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Strengthening Governance at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The assertion that historically Black colleges and universities are at a crossroads is more than a euphemism; rather it is a reality with which we must all come to grips. In the weeks since we first contemplated co-authoring an article on governance at HBCUs, the impact of COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the airwaves.

Dr. Charlie NelmsDr. Charlie Nelms

You may no doubt be wondering about the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and HBCU governance. More than any recent event in higher education, COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional mode of instruction. The need to rapidly shift to online course delivery has placed enormous challenges on all colleges and universities. HBCUs, many of which lack adequate technology platforms for both administrative and classroom use now find themselves in an untenable situation. Even before the pandemic, online, for-profit universities were significantly siphoning HBCU enrollments, particularly from transfer students who were willing to pay more for the availability of online, asynchronous learning, anytime, anywhere. COVID-19 puts additional financial stress on some schools that were already teetering on the brink.

Once this pandemic has receded or is over, higher education as we have known it will not return to normal. Effective governance will be more important than ever because it affects all aspects of an institution’s sustainability including accreditation, tuition and fee policies, curricular offerings and services, learning outcomes, facilities, and technology infrastructure, among others. This is a wakeup call for HBCU governing boards, hence, a new paradigm is required to ensure the selection of trustees who are committed to fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities differently than is the case currently.

As HBCU graduates, we can attest firsthand to the transformative impact of these iconic institutions, and as professional educators who have devoted their energy and expertise to strengthening HBCU governance and executive leadership, we feel compelled to issue a clarion call to action with respect to the continuous quality improvement of HBCU governance. We believe that failure to acknowledge and confront the governance deficiencies in higher education generally, and HBCUs in particular, will undermine long term institutional effectiveness, academic excellence and sustainability.

The observations and suggestions for what must be done to strengthen governance at HBCUs are based on nearly 100 years of collective service as faculty members, administrators, and consultants at an array of institutions of higher education, including HBCUs, PWIs, research and comprehensive universities, and community colleges. Most importantly, these observations are offered in the context of promoting the success and vibrancy of HBCUs for future generations of historically disenfranchised students from all walks of life.

  1. In observing the growing discord between boards of trustees and presidents, along with the high levels of HBCU presidential turnover, we believe a major paradigm shift is essential. It demands that trustees understand and are forthcoming about institutional challenges and priorities when hiring a president, and that presidents are empowered to lead rather than simply preside. The paradigm shift of which we speak requires the active engagement of key constituents in addressing longstanding institutional  challenges while recognizing that effective presidential leadership is not a popularity contest.
  2. While boards of trustees at most private and independent institutions are typically larger than those found at public institutions, based on our experience large boards do not always serve the best interests of HBCUs. Although board composition and commitment may be more important than size, the ideal or optimal number of members may vary by institution. A board should be large enough to include members who possess the knowledge, insight and foresight to address the governance issues facing the institution, and small enough to function effectively and efficiently in order to fulfill its fiduciary duties and responsibilities.
  3. Selecting the right leader as president is the most consequential role performed by any university or college governing board. Equally important is the active participation of board members as investors in the institution’s mission and vision. Besides leading through giving, HBCU board members must take a more active role in university friend-raising, that is, developing relationships that typically precede fundraising activities. This is a task that a president cannot do alone. Boards must advocate for the institution and in concert with the president and development officer lay the groundwork for achieving fundraising goals. Also, a 100 percent commitment to personal board philanthropy cannot be overstated. These expectations should not come as a surprise to trustees and should be discussed prior to election or appointment to the board. Absent a unified commitment from the governing board it’s difficult for a president to convince prospective donors, including alumni, that the institution is a good investment.
  4. AGB’s An Anatomy of Good Governance in Higher Education lists three key factors that contribute to achieving board effectiveness: the right composition, the right focus and the right relationships. Qualifications for board service matter. The recruitment and selection of the best talent must be intentional. Board members must bring skills that enable them to do the work e.g., knowledge of higher education, finance, branding, fundraising, risk management and information technology, for example.
Dr. Alvin J. SchexniderDr. Alvin J. Schexnider

In closing, the need for effective board governance at HBCUs has never been greater. Building an effective governing board requires intentionality; it will not happen on its own. Typically, this begins with an onboarding process: an orientation for new members to explain the institution’s mission and goals, their fiduciary duties, and customs and norms unique to higher education such as promotion and tenure and academic freedom. Also highly recommended are a) continual board development through an annual workshop or board retreat; b) regular surveys or performance assessment of the board and the president; and c) the creation of a governance committee of the board to oversee the objectives enumerated above.

Confronting harsh realities is never easy, yet that is what board governance is often about—making tough decisions, taking the long view, focusing on strategy, developing policies—and most importantly, staying out of the weeds. The future of HBCUs and their promise hang in the balance.

Dr. Charlie Nelms is former Chancellor of North Carolina Central University, an AGB senior consultant, and author of From Cotton Fields to University Leadership: All Eyes on Charlie, A Memoir

Dr. Alvin J. Schexnider is former Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, an AGB senior consultant, and author of Saving Black Colleges: Leading Change in a Complex Organization

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