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Searching for the best – officials of African American universities and colleges

At his ranch-style home in
Durham, North Carolina, Dr.
Mickey L. Burnim keeps a file
that can perhaps best be labeled.
“Things not to do as chancellor
of a university.”

“I have always tried to learn from the
experiences of others.” said Burnim, who
became chancellor of Elizabeth
City State University in June.
“This file contains things that I
have learned by observing
individual leaders.”

Among other things, the
file contains information on
Central State University,
which has been teetering on
the brink of financial ruin. It
also holds information on
University of North Carolina
schools, which he had seen
first hand through his
thirteen-plus years as a UNC
general administration vice
president, and provost and
vice chancellor for academic
affairs at North Carolina
Central University.

Although he is now the
leader of an institution, Burnim, along
with the rest of the newest class of Black
college presidents and chancellors, is finding
himself in the role of students trying not to
duplicate the mistakes of those who have
gone before him.

“I spend a lot of time studying v,hat
institutions do and how they get in trouble,”
said Dr. Carlton Brown, the newly selected
president of Savannah State College.
Since April of 1996, 14.5
percent of the 103 historically
Black colleges and universities
recognized by the federal
government had new leaders. In the
coming weeks, at least five more
HBCUs — including Spelman
College, Norfolk State University
and Dillard University — will
welcome new leaders.

“Leadership is very important.
If you have great leadership,
colleges or universities thrive,” said Dr.
Henry Ponder, president and CEO of the
National Association for Equal Opportunity
in Higher Education (NAFEO) and the
former president of Fisk University in
Nashville, Tennessee.

But gone are the days of the simple
leadership model. Leaders are now being held
more accountable to all of their constituents.
Today’s Black college leaders are being asked
to navigate their faculty, students, funding
sources, alumni and governments through an
ever-changing sea of academic turmoil.
The times have also demanded
that presidents and chancellors widen
their visions and seek a broader
perspective for their institutions,
while keeping all of those
constituencies happy.

“We are seeing more presidents
coming in who have a inroad vision of
the future,” said Reginald K. Wilson, a
senior scholar at the American Council
on Education (ACE).
Brown comes to Savannah State after ten
years at Virginia’s Hampton University,
where he is winding up his tenures as
vice president for planning and
dean of the graduate school.
Despite his previous duties,
Brown said that he wasn’t blind
to what was going on in the
Peach State.

“It is no secret that
Savannah State has had
significant problems over the
last eighteen years or so,” said
Brown. “Student protests.
dorms in disrepair: It is a
situation in need of repair, but
that is part of what I do for a

Brown said that in order to
begin the rebuilding process he
has to start his tenure with a
clear agenda and a general
understanding among those in
his new community of who is in
“There will be one
president and one spokesman
for Savannah State, and that will
be me. No question about it,”
said Brown, who headed
Hampton’s strategic planning
process. “I am the kind of
administrator who prefers to
run a focused operation. We
have to know what our
primary mission is and everything we do
has to be evaluated.”

Although Brown doesn’t see himself as
“hard,” he is very demanding. He said that
he and his staff will: spend long hours
looking at higher levels of efficiency at the
college, bring an increased technological
presence on the campus; and demand a
deeper commitment from all students,
faculty and alumni.

“I am an intense person and we will take
everything we do as deadly serious” he said.
“I can’t accept anything less than the very
best. The job is done when it is done. If we
don’t go home, we don’t go home.
“All of that will he done within the
context of a defined focus,” Brown added.
“I will also hire the best, who must be fearless
and not afraid [of my] critique [or] my
opinions and fare willing to] state theirs.”

Burnim, who took over
as Elizabeth City’s
chancellor last July, said it is
crucial for any new leader to
hire the right top-level
administrators. He said that
when he arrived at ECSU,
the first thing he noticed
was that North Carolina’s
state auditor had continuously
cited the university for the same
financial miscues.

“As I looked at the problems of Central
State University — that’s financial
management,” said Burnim, who was N.C.
Central University’s vice chancellor for
Academic Affairs for nine years. “It is
obvious that sound financial footing is crucial.
My first hire was a vice chancellor for
financial affairs.”

While Brown and Burnim were recruited
to bring new perspectives from other arenas,
sometimes the best candidate for the job is
already there on campus.
Fisk University spent months searching
for a president before offering the job to Dr.
Rutherford Hamlet Adkins, who had been
the interim president since July of 1996.
“It was one of those situations where
you interview a lot of
people and say, `My
goodness, the guy we have
in there is eminently
qualified,'” said Charles
Johnson, chairman of
Fisk’s Board of Trustees.

Johnson said that
Adkins, a Tuskegee
Airman and Virginia State
University graduate,
never actually applied for the position.
Adkins served as Fisk’s interim president
in 1975-76, before moving to Knoxville
College to serve as president from 1976 to

“We saw what a top-notch person he was
and offered him the job,” said Johnson,
laughing. “He was right here under our noses.
You can do a lot of interviewing, but you can
never get the same information you can from
seeing somebody in action.”

Ernie Suggs covers higher education fore
the Durham Herald-Sun.

Campuses With New

Presidents or Chancellors

Within the Last Year


Albany State College Dr. Portia H. Shields

Barber-Scotia College Dr. Sammie Potts

Central State University Dr. George Ayers(**)

Cheyney State University Dr. Clinton Pettus

Dillard University Dr. Michael Lomax

Edward Waters College Dr. Jimmy Jenkins

Elizabeth City State Dr. Mickey L. Burnim

Fish University Dr. Rutherford H. Adkins

Lincoln (Mo.) University Dr. Donald L. Mulett

Mary Holmes College Dr. Russell S. Williams

Norfolk State University Dr. Maria McDemmond(*)

Oakwood College Dr. Delbert Baker

Savannah State College Dr. Carlton Brown(*)

Southern University system Dr. Leon Taver II

University of Maryland-Eastern Shore Dr. Dolores Spikes

Trenholm State Technical College Dr. Leroy Bell Jr.

University of District of Columbia Dr. Julius F. Nimmons(*)

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