Iconic HBCU president Frederick Humphries recently told a crowd of Florida A&M University supporters that, if asked, he would be willing to drum up support for Rattler athletics in fundraising and awareness building. And no one would blame him for having a vested interest; he is the standard by which all future FAMU presidents will be measured, given that his tenure produced great gains for FAMU in sports, enrollment and public profile.
His role in supporting FAMU is where his public commentary and insight should stop; because anything beyond that line encroaches upon new FAMU President Elmira Mangum’s ability to forge a new identity as the leader of the Rattler Nation in 2014. Humphries was a visionary for his time, and thankfully, he is smart enough to recognize that he remains in his prime as an advocate, higher education expert and man for the ages in the HBCU community, and not as a sitting president facing new political, economic, and industrial challenges in the 21st century.
If only more members of the HBCU old guard would come to that realization.
‘Old guard’ is a familiar term to many in the HBCU community. On more politically correct days, we use it to describe board members, presidents, coaches, faculty members, alumni, and other stakeholders who use their achievements of yesteryear to hold sway over the direction of today’s historically Black campuses.
On less tactful days, we use it as precursor to describing the shortsighted, stubborn, overpaid folks who hold our campuses back from progress.
The old guard is not always a bad group of HBCU stakeholders; while they can be unintentionally harmful to their schools with their staunch views on tradition and capacity, they can also be extraordinarily powerful in wielding political favor and financial support for schools in times of need. Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Tuskegee University are great examples of HBCU old guards that, more often than not, work in the best interest of the university.
They are willing to take short-term losses to preserve long-term sustainability of legacy and productivity.
Then you have old guard members who are middle of the road; they can occasionally get out of hand when the campus is in crisis, and can become reactionary enough to be combustible. But they can usually be contained when assured that there’s a plan in place for success. North Carolina A&T, Jackson State, FAMU, Alabama A&M, Morgan State, and Bethune-Cookman are a few members of this group.
Then you have old guards that struggle with corruption, in-fighting, and relationships which destroy from within. Southern, Alabama State, South Carolina State, Shaw, Wilberforce and Mississippi Valley State are a few schools among this growing group.
The common thread in the first group is that legacy and heritage comes before personal agendas, and typically, those with personal agendas which trump the college’s interests are dealt with internally. It doesn’t happen all the time, but more often than not, when there’s trouble, its not because a key stakeholder is putting ‘me’ over ‘we.’
In the second group, there’s an imbalance of perspective on historical importance and contemporary capacity. These schools struggle with members who think that, the best practices they would’ve used 20 years ago, which aren’t being used today, signals a failure on the side of today’s leadership. They trend away from outright ‘destroy and rebuild’ mode, but aren’t afraid to go nuclear if voices aren’t heard and egos go unmassaged.
The final group? Many of their members have no clue on where the institution should go and how it should arrive there. And those who try to establish a direction for the institution are singled out as outsiders for one reason or another, or made out to be enemies of the HBCU state.
These folks would rather see their HBCU burn to the ground than for a plan other than their own to be executed, or heaven forbid, successful.
This is the greatest challenge to HBCU culture today; the unseen hand of wealthy alumni, politically connected board members and presidents who support the old guard culture through affiliation, bullying, and false celebrations of their stubbornness and incompetence. The old guard is like gray hair on the head of HBCU culture. For campuses in good health, the silver locks accentuate experience and tradition, giving the appearance of a long life well-lived.
For campuses in bad condition, the gray hair makes the entire culture look haggard, worn, and lifeless. There is so much focus on the wrinkled thinking and management, the gray hair stands out as an obvious sign of a decaying culture in desperate of a need of a peaceful transition to the next life.
Cutting, dying and styling gray hair doesn’t make it go away, and so the key is in teaching the HBCU old guard the art of graceful aging. We all must take a more active role in getting our trustees, faculty, presidents and alumni to attack problems with the fervor and fury with which they attack threats on their ideology and tradition.
We have to make the old guard see that new activity is not abandoning what makes HBCUs great, but a new path charted within time-honored tradition. The old guard must understand that what we need now is not active leadership or intervention, but the peaceful transition of power and responsibility to a younger generation, and for its brightest to lead the institutions that are the backbone of our communities and our freedom in this country.
Moving the old guard to more productive, positive positions within HBCU culture takes time, money and much patience. After all, they wouldn’t be an old guard if they were easily moved. But allowing the old guard to face new frontiers of HBCU development and mission will eventually overwhelm them, or kill them and our institutions simultaneously.
And all of us would be better off in convincing our predecessors to give up the crown before giving up the ghost.