The first time I published a journal article about students enrolled at America’s now 100 historically Black colleges/universities (HBCUs), I had never attended, studied, or worked at a Black college, lest you count my single semester at Virginia Union’s School of Theology in the NTH (non-traditional hours) program. True, my doctoral training gave me many things, including the “statistical chops” to analyze cross-sectional, nationally-representative, and complex-sampled survey data from HBCUs with relative ease. But I lacked the practical experience at an HBCU that could enrich my understanding, deepen my perspectives, and connect my interpretations back to the context from which they came. As the universe should have it, I would get my chance. In 2018, I was hired as Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at a small, private, liberal arts HBCU in Memphis and my 2-year tenure as “VP” (a term of endearment used by the students, faculty, staff, and alumni) has already made me a better scholar.
One of the first things I did as a new VP was to try and learn everything I could about the college, its history, and how it developed over time. To do this, I had to go beyond Wikipedia, IPEDS, and the occasional news story to more indigenous sources with endogenous experiences—people who had been there, done that, and had “the HBCU t-shirt” to show for it. I spent lots of extra time with my then President, local Black politicians, and information-rich alumni, learning all I could about the college, its namesake, and what really happened during LeMoyne’s merger with Owen Junior College back in 1968. I read old reports, expired strategic plans, and thumbed through old yearbooks in the library to increase my awareness of the place, the people, and the institution’s promise over time. Knowing more about the College’s past made it possible for me to work with others to chart a path for its future. It empowered me to communicate that vision with clarity (and conviction) to the academic deans, student services staff, directors, and 50 full-time faculty under my leadership. Demonstrating my commitment to the College by learning all I could about it helped move me from curious outsider to trusted insider, and that empowered me as a VP to galvanize support, bridge divisions, and set a plan of action for achieving our goals together in my areas.
Over time, I had a much better sense of “our HBCU,” where its been, and where it could go with the right level of support, creativity, and leadership. I memorized the College’s mission verbatim, the 6 institutional objectives, retention/graduation rates, enrollment trends, and benchmarks comparing us to our HBCU and aspirational peers. I got to know notable alumni (living or dead) like Benjamin Hooks and Willie Herenton, tracing the roots of their professional success back to what they likely learned at LOC. Immersing myself in the culture opened my eyes as an academic officer and professor. For instance, as an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), I had known that the late Presiding Bishop Gilbert Earl “GE” Patterson, arguably one of the best preachers ever, attended LOC. I discovered, however, that the College had had a strong program in religion that since closed. That compelled me to convene an invited roundtable for local pastors, preachers, and theologians to jump-start conversations about filling this void in our curriculum, while responding to the needs of this growing market.
With some practice (and you get lots of it as a VP), I was eventually able to “tell our story” succinctly through upbeat sound bytes without any notes. My extensive reading and “tour de France” (or “de LOC”) helped me animate every campus address, welcome speech, and prayer with vivid anecdotes about the College’s history, MLK’s visit back in 1957, or the many impressive achievements of our current students. All of this helped me become a better leader, teacher, and, believe it or not, fundraiser. I had much success thinking of innovative ways to monetize assets, optimize real estate (like the residence hall), and diversify revenue supporting student success. One night the President asked me to “fill in” for her at a public event held at the National Civil Rights Museum. Using a blend of public talk, sales-telling, and, yes, even song, I convinced a perfect stranger to become a “friend of the College” financially, after just 3 minutes of an impromptu sermonette about HBCUs, their undeniable legacy, and the contributions of our College to Black life in Memphis.
With my HBCU VP experience came new confidence, deep(er) appreciations, clear(er) interpretations, and a stronger sense of responsibility to “tell the real HBCU story” both as a scholar, practitioner, and author who could now speak from the inside out. Since 2018, I have gone back to revise, rewrite, or remove entire drafts of chapters in my forthcoming book on HBCUs due to my many “aha moments” as an HBCU administrator. I also spend way more time thinking up policy and practice implications for HBCUs that can actually be “put to use” at Black colleges that are already stressed to do more with less. Now I find myself thinking like a provost, even as a scholar, connecting my results to best practices for enrollment management, academic program review, faculty development, student retention/success, learning assessment, SACSCOC accreditation (which is no joke!), and financial aid, among other things. Having so much first-hand experience with institutional governance amid presidential transition, I often stretch myself now to include recommendations for trustees, faculty/staff unions, and government agencies. I am forever indebted to all those who served as my surrogate “teachers” and “informants,” both on- and off-campus—a multitude of thanks.
Indeed, my tenure as an HBCU VP has made me a better scholar in my opinion. But the experiences that I gained and the connections I built have also made me a better person and leader. I remain deeply committed to the success of students, the work of faculty, and will cherish the work that my team achieved in a relatively short period of time. What’s more is this: I know for sure that it takes a village for students to succeed and, at HBCUs, that village certainly includes faculty and staff, but also librarians, coaches, cafeteria workers, security guards, the maintenance crew, and more. They’re not just important for students—they’re important to me too and made every day as VP worth the challenge. I look forward to leading and learning from more HBCUs in the future as I continue to “tell our story” through my scholarship.
Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn is the former vice president for academic and student affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College.