Only three months into the academic year and headlines have been littered with announcements about HBCU leadership turnover. There have been a plethora of reasons, including university presidents being fired, being encouraged to leave their posts by their boards of trustees or opting for retirement. Gone are the days of decades of top-down leadership, now replaced by a need for charismatic personalities who are well-skilled at fundraising while navigating internal needs and external stakeholders, as well as politics and long-standing traditions.
The burning question that remains is about the fate of HBCUs and how to stop the trend that’s making it difficult for presidents to lead.
“If you look at the landscape now for all of us, it’s a tough landscape,” said Hampton University president, Dr. William R. Harvey. “There are a number of factors impacting all HBCUs, including the federal government debacle on the Parent Plus Loan situation, [and] support is down for Title III, which strengthens HBCUs. All of the support for HBCUs across the board is down. In addition, there are some institutions that don’t have enough students there.
“It’s a tough climate right now.”
New demands for HBCU presidents
The pride and traditions of HBCUs is a source of its strength and legacy, but navigating the gauntlet of closely held traditions while fulfilling the requirement to bring new life and resources to the university can be a daunting task for presidents.
Some describe it as a juggling act of trying to please too many masters, including boards of trustees who, at some institutions, have significant influence and demand compliance. Some presidents have operated independently of boards until problems occur.
At one time, HBCU presidents served for lengthy tenures and not only were held in high regard but also wielded more power and influence. Today, with HBCUs closing and talks of mergers, disproportionate budget cuts, anemic enrollment figures, a financial aid crisis, inequitable federal research appropriations and the mere fact that gifted African-American students have many university options ― the expectations of the HBCU president are changing.
The new requirement for today’s HBCU president includes a personality and gift for raising money for the university while maintaining the traditional connection to faculty and students. A president is required to keep his/her finger on the pulse of the university’s lifeline of recruitment, retention and graduation rates, as well as changing technology, including online education.
At Hampton University, Harvey has become among the rare breed of presidents who have successfully navigated a long-term presidency due in part to a symbiotic relationship with his board.
“The [university] president needs to understand that the board represents his or her bosses. You may be the CEO, but the board is your boss,” Harvey said. “The board needs to understand that their job is to make policy, not to implement the policy. Sometimes boards want to get involved in the implementation and that’s wrong.
“When people forget their roles, that’s when problems occur,” Harvey said.
Harvey attributes his success to mentors like Dr. Norman Francis at Xavier University in New Orleans and others who helped pave the way for him, and having entrepreneurial parents.
“When I came to Hampton, we couldn’t balance the budget,” said Harvey. “I traveled three and a half days a week for five years to raise money. Thirty-six years ago, we were not in the position we are today. We did something a lot of institutions weren’t doing, whether HBCU or not — we ran the university like a business. You bring in revenue on one side and manage expenses on the other.”
Harvey appealed to board members to let him institute entrepreneurial approaches to fundraising.
“I’ve had four chairs on my boards during my tenure,” he said. “They have been excellent and supportive. I take everything to the board — the good, the bad and the ugly. I have not always gotten my way because I understand the role of the board, but I have not run the university in a vacuum. On a couple of instances, I’ve had to call board members to task on something because it was not their role.”
His advice to presidents is to “garner respect, use the team approach, engage alumni and faculty and get them to take ownership in your vision.”
Harvey, an entrepreneur who owns 100 percent of the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of Houghton, Mich., has taken an innovative approach to managing resources at Hampton. Its investments include university-owned commercial development consisting of a shopping center and 246 two-bedroom apartments.
When Harvey arrived, the university’s endowment was $29 million. Now it exceeds $250 million. The university’s first capital fundraising campaign in 1979 had a goal of $30 million. That campaign raised $46.4 million. Its most recent campaign had a goal of $200 million and raised $264 million.
Harvey shares his 36 years worth of knowledge with other presidents during the annual Executive Leadership Summit held each November at Hampton. Harvey said 15 of his former university officers are now university presidents.
“I’ve had a lot of people who helped me,” Harvey said. “I try to share the lessons I’ve learned.”
While some may have seen the handwriting on the wall, others stepped down under arduous circumstances or planned for their next career move since the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
· Tuskegee University ― Two weekends ago, the fall meeting of the Tuskegee University Board of Trustees was rocked by Dr. Gilbert L. Rochon resigning from his role as president. By the following Monday, Dr. Matthew Jenkins was posted on the university’s website as acting president. Rochon served three years.
· Howard University ― On Oct. 1, university president Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau abruptly stepped down after months of wrangling over the management and financial health of Howard University. Ribeau served five years and extended his tenure through December. His departure comes on the heels of a drop for the university in a major national ranking and a downgrade in its credit rating, as well as a 5 percent fall in enrollment.
· Stillman College ― On Sept. 6, one day after the fall convocation, the university announced that Stillman College President Ernest McNealey was removed from his position by the Board of Trustees. McNealey served as president since 1997. Despite his accomplishments, critics blamed him for enrollment declines, high employee turnover and poor relations with the business community.
· Shaw University ― In September, President Dorothy Cowser Yancy announced that she would retire after serving since 2011, when she was tapped to fill the post after former president Irma McClaurin resigned. She also served as interim president for 15 months prior to McClaurin and was credited with restructuring the school’s finances during that time.
· Norfolk State University ― In August, after a lengthy closed door session, Dr. Tony Atwater was fired by the Norfolk State Board of Visitors in a seven to four vote that took Atwater by surprise. Atwater described the news as “sudden and disappointing.” He served for two years with 10 months remaining on his contract. According to reports, the university’s accrediting agency had signaled trouble at the HBCU.
· Wilberforce University ― Dr. Patricia A. Hardaway is slated to retire in December after serving as president since 2009.
The politics of leadership
The cry for help was heard loud and long when Howard University trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks sent a letter with a dire warning that the Washington, D.C.-based institution “will not be here in three years” if “crucial decisions” are not made promptly. As vice chair of Howard’s governing board, she sent the letter on April 24, which was leaked to various news outlets.
“I can no longer sit quietly, notwithstanding my personal preference to avoid confrontation, and therefore, I am compelled to step forward to announce that our beloved university is in genuine trouble and ‘time is of the essence,’” Higginbotham-Brooks wrote. She called for a vote of no confidence in the board chairman and the university’s president.
Higginbotham-Brooks’ letter was unprecedented and, for some, seemed like a betrayal of airing HBCU dirty laundry, but to others it was a foreshadowing of what has begun to unravel.
Howard University’s decline in rankings in U.S. News and World Report and Moody’s downgrading its credit rating, and enrollment decreases due to changes to the Parent Plus Loan requirements, has created a perfect storm.
While Howard faces many of the same challenges as other HBCUs, the difference is its international reputation as “The Mecca” ― the “Black Ivy League” top-tier institution that draws students to the nation’s capital with its host of celebrity alumni.
Howard’s challenges have stirred conversations about the profile of a candidate who can bring money to the institution along with their credentials. Names have been thrown around, including Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., as a measure to garner significant financial contributions.
Camille and Bill Cosby’s $20 million gift to Spelman College 25 years ago during Johnetta B. Cole’s presidency continues to be one of the largest individual gifts ever given to an HBCU. Universities are faced with creating a new donor base.
Entertainment moguls Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Jimmy lovine raised some eyebrows and criticism with their recent $70 million gift to the University of Southern California, instead of an HBCU. An anonymous donor established the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard and insisted that the fellowship be named after the artist Nas.
Undoubtedly, fundraising is a significant part of the job description; however, the reality of fixing some of the areas that may be broken can come at a high price.
Former Alabama State University president, Dr. Joseph H. Silver was fired after serving only three months for what some describe as challenging suspicious university financial information. According to his statement, “I discovered some items I considered questionable and troubling, at best, and a conflict of interest at the least.”
His allegations set off a controversial 36-page preliminary forensic audit report and investigation by state’s governor that is now underway.
Future for HBCU presidents
Historically Black colleges and universities continue to play a significant role in the college retention and graduation rates among African-American students. For example, HBCUs make up 3 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities but produce 50 percent of Black public school teachers, 80 percent of Black judges and 40 percent of baccalaureate degrees awarded to Black students in STEM fields.
While their role is still relevant, change may be required in how the institutions are governed to address the economic environment.
In an open letter, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous laments the closing of Saint Paul’s College and notes it as a warning for other HBCUs and the need for the federal government to revamp its funding and support for students. Jealous recommends that Congress increase funds for Pell Grants and permanently correct the Parent Plus Loan problem.
“Like many HBCUs, the college lacked a wealthy donor base or strong endowment that could help it weather the financial storm,” Jealous wrote.
“Saint Paul’s demise should serve as a wake-up call to those who care about the future of HBCUs.”