I am currently in my fifteenth year as a president of a historically black college or university. While at 52 I am a decade younger than the average college president, in terms of seniority I easily make the top 10 for HBCUs. The latest study by the American Council on Education on the American college presidency, the average tenure of a president is now down to 6.5 years. In 2006, it was 8.5 years.
So I was concerned to see that the Board of Regents for Texas Southern University decided to fire the president, Dr. Austin Lane. Yes, I know Dr. Lane. As the president of a private institution we didn’t have many opportunities to interact, but when we did we had a collegial relationship. In fact we had a conversation last December during the accreditation meeting in December, which was in Houston. We also shared some moments last summer as Texas Southern, along with my institution Dillard University, and Spelman College were recognized by KIPP for our outstanding commitment and support for those students enrolled on our campuses. Texas Southern enrolls more KIPPsters than any HBCU in the nation, and one of the highest numbers of any institution.
I said I was concerned, but not surprised by Lane’s ouster. I’ve watched a lot of presidents come and go. More often the cause is not retirement or incompetence, but rather the egregious acts of an egomaniacal board. It is usually the worst with politically appointed board members who see these positions as superior to the president. They often expect to be served rather than to serve the institution. In the case of HBCUs, these types of board members are literally killing the schools.
The news reports from this situation were revealing. One regent complained about where he was dropped off to attend a football game, and not having prime seating during the presidential debate. Another boldly articulated that they have the ability to hire and fire everyone, including the janitor. I looked on the university’s website to see if I could find the donor roll. I hope someone publishes it because my hunch is these folks don’t give much at all to the university.
We need to see the receipts.
The amazing fact about these board comments is that they should know better. Looking at the board’s calendar for 2020 they highlight several board development opportunities through the Association of Governing Boards (AGB). Anyone who has participated in AGB trainings or any basic board orientation would know the not only are these acts inconsistent with the role of trustees, but in terms of accreditation, it sends major red flags. Unfortunately, I expect an accreditation sanction following this event, as Dr. Lane clearly articulated how the rules have been violated.
The board handled this entire situation haphazardly. The president hears second hand that his employment is in jeopardy. That alone signaled that the move was suspect. Soon, breaks in the ranks provide more evidence that the move had unspoken motives. Regent Ron Price, during an interview with journalist Roland Martin, raised a number of red flags, with Martin highlighting a number of accomplishments during Lane’s tenure at TSU.
Simply stated, if Dr. Lane was failing or committed some egregious act, the board should have had that conversation directly with him and either allowed him to resign or terminated him. The massive buy out and lack of transparency indicate that this is a board that is out of control. In an extensive radio interview conducted in 2016, past Texas Southern president Dr. John Rudley specifically indicated that there has to be more continuity at HBCUs. Rudley exceeded the national average, but shared this concern based on what his peers were experiencing in the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC).
But this can be rectified? The entire board must be replaced. Immediately. All Texas Southern supporters should pressure Governor Greg Abbot to make this happen.
But let me issue this public warning to anyone who would consider being president at Texas Southern. Stay away until they clean the board. Don’t get caught up in the idea of wanting to be a president, because any president working under this board is asking for a tenure filled with micromanaged misery. Chances are you will suffer a similar fate, and there will be no one to advocate on your behalf. Fit is critical to a successful presidency.
I have been blessed to work with two great boards, at Dillard and at Philander Smith College. I know a great board when I see it. And I have watched colleagues crushed by bad boards. This is a bad board.
If you are thinking about this job, or get nominated, heed my warning.
Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Dillard University in New Orleans.