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Political Pitfalls for Presidents

Political Pitfalls for Presidents

The South Carolina State University Board of Trustees wasn’t in a very festive mood when they met this past December. They did give their president of nearly five years, Dr. Andrew Hugine Jr., something during the Christmas season: a pink slip when they decided not to renew his contract. It was a move that has caused much consternation in Orangeburg where the 111- year-old historically Black university is located.

“It’s just hard when you’ve got a president that the politicians, alumni and students think is doing a good job, but then the board decides to get rid of him,” says Charles Williams, a 21-year SCSU trustee, who left the board in early January in the wake of the
Hugine dismissal. “It just questions what’s wrong with the board.”

It’s also a very good example of the uneasy environment that exists for presidents at public HBCUs these days. For a variety of reasons, stability in leadership has increasingly become an issue for both public and private HBCUs. It’s led to a revolving door of presidents or a hot seat for others at various HBCUs. For example:

• Southern University System President Ralph Slaughter was suspended for two months after he acted as a “whistle-blower,”
saying the system’s board of trustees tried to cover up sexual harassment allegations against then-board Chairman Johnny Anderson, who was also assistant chief of staff for then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (see Diverse, May 7, 2007).
•At the behest of the Georgia Board of Regents and University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll Davis, Dr. Carlton Brown unexpectedly resigned from the presidency at Savannah State University in fall 2006. Brown’s nine-year tenure brought stability to the school, but had been dotted with complaints from faculty and staff about the school’s leadership and a 2006 audit criticizing the school for financial and management issues. Brown joined Clark Atlanta University in 2007 as executive vice president during a time when CAU President Walter Broadnax was being criticized by students and alumni for his management of the school. Brown has taken over day-to-day management while Broadnax focuses on fundraising (see Diverse, Dec. 28, 2006).
• New Savannah State University President Earl Yarbrough
became the school’s president in 2007, several months after accepting the presidency at struggling Knoxville College. The board of trustees had fired former president Barbara Hatton in 2005 and couldn’t afford to pay Yarbrough and his staff, so they terminated his contract so he could take the SSU job.
• At Florida A&M University, Dr. Fred Gainous replaced retiring Dr. Frederick Humphries in 2002, but by 2004 Gainous was dismissed after clashing with the school’s board of trustees, and audits found financial mismanagement, bookkeeping problems and administrative issues (see Black Issues In Higher Education, Dec. 2, 2004). The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the
region’s accrediting group, placed the school
on probation in June 2007 and will continue
that probation until the association reviews
the school’s situation again in June 2008.
• Dr. John Rudley was named president of Texas Southern University in January nearly two years after Dr. Priscilla Slade was fired after allegations she misspent several hundred thousand dollars, some of it for personal expenses (see Diverse, April 20, 2006). The school is currently on probation because of financial management, governance and administrative issues.

*Unique Challenges?
There are many other instances of change. But the landscape for leading public HBCUs is a bit more complex than that of their private counterparts.

Besides the normal student, alumni, boards of trustees, faculty and staff communities that any higher education institution has to deal with, public institutions also have state legislatures — their major funding source — to ultimately answer to.

“All our funds basically come from the state,” Williams says. “You don’t have alumni giving like at other schools. Boards of trustees are elected by the General Assembly, so it’s idiotic not to be influenced by politics.”

And with state budgets getting tighter and tighter, making sure that HBCUs — whose missions are more under scrutiny than those at the traditionally White institutions that take up the bulk of state higher education funds — get their fair share is the tougher
part, says Dr. Jim Renick, senior vice president for programs and research at the American Council on Education in Washington
and former chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University.

“I think there has always been a political dimension,” he says. “You’re finding that Black colleges are having to fight for state support. And in the era of accountability and the era of tight budgets and financial constraints, there seems to be more of an environment that can be perceived as hostile.”

The competition is indeed tough, Hugine says.

“It is sometimes difficult to measure up to institutions that are well-endowed or wellconnected politically than our institutions,” he says. “When you look at our institutions, it becomes an issue going  forward.”

Williams says that the reliance on the state budget has a lot to do with the fact that alumni donations seem to be lower at HBCUs than at TWIs, making the relationship between schools and politicians even more  important.

Dwayne Ashley, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, says that’s one reason it is imperative that HBCUs hire the right people for presidencies.

 “I don’t think it’s getting tougher,” Ashley says of the job of presidents. “I think you’ve just got to have someone who can build relationships and manage them. You’ve got to work with different teams of people to get your agendas accomplished.”

It’s not as if the average public HBCU president isn’t getting the time to form those relationships.

Interestingly, the average public HBCU president has a longer tenure than his or her counterpart at traditionally White institutions — 11 years versus eight, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis.

More than half of the presidents at HBCUs — 54 percent — have been in their offices between six and 15 years. For the same tenure span, 48 percent of the presidents at TWIs have been in the same jobs.

A lot of that is because the demands on the job haven’t changed as much, Ashley says. It’s just that the presidents are now forced to articulate their schools’ missions a little better.

 “We’ve got to quantify their impact,” Ashley says of public HBCUs. “Gone are the days when you are going to get a state allocation just because you are a state institution. We are competing with a myriad of universities across the state. Our schools do have to be a
lot more creative about getting that message across.

“It’s having an administrative staff and team that understand the speak, the language required today to exist in the political environment everybody is trying to exist in,” Ashley continues.

Boards: A Help or Hindrance?

It also helps when internally everyone gets along.

One of the problems that a new president seems to run into is a board of trustees that upon hiring seems to support the new hire’s ideas, but deeper into his or her tenure, problems arise, relationships cool and trust wanes.

That’s partially what happened at SCSU, says Williams.

“It just seems to me that it’s always a problem — board members want to micromanage a school,” he says. “They wanted to deal with every issue. That makes it difficult with the administration.”

The personality and profile of trustees may have something to do with it.

Trustees are getting older (in 2004, 65 percent of them were between 50 and 60 years old compared to 56 percent in 1985), and most are business professionals. In addition, boards are increasingly becoming filled with retirees with a lot more time on their hands, according to a 2004 study by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Those people become more and more active in a school’s affairs, Williams says, which isn’t always a good thing.

“I think that’s one of the reasons you see so much turnover [in presidencies],” he says. “Boards tend to not understand how difficult it is to run a historically Black college or

That is something Hugine agrees with.

“You’re dealing with a different set of circumstances and environment that is different than when they went to school 20 or 30 years ago,” Hugine says.

He says that he is still trying to figure out what happened at SCSU. He ran off a list of accomplishments during his tenure — enrollment increases, new capital projects around campus, the school’s new nuclear engineering program and hosting the April 2007 Democratic presidential primary debate.

“When you compare South Carolina State University to our peer institutions, it becomes clear and obvious this institution is doing extremely well,” Hugine says. “Based on that, it’s difficult to see how we ended up as we did. I don’t know.”

SCSU’s new board chairman Maurice G. Washington says that there were some areas of Hugine’s work they were pleased with and some that they were not.

“After five years we made the assessment and looked at where we are and where we’re trying to get to and determined we’d try to
negotiate a reasonable and confidential transition,”Washington says.

Hugine’s final performance evaluation, released by the SCSU Board of Trustees after Hugine was let go, rated his performance very low. He didn’t improve academics quickly enough, and finances weren’t handled well enough, according to the evaluation, stated a Jan. 12 article in Charleston, S.C.’s Post and Courier newspaper.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., supported Hugine and asked the SCSU board not to fire him. Additionally, a state representative
from Orangeburg has said he plans to file a bill to dissolve the SCSU
board for getting too involved in the dayto- day operations of the school.

Washington, who added he hoped the parting with Hugine would be amicable, says the board is now looking for someone who is willing to take more risks for greater rewards and can build a strong team, especially a team of leaders and subleaders who can step up and perform other functions.

For his part, Hugine stresses that people need to see the entire evaluation, particularly his comments on his evaluation, which touted his successes.

“I think the facts speak for themselves,” he says.

It shows the kind of internal disconnect and discord that can torpedo a president’s tenure, no matter how stable things seem to be on the landscape for presidents of public HBCUs.

“The president’s job is tough when you have so many constituencies,” says Renick, who served as chancellor of NCA&T for six years.

As for Williams’ assessment for what happened at South Carolina State? “I think this is kind of a nutty thing,” he says. Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of upcoming articles looking at the leadership of historically Black colleges and universities.

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