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Rookie HBCU Presidents Undergoing Rigorous Leadership Testing

Dr. Donna Oliver hardly had time to savor her rise to the top ranks of higher education as a college president when she got the sobering news from her new bosses: cut the school’s budget by 5 percent immediately and be prepared for more cuts later.

“My mouth dropped open,” says Oliver, president for the past 18 months of Mississippi Valley State University, recalling the startling news she faced two weeks into her freshman year as a college president. The 60-year-old veteran higher education executive expected challenges, “but not instant budget cuts.”

The budget cutting was done, however, as have several subsequent cuts, she says. They have been achieved without major damage to the school’s core programs or employment rolls, she says, and with input from a university community advisory group she appointed. The group has helped her navigate the school through its tough economic times, challenges mirrored at colleges and universities across the state and nation.

Oliver is among a corps of career academicians making up the growing ranks of first-time presidents at historically Black colleges and universities. They are taking on the challenge of championing HBCUs for the 21st century as the schools face a growing chorus of politicians and others questioning their continued value as demands grow for the schools to beef up their academic performance and needed funds — from public and private sources — become harder to come by. 

“They are very difficult jobs and more requirements are being placed on them,” says Dr. Frederick Humphries, former president of Tennessee State University and Florida A&M University, where he is now a Regents Professor.

“Ultimately, it becomes a tenuous situation,” says Humphries, citing the heavy turnover of presidencies in recent years.

Just this summer, 55-year-old Dr. David Wilson, formerly with the University of Wisconsin, joined Morgan State University in Baltimore as a freshman president. Dr. Harry L. Williams, 46, who got his start in university management a decade ago as director of admissions at North Carolina A&T State University, became president of Delaware State University in January. Nearly half a dozen HBCU first-time presidents are three years or less into their jobs, including the Southern University at Baton Rouge chancellor and the South Carolina State University president.

They have taken on the job of university chief executive during an era of heavy turnover of presidents, moves rooted in a variety of reasons. Some departures are simple retirement, as in the case of Dr. Benjamin Payton, president of Tuskegee University for 30 years. 

Other departures short of retirement are more complex, say presidential consultants and higher education veterans, citing anecdotal information. The reasons range from frustrations and differences with governance boards and alumni to heightened demands for institutional performance amid shrinking public and private financial support, especially since the onset of the economic downturn.

Oftentimes, departures are a combination of these factors, they say, citing recent resignations of presidents at Tennessee State, Jackson State University, Edward Waters College in Florida and Alcorn State University, to name a few. All are on the hunt for a new president, as is Norfolk State University in Virginia.

“Being a president in this day and time is hard work,” says Oliver, a former provost at Edward Waters College. “You are leading seven days a week. Don’t get into it because you think it’s powerful, famous or prestigious. It’s certainly a labor of love.”  

A Pressing Need

For sure, the job of a college president has its rewards and perks. Usually, the position, which typically pays six figures, commands community respect, as most colleges generate millions of dollars a year in revenue and hundreds of jobs in their respective communities. Also, good fortunes prevailing, college presidents can have a positive, lasting impact on the lives of many people who enroll as students seeking to improve their lives and economic standing.

Still, challenges abound.

Dr. Reginald Avery, 63, who has been president of Coppin State University in Baltimore for two and a half years, and other leaders say the need to raise money has become a larger part of a president’s job, even at state-supported institutions.

“It’s not just going out asking for money, it’s fundraising. For those who think it’s an easy job, it’s not. It’s not at all,” Avery says, adding that he spends more than 30 percent of his time fundraising.

Fundraising is also a heightened priority for Williams of Delaware State. “We have to look at different ways of generating revenue,” Williams says, noting he sees a “niche” for his school in focusing on science, technology, engineering and math programs. DSU is pursuing partnerships with the National Institutes of Health, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation.

“The reality is that’s where the money is,” Williams says, acknowledging the complaints he hears from time to time, as do other school presidents, that the focused pursuit of STEM programs and money is coming at the expense of the traditional focus on liberal arts studies.

Williams has also been working more intensely with state officials to permanently secure scholarship funding to attract more in-state students to the school. The new “Inspire Scholarship” would guarantee tuition for two years for any Delaware resident with at least a 2.75 grade-point average, eliminating a state aid gap dating to 2006 when the Legislature approved similar scholarship funding for two-year college students.

Williams and his supporters had won bipartisan support for his Inspire Scholarship legislation. The proposal won House passage. However, it failed to win Senate passage on the final night of the legislature’s regular 2010 session when a lone senator with the right to block legislation barred a vote on the bill, asserting he had not been properly advised of it. After protests from fellow lawmakers and voters, the senator relented and indicated he would seek a special legislative session this fall to vote on passage of the proposal.

“This is the kind of work presidents have to do, to get this kind of support and get this kind of bill,” says Williams. “That’s the exciting part. I look at what you can do to make an impact.”

A Two-front War

Indeed, with HBCUs enrolling a high percentage of poorly prepared, first-time college students and carrying student bodies heavily dependent on financial aid, the freshmen presidents say they face a double-edged sword.

They want to hold on to their historic mission of providing educational opportunities for communities they have served in the past without compromising standards or goals. At the same time, they face pressure to raise admissions standards and graduation rates quickly or face losing more public and private funds as the performance and outcomes-based funding movement gathers steam. Already, they say, that movement is costing them millions in state and private funds and forcing them to eliminate financially and academically needy students who have the potential to succeed in college, if all else were equal.

Louisiana and Ohio lead the pack in fast-tracking the new thrust for performance-based budgeting for higher education. That shift in allocating funds to state colleges, on top of economy-driven budget cuts, has disproportionately impacted public HBCUs, chronically plagued with low retention and graduation rates. The new funding approach has caused them to be denied millions in state funds, educators say.

In Louisiana, already hit by the downturn in the economy, the performance-based budget approach takes 25 percent of the state allocation for higher education and reallocates it based on graduation rates. That formula has cost the state’s HBCUs millions and, at his school, jeopardized its mission, says Dr. Kofi Lomotey, chancellor at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Coppin State’s Avery said Maryland is looking at performance-based funding and taking a cautious approach toward it. Still, he says, he’s already instituted programs aimed at improving outcomes by strengthening freshman students’ academic skills through a pre-college summer program.

“We’ve done this despite the budget cuts,” says Avery, referring to state cuts in higher education support triggered by a slump in Maryland’s economy and state revenue receipts. Budget cuts forced him to impose furloughs this past school year. This fall, Maryland’s state colleges are raising tuition for the first time in four years.

In Mississippi, where funding cuts for state colleges could exceed a cumulative total of 25 percent by 2012 absent a major economic windfall, Oliver says she has asked her “Renaissance Committee” to come up with a plan on how the school could operate if it wound up with orders to cut its budget by as much as 10 percent.

“We don’t want to be reactive,” she says. “We want to be proactive.”

Survival Instincts

Whether these freshman presidents and those appointed in recent years survive more than a few years is a hotly debated topic in academic circles. For sure, all the new presidents, especially the first-timers, sound ready for battle. Still, few observers give the 21st-century presidents the prospects of having tenures like Payton at Tuskegee or Dr. William Harvey, president of Hampton University. Possible? Yes, they say. Likely? That’s another question.

Some observers say the turnover problem will continue to persist, absent some major attention on how presidential candidates are recruited and selected.

“There’s a major issue we’ve never adequately addressed: How do we get the kinds of boards of directors we need for the 21st century?” says Dr. N. Joyce Payne, founder of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and a former director of the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges, a unit of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities. “There’s probably a greater unevenness (between governance board make-up and a president), if the outcome isn’t working.”

Payne says the success of a president hinges on how well the selection process was conducted and whether the board that selects a new chief executive is engaged in the process and develops the kind of “performance and selection matrix” that is more in keeping with a particular school’s history, mission and vision of its future.

Whether looking inside for candidates or using a search firm, the recruitment and selection processes are essential to determining how successful a new president is likely to be, says Payne.

Humphries says selecting forward-looking presidents would help along with revisiting some outside pressures HBCUs face today, like performance-outcome standards. For example, Humphries says performance evaluation based on a 10-year graduation rate rather than six years would be fairer to HBCUs, given that many students “stop out” for a few years and return later to complete their studies.

The freshman presidents have their thoughts, too, about their prospects of surviving and thriving as institutional CEOs.

Oliver says new presidents can help their own cases by listening to their various constituents – boards of governors, faculty, alumni, students, legislators — and governing themselves accordingly.

“Put on your listening ears,” says Oliver. “You have to know your vision, but you have to understand it remains your vision unless you can get their buy-in. Once you’ve accomplished that, you are ready to set your strategic priorities.”

“Evaluate often,” she adds. “Lastly, you must do it with excellence and integrity.”

Oliver and other presidents sound eager to take on the challenges ahead, despite the storm clouds that abound.

“I’m sure the previous nine presidents (at Delaware State) had their challenges,” says Williams of his predecessors. “If you are committed to education, the presidency is the job for you because you have the wonderful opportunity to promote quality education.”  

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