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Diverse Conversations: Leading Successful HBCUs

William B. Bynum, Jr.William B. Bynum, Jr.Here is Part II of my interview with Mississippi Valley State University President William B. Bynum, Jr., during which he continues to dispense expert advice on how to lead a successful HBCU.

Q: What financial insights can you offer to HBCU administrators? Are there particular strategies that you have found to be effective in raising funds, for instance, growing grassroots support, boosting enrollments or growing endowments?

A: I’m just getting started, so I won’t say a whole lot about fundraising, but there are some key points. The first is we’ve got to be very good stewards of what we do currently have and receive from state and federal governments, alumni, students, corporations and foundations.

Unfortunately, HBCUs, because of our lack of infrastructure in some of the key areas, specifically development and advancement, haven’t done as good a job in terms of tracking gifts and thanking people for the gifts that they do already give. You would be surprised what a letter will do in terms of encouraging a person to continue to give; whereas, if a person doesn’t receive acknowledgement, that person is likely to be a one-time donor only. That’s the first thing. We’ve got to be very good stewards of the resources that we currently have.

The second is we’ve got to produce happy students. We’ve got to make sure we’re getting back to our foundation—our roots—and really nurturing students. There are too many students who are leaving HBCUs who are mad. They’re mad because processes and procedures were not in place or people did not treat them with the respect they thought they deserved based on the investment they were making.

That’s why that student-centered approach I’m talking about bringing to Valley is so important. When students are happy, they recruit for you in terms of bringing other students to the institution. They talk very positively about their own institution. That shows when they’re on the job. And then, of course, they’re in a position to give back. They’re more apt to give back if they’re happy. We’ve got to make sure of that.

In terms of endowment, that’s got to be a major focus of HBCUs because, when it comes to state funding, we’re simply not going to get more. As you know, state institutions are pulling back on the amount of funding they’re giving to higher education institutions. As a result, we’ve got to make sure that our endowments are growing, as well as our enrollments. We’ve got to come up with different revenue streams.

Finally, we’ve just got to think about producing, as I said, those happy graduates. We’ve got to get HBCU graduates to pound their chest more and be proud of the institution that they graduated from when they’re on the job, when they’re in the workforce doing some great things. We need them putting those Valley license plates on their cars, or whatever institution they graduated from. Really showing off their degrees in their offices and homes and workplaces, showing the kind of pride that we need in our institutions.

Q: What do you think is the future potential of HBCUs? What trends might they capitalize on in order to continue to bring value to the higher education community?

A: I truly believe HBCUs will be around for a long time. What we’ll probably see, realistically, because of what is happening in the government with Pell Grants, PLUS Loans, and the competition is a series of mergers and closures. You’re going to see the survival of the strongest. I just think we’re probably going to see, over the course of the next 25 to 50 years, either some consolidations or some closures of those who simply aren’t able to compete with some of the larger institutions. HBCUs as a whole will be around for a very, very, very, very long time, but it will be fewer of us.

Q: What advice would you give someone who has recently been appointed to their first college/university presidency?

A: I’m not sure if you’ve seen the article that Dr. Charlie Nelms recently wrote for the Huffington Post. The title of the article is “An Open Letter to Recently Appointed HBCU Presidents.” He did a good job. A lot of what I would offer in terms of advice, Dr. Nelms very succinctly offered in that particular article.

But what I would say in addition to what Dr. Nelms has in that article is, first and foremost, respect the institution that you’re coming into. When you are coming into an institution, you need to be as clear as you possibly can get in terms of what you’re coming into — the history, the tradition, the region, the area, and the finances. Learn as much about that institution as you can.

What happens, unfortunately, is too many folks just want to be a president. One of the things I’ve always prided myself on is trying to only apply to those institutions for which I think there is a good fit. That’s the main thing. You have to respect the institution that you’re going to lead. I’ve seen many people who want to be a college president simply to say they were a college president, so in the end it wasn’t the best fit. They didn’t have the respect for the institution and should not have been there from day one.

As I mentioned earlier, the One Goal, One Team, One Valley concept developed internally. What I chose to do was elevate something that already existed within the culture. The second thing is to be approachable and to be accessible. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, the work day of a president is too busy to entertain anybody and everybody who wants to talk. However, the job of the president is to get out and about and to become the number one cheerleader for that institution.

The other thing I think, of course, is to be transparent. There’s a lot of information, and HBCUs have been historically bad about disseminating it. We hoard at the top levels all kinds of information that people need to know. People need to know the financial situation of an institution. They need to know the enrollment situation. They need to know what you’re facing so that the decisions that they make and the additional work they do is in line with the vision for the institution.

I’m very proud to say that I learned from one of my mentors, Dr. Ivory Nelson, the value of transparency, and it’s already bearing all kinds of fruit here at Valley. People are being presented with information that was before inaccessible to them or they didn’t know about. We’re saying, “This is the real story. This is the real deal. This is what we’re facing. This is what we’re up against. We need everybody to put a paddle in the river and we need everybody to be paddling as fast as they can and as hard as they can in the same, unified direction, so that we can move the institution forward.” It’s hard to do that when you don’t have the information. Transparency is one of those things I would definitely encourage new presidents to practice.

Q: How about an individual who aspires to become a college/university president one day?

A: One of the main things is to find a good, experienced mentor. Find someone who is already in the role, who has been in the role or who aspires and has a realistic opportunity. I wasn’t in a hurry to be a college president. I wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that I had the skill set that I would need once the opportunity came, and then of course, as I mentioned earlier that it was the right fit. Again, don’t be in a hurry. The fit and being prepared for all that the role is going to throw at you is important.

I had very good mentors throughout my career, from Dr. Doris Walker Weathers at Clark Atlanta University, to the best mentor I had, Dr. Ivory Nelson, who served as president/CEO of four schools—Prairie View, Alamo Community College District, Central Washington University and Lincoln University. Find someone that you are able to share your career aspirations with and then ask that person to provide guidance and advice. Ask that person if he or she would be willing to share insights that you are not going to gain unless you’re actually sitting in the chair.

Before I took the job at Lincoln, I asked Dr. Nelson point blank, “Sir, I want to be a college president. I have other offers, but I’m going to the college or university whose president says they are willing to mentor me and prepare me to do exactly what they’re doing.” Dr. Nelson accepted that and actively mentored me for nine years, really sharing the business of higher education with me and explaining, “When you made that decision, what went into making that decision? What did you consider? What did you take into account? What did you have to look at?” Those are the things you will never know until you’re sitting in the chair; he actually prepared me for the MVSU presidency during those nine years we were together at Lincoln. And better yet, he still is an active mentor.

Now, when I make decisions, I know what to take into account, who to take into account, all of those things—who to call, who to give an advance notice to before I actually make that decision. That tutelage of being able to sit at his feet during those nine years was huge. The last thing I would say is any time you get an opportunity to take advantage of one of these programs for presidential hopefuls, make sure you take full advantage of it.

During most of my career, I looked at two slices of the pie: student affairs and enrollment management. Being a president, you’ve got to look at and deal with the entire pie. The NAFEO Kellogg Leadership Fellows Program modeled after the year-long ACE program, was an additional vehicle that prepared me for this role. These programs give you exposure to people who sat in the chair and have been in the job and can provide you with some insights that will help you to avoid pitfalls early on during your tenure in office. The ability to learn from then, and now, the likes of Fred Humphries, Joe Johnson, Art Thomas, Delores Spikes, Bob Albright, Dorothy Yancy Cowser, Harold Wade and many others was and continues to be invaluable.

This concludes our interview. Thank you, President Bynum, for your insight and for taking the time to do this interview.

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