HBCUs do not suffer from a lack of quality leadership; most HBCUs have more associate and assistant vice-presidents, deans and directors than are necessary to run a small to medium-sized university. Many presidents think that the more experience, credentials, vision and yes-men and yes-women around them, the better the chances that the university will grow and prosper under their vision.
Those upper-level administrators and executives demand competitive salary, and when they hit campus, there is little money left within their divisions to hire entry and mid-level employees to do work which produces metrics on how successfully an HBCU is being managed. And even for those institutions which can hire robust support staff, there is not enough money to support them with appropriate technology or infrastructure to make their jobs more efficient, and their performance more open to review and accountability.
When it comes to student satisfaction, fiscal accountability and metrics to prove that the black college is moving in a positive direction, the bigger the executive team, the more likely the HBCU is to be stagnant. With so much vision, experience and degrees floating around the top floor of the administration building, more time can be spent debating and implementing an effort to improve campus service or learning than actually overseeing it in real time.
HBCU Boards are a perfect example of this trend in bad leadership.The Tallahassee Democrat last week published an in-depth look at the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees, a glimpse of the 13 individuals at the heart of, and likely most responsible for, the crisis at Florida’s flagship historically black college. The FAMU BOT joins a growing list of HBCUs boards under fire for lackluster attention to university logistics and culture, or outright ego clashes with presidents. South Carolina State and Alabama State have provided two of the sexier headlines built upon executive ineptitude, but several other institutions have confronted bad leadership and its dangerous affects on black college culture.
The FAMU BOT is far from incompetent. Its ranks are comprised of some of Florida’s best minds in business, politics, research and leadership. But they couldn’t identify when the wheels were coming off at the university – and how could they? Their ability to assess and govern the university was predicated on the reporting and measurements of former President James Ammons, who depended on his executive cabinet, which by many accounts was bloated and underresourced.
How can a board or president, without benefit of hanging around the university on a daily or weekly basis, be expected to know the intimate details of auditing, student safety and development, recruitment and research?
Simple. Make a few competent people responsible for the direction of these critical areas. The fewer fingers to point, the better the results – because they will be too busy working to keep their gigs to point fingers at who and what prevented them from doing so.
All organizations at all levels of industry and influence suffer from incompetence and laziness at the highest rungs of leadership, but they all do not contribute to a cultural or racial stigma when things fall apart. When HBCUs stumble and leadership is to blame, the first and easiest explanation is that black people aren’t savvy enough, educated enough or care enough to do right by their own schools.
But there’s an argument to be made in the totally opposite direction. HBCU boards, presidents, vice-presidents and deans are highly intelligent and capable. They are motivated by professional advancement and their personal ethics to see black institutions do right by black students, and thereby, black communities. Somewhere between their best intentions and their inability to value quality over quantity in talent acquisition and oversight, people miss on how financial and legal issues can go unread or unchallenged, how student culture can devolve into violence and scandal, and how faculty can grow disengaged and fractured.
HBCU leadership suffers from a lack of resources and the flawed cultural expectation of doing more with less. This insecurity amounts to hiring a slew of tremendous professionals to bring more vision to the pyramid-building process, at the expense of hands on stone. If HBCUs trim the fat away from executive leadership to invest more in recruiting quality mid-level employees and procuring technology, the effect on accountability and delivery would be almost instant.