The News Tribune reports this week on the travel expenses of former Lincoln University President and current Fisk University President Kevin Rome, who in four years tallied more than $196,000 for expenses covering trips to conferences, meetings, and gatherings with alumni and stakeholders.
The number seems large to the average student, alumnus or taxpayer. But higher education is big business, with campuses powering the economic well-being of their surrounding cities and towns by nature of stakeholder spending, job creation, and civic engagement.
For HBCUs, this civic responsibility is particularly defined by presidents who are required to do two things well – inspire the campus within its gates and educate everyone outside of it. When those two things happen, it is usually because the president maintains an active and productive travel schedule.
So the answer to the question of if HBCU presidents travel too much is answered very simply – how are their individual campuses doing?
In Dr. Rome’s case, travel did not have intimate connections to major gifts to the university or major federal partnerships. It didn’t help to smooth over faculty anxiety about the cultural crossroads between Lincoln’s HBCU mission, its shrinking black student population and its growing white faculty population.
But there are many other levels which show how leaving the campus helps in building an institutional profile in corporate and political circles. Lincoln has been at the forefront of discussion on the devastating impact of state budget cuts on HBCU solvency. For a campus well-outside of the Bible Belt orbit of HBCU culture but with significant value to Missouri’s minority communities, LU at the center of conversations on state and federal funding inequities has been major.
And those conversations lead to how state systems, like the University of Missouri System, can take more responsibility for the fate of its public HBCUs.
None of that happens if Dr. Rome is not on the road sharing Lincoln’s successes and struggles. Traveling to conferences provides access to journalists, foundation board members, donors and lawmakers – that’s when the real stories are told and mixed audiences decide if they are worth follow-up or investment. Maybe HBCU presidents could do a better job of outlining this culture for the public, but it wouldn’t help a reporter or editor who knows that a six-figure travel expenses headline is likely to generate hits and comments, regardless of if the story is legitimate, overblown or devoid of context.
And even if the travel conversation is shaped beyond development in fundraising or academics, promoting a school isn’t exclusive to HBCU presidents, and shouldn’t be framed by the HBCU community as one of the schemes our presidents pull to take more than they give. Dr. Rome’s $196,000 worth of travel over four years, or any other HBCU president’s travel, can’t be discussed without the framing of executive travel in higher education at large.
West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee is perhaps the most infamous example of presidential travel. Two years ago, the Daytona Daily News published a story on his total salary, housing and event hosting expenses between 2007 and 2012 while president of Ohio State University – $7.7 million with $1.1 million classified as travel-related.
Just over 40 paragraphs into the expose, the story reveals the payoff – Gee raised more than $1.6 billion for OSU over the same period.
In 2015, former Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned after national scrutiny of the school’s boiling racial tensions. The board negotiated for him a new job as director of national security research; a gig which came with an annual $50,000 travel budget.
The industrial mandate is clear – college presidents have to travel. Even former UM interim president and current Lincoln interim Michael Middleton, who says he never found much use for travel, acknowledges its specific benefits to the HBCU sector and to him as a sector novice.
“I think I probably should go to some meetings that are focused on HBCUs, simply to get a crash course in the HBCU experience, to talk with some of the other HBCU presidents. I would have a reason for going.”
To put Dr. Rome and other HBCU presidents’ travel into perspective – his $196,000 travel expenses over four years equals out to one year of total tuition for about nine in-state students. If Lincoln enrolls 10 more students in 2018 than it did in 2017, and received no other grants, contracts, donations or appropriation increases, it will have paid for all of his travel over the entire course of his presidential tenure.
A tenure which gained Lincoln national attention for key issues within the HBCU landscape without the help of a football team or membership in a black college athletic conference, without a prominent black legislative advocacy system at state or federal levels, and in a reality where most HBCU advocates nationwide wouldn’t mention the university if asked to name the first 20 HBCUs they could think of.
Some HBCU presidents have been criticized for big travel bills and few deliverables. Former University of the District of Columbia President Allen Sessoms was fired in 2012, in part, for regularly upgrading travel and accommodations to pricey levels.
Between 2010 and 2014, Morgan State President David Wilson spent more than $218,000 in conference and meeting travel, to include more than $24,000 from money donated to the university’s foundation in support of student scholarships.
MSU’s Board of Regents moved to fire Dr. Wilson in 2012, but rescinded the decision after public disapproval and signed him to an “indefinite appointment” in 2014 which stipulates at-will employment and flexible terms of removal.
Enrollment can decline, fundraising can drop and policies can disrupt institutional progress if a president never leaves his desk, or if he never sets pen to paper upon it. Travel may seem to be a life filled with perks and new places for presidents, but HBCUs cannot grow without attempting to build relationships and support networks domestically and globally.
HBCU stakeholders may be used to the 20th century concept of a president being an ever-present figure on campus, but in 21st century higher education, a president who isn’t traveling and bringing success back to his campus, is a campus community being quickly left behind.