Whose HBCU Is It Anyway?

When it comes to HBCU leadership, there is no mission or vision which supersedes the will and loyalties of the board of trustees. That’s why Ray Belton, a long-serving member of the Southern leadership team on its two-year campus, can be named as the leader of the system and the flagship campus, with no clear indicators of why he was selected beyond his status as an SU ‘insider.’

It’s why the University of Louisiana System can keep a straight face at the hiring of the holistically inexperienced Willie Larkin at a time when the school is desperate for heat-and-serve academic and legislative savvy.

It’s why the Florida A&M Board of Trustees can publicly dress down President Elmira Mangum for a lack of ‘communication and respect,’ but make no connections on if, or how, their relationship has impacted the university’s progress or momentum since her hiring.

HBCU advocates, please understand; this battle is not ours. No matter how much Facebook commenting we do, no matter how much money we try to raise, no matter how much back room influence we try to generate, black folks with white collars on boards appointed by red-state leadership will never be a pretty picture for public HBCU leadership. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have shown all of us what real power and real disdain for educating black folks looks like.

And sometimes, it looks and talks just like us.

We should all believe that trustees want to get in and do the right thing, but we should know that most of them are too easily guided towards doing the wrong thing because of split loyalties between school, governor and self-interest.

Grambling and Southern, both suffering massive budget cuts with more to come, both reeling from financial hemorrhaging in athletics with deep wounds in their compliance systems, and both facing enrollment crises, now have presidents who share a common trait of being able to say what most people want to hear, but have yet to indicate any kind of research or preliminary strategy for the storms they are about to face.

Grambling is being forced to close its nursing program for consistent inability to prepare its graduates to pass the national licensure exam; a major blow to GSU in the effort to recruit and compete with duplicated programs at Louisiana Tech and UL – Monroe.

Southern supervisors revealed today that Southern U at Shreveport, the campus which new system president Ray Belton led for 15 years, has fallen beneath Louisiana GRAD ACT standards for two consecutive years – the only public campus in the state to do so.

At FAMU, where tensions are beginning to surface between Mangum and key stakeholder groups, there is still the complication of the university making progress, at least from the outside. Communication and trust issues are not unusual in new relationships, but its up to the board to make her comfortable with interpersonal expectations and institutional goals, not for her to coddle trustees whose split loyalties and inexperience in the business of higher education makes the focus on how nicely and how often she talks to them, an issue in the first place.

Higher education, especially for the poor and underrepresented, is not an easy sell in a lean economy. And because most trustees are not nuanced enough to politicize the HBCU mission for support from liberal or conservative leaders, they become little more than a more tolerable reflection of the governors who appoint them and the political agendas their appointments are designed to carry out.

Bad presidents are usually good at making trustees feel good, but are eventually ousted by underperformance. Good presidents are typically bad at glad-handing the board, and are eventually ousted by the vote of their enemies at the executive table.

Great presidents understand that they are always one vote away from looking for a job, and walk the line between crediting trustees for a school’s successes, personally taking the blame for the missteps, and guiding them on policy decisions along the way.

Great presidents don’t report to boards – they advise them.

And they understand that, no matter what, the board is always right – even when it is dead wrong.

That notion is what is killing the HBCU; that being dead wrong still translates as right in the eyes of those in ultimate authority. Bad hires, bad decisions on finance and construction are always right in the eyes of the board, and always the fault of the president or underfunding from the state or federal government when the decisions go wrong.

So until students and alumni become more than Facebook and Twitter advocates for schools, until we start packing boardrooms and demanding voice at public sessions on campus and in the state houses, this will be our cycle of ineptitude. There is no way that students and alumni – financial stakeholders invested in a presidential search – can hear from candidates themselves, but receive no guidance from the board about the data which leads to an eventual decision which shapes the future of the institution.

There’s no way states like South Carolina and Alabama have extreme changes in board leadership, but students and alumni do not seek more control in dictating how board members are appointed or elected, or in establishing qualifications for membership.

Until we speak up and demand more responsibility in shaping leadership outcomes, we might as well free ourselves of the illusion of our schools belonging to us; because they really belong to the elected officials who sit in the board seats, artfully disguised as your friendly neighborhood trustees, rectors, supervisors and regents.

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