“All these interims! Every year I come back (to the Florida Classic) and y’all (Bethune-Cookman) got another interim. The least y’all can do if y’all gonna keep naming all these interims is name the same person every time!” — FAMU Interim President Dr. Larry Robinson, lampooning FAMU’s troubling executive leadership turnover in good jest, and referring to his being named interim president for the third time in 2017 in remarks at the Florida Football Classic Kickoff Luncheon, Nov. 17, 2017
Since 2015 (2016 report; 2017 report), I’ve researched and written about the causes and effects of turnover in HBCU executive positions (chancellors and presidents), and on the fallout (see “Unseen casualties of HBCU executive departures”) that inevitably ensues at these institutions so repeatedly hitting the reset button on its operations and objectives. The negative impacts are predictable as faculty, staff, and students desperate for stability in leadership and alumni wanting to rally support for institutions so often have their aspirations dashed, as any precious momentum that is built can so quickly be erased when institutional executives depart.
The high turnover, as I’ve previously written, is due to many existential threats to this sector of higher education, as executives move on their own accord to positions deemed more stable or that offer more money, or, as frequently, due to terminations and forced resignations because of legislative chicanery or board-advanced ousting. Whatever the case, the numbers do not lie, and each time a campus either terminates or accepts the resignation of an executive or welcomes a replacement, new relationships must be brokered with alumni and supporters fatigued from seemingly chronic executive onboarding. Incumbent campus leaders and directors are chilled by the prospect (and often, assurance) that they will be replaced by the new executive’s hand-picked leaders and directors, and students and faculty are left to wonder about how the new executive’s focus will directly impact their budgets, support, and aspirations for success.
Even though the trend in higher education is toward shorter presidential tenures (seven years on average) and higher turnover than in previous decades (about 25% annually) it appears that HBCUs are ahead of that accelerating trend (quickly, think of your alma mater or of the nearest geographical HBCU. Has its leader been at the helm seven years? Five? More than three?). And any negative consequences associated with such high turnover exposes many already struggling institutions to further potential harm.
Though HBCUs are known historically for their grit, determination, and resilience, one wonders how much longer we can continue testing the tensile strength of each category, especially with unforced errors in this category such as the appointment of candidates lacking credentials, proper vetting, or installed via legislative maneuvering that doesn’t carefully take each campus’ needs into careful consideration. This is especially crucial considering the number of institutions facing accreditation loss, probation, or warning publicly and facing enrollment declines and financial and resource woes quietly.
At the mid-year mark, HBCU executive leadership turnover is on trend with the last two tumultuous years, with 18 different announcements (affecting 16 different campuses) of campus executives either resigning, being terminated, or being welcomed to an HBCU campus. This follows 35 such announcements in 2015-16, and 37 announcements impacting 35 campuses in 2016-17. In each instance, often involving an interim president or chancellor simply holding together the works in between transitions, hopes for brighter futures abound.
However, given the multiple appearances of several campuses on this list in only the past two and a half years, one wonders how much of that hope springs eternally, and how much of it is hoping against itself.
2017-2018 HBCU Executive Transactions as of 12/13/2017: 18 at 16 institutions
Alabama State: New President Quinton Ross
Albany State University: President Art Dunning (resigned)
Benedict College: New President Roslyn Clark Artis
Bennett College: New President Phyllis Dawkins
Cheyney University: New President Aaron Walton
Delaware State University: President Harry Williams (resigned)
Edward Waters College: President Nathaniel Glover (resigned)
Florida A&M University: New President Larry Robinson
Florida Memorial University: President Roslyn Clark Artis (resigned)
Johnson C. Smith University: New President Clarence Armbrister
Morehouse College: New President David Thomas
Norfolk State University: President Eddie Moore (resigned)
Shaw University: President Tashni Dubroy (resigned)
Virginia Union University: New President Hakim Lucas
Wilberforce University: President Herman Felton (resigned)
Wilberforce University: New President Elfred Anthony Pinkard
Wiley College: President Haywood Strickland (resigned)
Wiley College: New President Herman Felton
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