April 12, 2012, 11:39 am

By Marybeth Gasman

Last time I counted there were 16 open HBCU presidencies throughout the nation, including Central State University (Wilberforce, Ohio), Bennett College for Women (Greensboro, N.C.), and Fisk University (Nashville). Many alumni are wondering if there is a crisis in HBCU leadership. There is concern that too many presidents are leaving their positions at the same time. Alumni and HBCU supporters are questioning whether these departures are a trend and asking what is causing them. They wonder if there will be more departures.

I write quite a bit about HBCU leadership and have been watching the changing of the guard in the HBCU presidency for the past 13 years. To me the openings in the HBCU presidency seem quite normal, as most of the presidents who are leaving have served at least 5-7 years—the norm for college presidents. But to others, 16 is a large number of vacancies and it gives them pause. Given that the departures are taking place during our nation’s slow recovery from economic turmoil, there may be some merit to the concern.

In order to understand the situation more fully, I interviewed John S. Wilson, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The first question I asked him was whether or not these 16 vacancies in the HBCU presidency were the norm and if not, why were they happening? According to Wilson, “We don’t yet have solid data on this, but based on many conversations, our sense is that this is an abnormally high vacancy rate for HBCU’s. The reasons probably vary according to the institutional diversity in the HBCU sector, but it is not unreasonable to think that many of the vacancies are tied to the general stress of the economy and the constraints it places on people’s ability to both contribute to and pay for higher education. Simply put, a tighter economy intensifies the quest to remain competitive.” Wilson also linked the vacancies to the difficulty involved in clarifying the value of HBCU’s to a larger public, including African-Americans who often choose to attend majority institutions instead of HBCU’s. He thinks “HBCU leaders need to do a better job of amplifying the value of their individual institutions rather than relying on the perceived value of HBCU’s writ large. ” Wilson is spot on in his recommendation that HBCU’s clarify their institutional value—an institution without a niche or that is not known for its academic programs is often invisible. Invisible institutions have difficulty attracting funding and students.

Wilson described the current vacancies at HBCU’s as a “crossroads.” Remembering that sociologist Daniel Thompson had written a book in 1973 titled Private Black Colleges at the Crossroads, I asked if the current situation was much different than the situation for HBCU’s in the mid 1970s. Wilson responded, “In 1973 most African-American college students were still in HBCU’s and prospective students still looked to HBCU’s first for an education. Now many African-Americans no longer see HBCU’s as their first and most attractive option.” Wilson attributes much of the decrease in interest in HBCU’s on the part of black students to HBCU leaders, advocates, and friends having a harder time clarifying the value of their institutions. I would add that it has become difficult for many HBCU’s to compete with majority institutions because of the immense resources possessed by many majority institutions. Students want lots of amenities in terms of their residence hall and campus programming. Many HBCU’s cannot afford to provide these amenities. And as a result, HBCU’s have to find ways of highlighting and showcasing the resources that they do have, including a culturally sensitive curriculum, dedicated faculty, and a deep belief in black achievement.

The next question I asked Wilson was whether the HBCU alumni I know were right—was there a crisis in HBCU presidential leadership? He replied, “To some degree there is a crisis—some institutions are facing serious challenges that have either been simmering or ignored for years, and it’s only in the last few months or in the past year that either the boards or the presidents themselves elected to ‘make a move.’ So for some it is a crisis. However, it is also a challenge to leadership and an opportunity for leadership.” Wilson noted that “It’s a mistake to focus only on the office of the president—instead, these vacancies are a challenge to and an opportunity for the HBCU trustees. They have the challenge of finding solid presidents.” Wilson added “It’s hard for trustees who are not sufficiently familiar with the requirements and levers of transformation in higher education to find good leadership.” College and university trustees play a vital role in any institution and one of their most important jobs is selecting a competent, energetic, and innovative president. Wilson suggests that HBCU trustees must have a “knowledge base, a skill base, and a resource base. They must give or be able to get others to give financial and other resources to the institution.”

With all of the HBCU presidential vacancies, I asked Wilson what is needed in HBCU leaders. In his words, HBCU presidents must know how to “work with a variety of people and must know how to envision, shape, and grow a first-rate learning environment.” He added that HBCU’s “need solid leaders not just good managers.” In Wilson’s opinion, there has been a tilt toward managers in the black-college presidency for years, and what is needed is leaders. He noted, “Leaders are people who understand what it means to be out in front, to have a voice, and to have an opinion, to talk about issues related to HBCU’s.” In our book A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An All Campus Approach, Nelson Bowman III and I dedicated an entire chapter to this issue. We also believe that more HBCU presidents need to be vocal, play a part on the national stage in terms of higher education issues, and take stands on major policy issues. Research shows that presidents who are more vocal attract more foundation funding, alumni giving, and positive media attention for their institution.

Many researchers, as well as college and university presidents themselves, think that the role of the president has changed significantly in the past 30 years and much of this change is attributed to the onslaught of mega fundraising campaigns—those in the billions. With the introduction of these campaigns, fund raising has become more and more central to the responsibilities of the president and the pressure has increased. Although HBCU’s are not having billion-dollar campaigns, the pressure to have larger campaigns and raise larger amounts of money is real. As a result, according to Wilson, “HBCU Trustees have to at least make sure that candidates for president have extensive fund-raising skills, among other relevant traits, including emotional intelligence.” However, I argue that HBCU presidents also need to have a healthy knowledge of the uniqueness of higher education. There are aspects of colleges and universities that operate like a business, but presidents must understand that overall higher education is entirely different than business. Presidents must respect shared governance with the faculty. To not do so always results in a mess and scandal. Presidents can gain fund-raising skills while they are a faculty member or serving as a dean. In addition, there are ample programs and workshops designed to enhance fund-raising skills within the academy. Presidents who rise up through the faculty ranks are more likely to respect the uniqueness of the college and university setting.

I was also curious to know if Wilson thought HBCU presidents needed special skills beyond that of the average college and university president. Basically, is there something special one must know or possess to lead a black college? Wilson responded, “Beyond having an ever-widening host of skills, experiences, exposures, values, and intelligences, they need a special knowledge of HBCU’s. You need to know the history to understand the unique role that these institutions can and should play in the future. If you understand that unique role then you can connect a lot better with all stakeholders, and especially the philanthropic community. For all presidents, the skill of raising money is important but for HBCU’s it is essential. Historically, there has been a more centralized style of leadership in HBCU’s. Higher education in general has moved away from this. The movement of HBCU leadership toward decentralized leadership has been much slower. Now more than ever, with these openings, the role itself needs to change.” Many of the newer HBCU presidents share Wilson’s perspective and are operating with the mindset that leadership should be decentralized and cooperative. According to Wilson, “These newer leaders are having a different conversation about HBCU’s and their future.”

Wilson closed the interview with an interesting perspective. He noted, “We know HBCU’s have value and this is the ideal time to demonstrate that value. The opportunity to choose new leadership can be good and hopeful. The current challenges facing many HBCU’s can often be traced to decades of decisions made or not made by HBCU boards. The question is: Do today’s trustees have what it takes to imagine, sift, and select leadership for a necessarily new future? Boards with the right answer to that question have a golden opportunity to set a new trajectory for their HBCU, depending upon whom they choose as presidents. The spotlight is on them.”