White House Initiative on HBCUs Names a New Interim Executive Director

Dr. Joel Harrell has been named acting director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, to the dismay of many in the greater HBCU community who were hoping for a more permanent answer to their call for stable leadership in the office.

Harrell, who had been director of the Small/Under-Resourced Schools Division, U.S. Department of Education, and Federal Student Aid, was announced to HBCU leaders Wednesday as the office’s new interim executive director. A letter to the White House on behalf of NAFEO and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund decried the announcement as a breach of the good faith on which the administration has operated with the community.

“We are disappointed and dismayed,” the letter said. The first concern the letter outlines is the understanding from a recent conversation with Secretary Arne Duncan that a permanent leader would be installed “within the next few weeks.” The letter went on to outline four additional concerns with Harrell’s appointment:

Second, the decision to have the White House Initiative on HBCUs without leadership for almost a year is confounding, especially given the Administration’s higher education goals and the vitally important role HBCUs must play in reaching the goals. Third, the appointment of yet another interim executive director does not bode well for the HBCU community, whose challenges are many, immediate, and likely to have lasting adverse impacts. Fourth, the appointment of yet another interim executive director and the manner by which the appointment was communicated was disrespectful, dismissive and without regard to the rules of engagement established by Secretary Duncan.  Fifth, while we have engaged in good faith and played by the rules established by the Secretary, we are concerned that the rules of engagement, like those for the Parent Plus Loan, shifted without our being provided notice or an opportunity to be heard. This gives us pause.

“It was suggested in the email [sent from the administration to HBCU leaders Wednesday evening] that the ‘interim’ would be ‘interim’ for several months,” says NAFEO president and CEO Lezli Baskerville. “These are critical months in challenging times for HBCUs and MSIs especially. And these are opportune times for telling Congress” about the important work and continued relevance of HBCUs in educating an increasingly diverse national population.

Johnny Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund maintains that he did not authorize his name being used on the letter that was sent to the White House yesterday, but comments made in a previous conversation with Taylor about Obama’s history as an advocate for the HBCU community echo some of the letter’s ideals.

“If President Obama wants to show his commitment to the HBCU community,” Taylor said,  “he will appoint a permanent leader to serve as advocate in the White House Initiative on HBCUs.” Taylor continued, saying that he had met with the president personally several times to voice this concern, and Obama could not play ignorant on the impact that the lack of leadership was having on HBCUs.

Baskerville agrees that steady leadership is critical to moving forward with the work that is yet to be done in the administration and in Congress on behalf of the HBCU community.

“When we talk about the challenges, and they abound, …the opportunity to shape policies and ideas is now, and the department needs a strong voice,” Baskerville says, arguing that the appointment of a leader on an interim basis inhibits the relationship development and long-term commitment to getting the work done.

Several sources close to the office report that John Brown, who has been the office’s acting director since January 7, is leaving the office to join his mentor, Dr. John Wilson — who left the office in January to head Morehouse College — in Atlanta. Baskerville denies the validity of this charge. The Department of Education contends that an interim, rather than a permanent, executive director was appointed in response to an “emergency situation” that led to Brown’s resignation. The appointment of an interim, they say, enables more time to be devoted to naming the most qualified candidate for the position.

Still, Taylor and many other have been very vocal in their dissatisfaction with this position. In a May conversation, Taylor lamented the fact that the office has had “over a year” to vet and interview candidates and “address the leadership issues within that office.” His dismay that a permanent candidate had not been named so many months later and the office was left in an ineffective transitive state is echoed in the letter sent to the White House.

Taylor said at the time that he had recommended Linda Chastang as a fully vetted candidate to head the office. Yesterday’s letter also named Chastang as a well-respected, well-vetted candidate who “is ready to hit the ground running,” according to Baskerville. But Baskerville maintains that her outrage is not about any one candidate over the other; instead, it is about the breach of confidence the administration displayed by not consulting the community’s leaders in the appointment of a new interim executive director.

“I know Joel, the community knows Joel,” Baskerville said of Harrell. She continued that he is “a quintessential public servant,” one who has worked hard on behalf of the HBCU community, ” a friendly colleague and one who has proven himself to share the passion for working for underserved institutions.” Still, she contends, the community leaders should have been consulted on good faith, and a more permanent solution should have been reached.

Harrell has been “responsible for providing special services, training and technical assistance to Historically Black College and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities that participate in the Title IV Federal Student Aid Programs [and overseeing] services provided to other Title IV participating institutions that have been defined by Federal Student Aid as Under-Resourced Institutions,” according to his bio.




  • Gloria

    What do we have to do……….march on the White House? This does NOT bode well for HBCUs.