Board Chair Controversies Show Volatility of HBCU Political Climate
  

Less than 24 hours after presiding over an unsuccessful ouster of Florida A&M University President Elmira Mangum, former FAMU Board of Trustees Chairman Rufus Montgomery resigned today, citing a lack of support and insight from his fellow trustees on the pressing issues involving university administration. From the Tallahassee Democrat:

“An expected spirit of cooperation with the Board’s responsible efforts to hold the President accountable has not materialized and is not likely to occur with the current Board,” he wrote. “Successful navigation of major short and long-term challenges facing FAMU require an effective working relationship between the Board chair and the university president. The current relationship is broken and irreparable.”

Montgomery left on his own, disgraced by his inability to conduct business without bitterness, to move his fellow trustees, and under immense pressure from media, alumni and students to remove himself as chair. But other HBCUs corruption and politics have dictated leadership change at the highest levels, with mixed results for the sustainability of the institutions involved.

Alabama State University trustees, amid rampant infighting with their first female president, saw a board chair resign and vice-chair removed following a string of corruption allegations, administrative attacks on the president, and a growing chorus of non-support from school stakeholders.

South Carolina legislature removed an entire board at South Carolina State University, on the heels of criminal financial dealing, gross administrative spending and budget management, and plummeting enrollment.

In those instances, controversy seemed to die in the press and among the public once the chairs were forced out or their influence reduced. At other HBCUs, controversy lingers long after the departure of a chair. At Morgan State University, confidence in president David Wilson remains tenuous after his attempted firing and the ouster of former board chair Dallas Evans. He currently serves without a contract, and under an ‘indefinite appointment.’

Just last week, Morehouse College officials allegedly met to oust president John Silvanus Wilson, only to reverse their decision and to offer a one-year extensionJohn S. Wilson asserted later that only God would be able to influence his position as leader of the nation’s only historically black all-male college.

In most of these cases, no one knows the real details behind why presidents and boards can’t just get along. But behind the scenes, its all too common knowledge that politics drive the wedge which splits HBCU leadership infrastructure – nearly every time.

In all of these cases, controversy creates the appearance that presidential performance assessment is only part of a board’s charge. The other elements – maintaining political allegiances, balancing an outright financial state of emergency stemming from crises in enrollment and branding, and the struggle to position HBCUs within contemporary contexts of learning and industrial preparation.

How can anyone focus on raising money, promoting the institution, and building the surrounding community when a president badmouths the same board which made it necessary to hire a new president in the first place, a governor asks to make sure the school follows a prescribed agenda or his appointees will face removal, alumni are pressuring for an agenda that is countercultural to the objectives of the president and state legislature, and corporate partners are buying votes through the promise of financial support?

These things significantly affect the ability of a board to prioritize the fortunes of an institution over the personal agendas of its members. And the board chairs, fairly or not, become the face of these agendas, particularly when relationships fray with new presidents who value ego over experience, and personal accolades over partnership with the most influential campus stakeholders.

Presidents and board chairs must co-lead with honest dialog about the political alliances and relationships of board members, institutional history, the corporate stakes, and the campus stakeholders’ perspectives in mind with every decision. And both must be in lockstep about which methods of communication, reporting and performance metrics are best to impress and galvanize all parties involved.

There is no coincidence that so many large HBCUs are facing the exact same crisis. And as alumni, students, and stakeholders, we should caution against assigning labels of hero and villain to players in HBCU governance controversy without first asking the questions about political influence, financial standing, and stakeholder agendas.

Rufus Montgomery went outside of the box with his own dislike for Mangum, rather than searching for ways to use her strengths to accomplish his personal agendas for his role as FAMU chair. And now, to the delight of many Rattler faithful, he’s been forced to have several seats outside of the prestige of FAMU board chairman.

Successful HBCU governance is built on the careful composition of what boards want, and what campuses need. Anything outside of that, is a presidential firing, or chairman ousting waiting to happen.

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