If there are qualities that distinguish good HBCU presidents from great ones, they are qualities sustained over long periods of time and transformative in the history of an institution. The elements that make for historic stature in HBCU culture run a common narrative thread – an ability to cultivate resources, to be a force against political and cultural opposition, to establish tradition and legacy among students and graduates, and to build the brand of an institution.
This Digest Five greatest of all time are open to interpretation, but there is no denial of their imprint on their respective universities, and the culture of historically black higher education.
Dr. Benjamin Mays – His work as a prominent American scholar, thought leadership on race relations and mentoring of Martin Luther King Jr. aside, Dr. Mays is widely considered the model of the HBCU presidency. His leadership of Morehouse College expanded the institution’s brand name, academic capacity and stature as a great American institution of higher education.
Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole – Dr. Cole led both Spelman College and Bennett College for Women to unmatched periods of financial gain and philanthropy, shaping the lives of millions of black women across the United States with scholarship and academic access. She received the largest gift ever donated to a historically black college, and with well over $160 million raised between her two presidential posts, she is regarded as the greatest HBCU fundraiser in history.
Dr. Frederick S. Humphries – The President Emeritus of Tennessee State University and Florida A&M University forged a career of academic development and political leveraging in Nashville and Tallahassee. Dr. Humphries helped TSU to become the first HBCU to merge with a predominantly white institution, and emerge as the existing college. At FAMU, he raised enrollment and championed a renaissance of the FAMU brand locally and nationally.
Dr. William R. Harvey – One of two active presidents on the list, Dr. Harvey is credited as the architect of the Home by the Sea. In 35 years as the entrepreneurial president, he transformed Hampton into an American powerhouse of education and service, and oversaw Hampton becoming the first HBCU to launch a NASA funded satellite in 2002, and eight years later opened the world’s largest proton therapy cancer treatment center.
Dr. Norman Francis – The living symbol of longevity and service, Dr. Francis is the longest-serving active American president. In his tenure, he has turned Xavier into the leading institution for African-Americans seeking to become physicians and medical professionals. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he led the university and helped lead the city of New Orléans to a new normal as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.