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Clark Atlanta University Launches Executive Leadership Institute to Train Next Generation of HBCU Presidents

To recruit and prepare potential future leaders to serve at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Clark Atlanta University (CAU) has established the Executive Leadership Institute (ELI).

HBCUs have gained attention in recent months with the country’s racial reckoning and the pandemic’s outsize toll on minority, low-income students, many of whom enroll at HBCUs. But these institutions also face unique leadership challenges to their longevity that ELI aims to address.

Dr. George T. French Jr.Dr. George T. French Jr.

The inaugural ELI cohort of about 20 candidates—or Legacy Fellows—will be announced this spring. Qualified industry leaders from higher education to Wall Street were invited to apply with an interest in running HBCUs. Starting in June and ending in December, the immersive leadership program will last six months, first as a virtual program and potentially in person later.

To CAU President Dr. George T. French Jr., the launch of ELI amid ongoing national crises makes this program all the more important.

“Because we are in a pandemic, we especially need to prepare leaders to run institutions in uncertain times,” said French. “At HBCUs, we have not had the continuity of leadership and the soft as well as hard skills among leaders that the pandemic requires.”

Before its launch, ELI surveyed 27 current and past HBCU presidents about what skills the Fellows should learn. Like French, most stressed interpersonal competencies, particularly for fundraising and board governance. ELI’s curriculum covers these areas as well as operations and alumni relations, among other practical subjects.

Dr. Phyllis Worthy DawkinsDr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins

“Teaching Fellows those soft skills makes ELI especially poignant and powerful,” said French. “To migrate about 4,000 CAU students online in a few weeks during a pandemic, for example, you can’t walk in with an iron hand. You need to make students want to move online.”

For many low-income and first-generation students, HBCUs continue to be a path to earn above-average incomes and graduate degrees. HBCUs’ lower tuition rates and diverse campuses in part draw minority students of disadvantaged backgrounds to enroll at these storied institutions disproportionately. HBCUs also produce almost 20 percent of all Black graduates in the U.S., yet they make up only three percent of the nation’s colleges and universities. Despite these successes, HBCUs struggle with leadership retention and finances.

An HBCU president’s average stay is just over three years. But across all four-year colleges, the average president’s tenure is seven years. HBCUs often run on thin budgets and low alumni giving. The pandemic worsened that financial instability for many institutions.

ELI Project Director Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins previously served as president of Bennett College, another HBCU. She saw firsthand these problems—and how ELI could help future leaders solve them.

“As HBCU presidents, sometimes we inherit financial issues when we take our positions. That happened to me,” said Dawkins. “What do you do then? How do you raise money? How do you read financial statements to adjust your programs? ELI tries to prepare Fellows for those real-world scenarios.”

Fellows will also receive mentorship from former HBCU leaders via a virtual platform. ELI’s Advisory Board includes several past and present HBCU presidents. The chair is Dr. Louis Sullivan, President Emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine and a past U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services.

“We try to identify current and former as well as public and private presidents who can speak to Fellows about their particular expertise, whether in crisis management or development,” said Dawkins. “Our goal is to provide the knowledge, skills, and abilities that a Fellow needs to be a successful and qualified HBCU leader, whether as vice president, provost, or president.”

ELI is supported by The Rich Foundation, Inc., Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Microsoft Corporation, Toyota, Educational Credit Management Corporation, and a group of business leaders, educators, and philanthropists.

To sum up why he believes ELI matters at this moment, French drew from his background as a historian.

“I’ll tell you, there are these ancient Greek terms chronos and kairos that help us think about ELI. Chronos is the actual time as the sun moves across the sky, but kairos speaks to time’s spiritual affection,” he said.  “When the two come together, chronos and kairos, you have the perfect time for something to occur. We think today is that chronos and kairos moment for higher education leadership. Through ELI, we are stepping forward and saying now is time. I’m just privileged to be a part of it.”

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