a better job of public relations. Such a change requires a transformation in the behaviors and culture of many of these institutions. Here are some ideas to consider:

Board members should be appointed based on their affluence and influence. Board members have a primary fiduciary responsibility to provide for the long-term financial well-being of the institution, whether public or private. The requirements of board membership continue to be “to give, get or get off.” Therefore, a board member is expected to give generously and work hard on behalf of the institution.

Boards should select presidents with high IQs and EQs. Too many institutional leaders may be intelligent yet unable to relate to their constituencies and stakeholders, or they may have good interpersonal skills yet lack the intellectual ability to deal with the challenges of leading a complex institution today. As a result, they are more likely to fail. A successful climb up the faculty ranks and/or participation in a short-term management development program is not enough to prepare someone for the challenges of leading an HBCU.

Smart presidents hire smarter deputies. Presidents should surround themselves with intelligent, well-trained, trustworthy, dedicated professionals who are smarter than them. They should work hard to attract and retain such individuals, which requires they be paid accordingly rather than being overworked and underpaid. Adequate financial resources are even more necessary today and are the result of well-conceived, strategic institutional advancement and fundraising efforts, endowment building and sound fiscal management practices.

Students should focus on getting an education. They should develop their critical-thinking skills and avail themselves of opportunities to learn and prepare themselves for productive careers in a global environment. Institutions have a responsibility to provide a meaningful and affordable learning experience with well-qualified faculty, well-equipped laboratories, access to the latest technology and safe, comfortable housing. Extracurricular activities are an important part of college life but should not be the primary reason for attending college.

Faculty have a responsibility to remain productive but require institutional support. Faculty need to be actively engaged as teachers, scholars and mentors to their students. Institutions have a responsibility to provide faculty with reasonable teaching loads, competitive salaries and release time for scholarly and professional development activities. Many faculty and staff are stretched too thin, and, as a result, students and the academic program suffer.

Faculty, staff and administrators have a duty to treat students as the valuable customers and future alumni they represent. Value and treat them well. This means HBCUs must avoid leaving graduates with exorbitant amounts of debt from student loans at graduation.

HBCU alumni also have a responsibility to contribute to their alma mater. They should consider providing a lasting financial legacy through regular annual giving and participation in a planned giving program after graduation. If a graduate is unwilling to support his or her alma mater, why should anyone else consider doing so? Alumni fail to recognize or choose to ignore their continuing interest and responsibility in ensuring their alma mater not only survives but also thrives and flourishes. By remaining involved with and investing in the institutions from which they graduated, on an ongoing basis, they enhance the value and maximize the return on investment of their own earned degrees and personal human capital.

Finally, being strategic is about gaining a competitive advantage, relative to the competition, as suggested by Dr. Kenichi Ohmae in The Mind of the Strategist. And according to the paradoxical theory of change, one changes by becoming more fully who or what you are, not by trying to become something you are not. This means engaging in a soul-searching process to understand your real institutional values and DNA and to identify your core competencies and distinctive, competitive advantages, rather than trying to be all things to all people. 

I hope all HBCUs will capitalize on the ideas provided during the symposium and here, make adjustments as necessary, and thrive for many years to come. 

— Dr. Wayne M. Wormley, associate dean of The Charles H. Polk School of Leadership & Professional Development at Mountain State University in West Virginia, directs and teaches in the doctoral program in Executive Leadership. His research interests include improving management practices and leadership development in higher education, with a special interest in HBCUs