When executive leadership turns over at an institution of higher education, context matters. In some instances, executives who’ve served long tenures retire with preparations made and accreditation, financial solvency, and steady enrollment all neatly packaged to deliver to the next CEO. When that next executive emerges, the product of a dutiful national search involving boards, alumni, and key stakeholders, institutions continue to enjoy the responsible and predictable growth that serves the educational and employment needs of students, faculty, staff, and the economic needs of the region.
However, when executives depart (or, are removed) suddenly, campuses are thrown into states of sometimes debilitating shock and paralysis, theoretically jolting the confidence of investors, potential and continuing students, and the educational community. Continuing discussions regarding negative perceptions of high executive turnover threaten to subsume the successes of many HBCUs and their leaders. This also throws into jeopardy the continued growth and development of executive pipelines promoted by leadership institutes such as the Executive Leadership Summit at Hampton University and the Higher Education Leadership Foundation.
Make no mistake about it, there is much to laud about the successes at many HBCUs. Recent awardees and finalists featured at the most recent HBCU Digest Awards such as President Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn, President Roslyn Clark Artis of Benedict, Virginia State University, and many other students, faculty, staff, student and research programs received recognition for their successes this past year. Additionally, HBCUs made big splashes nationally, from Howard University’s high profile investigation and resolution of student discord—leading to a 9-day sit-in—regarding a heavily-reported financial aid scandal, to HBCU leaders at Delaware State and Alcorn State being tapped to lead the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Education respectively.
Meanwhile, Louisiana hired a Southern University alumnus to lead its Board of Regents/Commission on Higher Education. HBCU alumni dominated the entertainment landscape, as Howard University alumnus Chadwick Boseman thrilled audiences in “Black Panther,” Tennessee State University Alumnus Oprah Winfrey was courted publicly as a 2020 presidential candidate, and the kid from “Black-ish” chose Howard over Stanford (albeit controversially). HBCU alumni featured prominently in discussions of national electoral and domestic politics, including Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Cedric Richmond, and former Assistant to the President Omarosa Manigault. Reports lauding the comparative success of HBCUs in preparing African-Americans for graduation success than better-resourced PWIs and the significant economic contributions of HBCU’s to regional economies, coupled with increased investment and debt forgiveness from the federal government to paint an increasingly rosier picture entering 2018-19.
However, for the fifth consecutive year over 25% of HBCUs will enter 2018-19 either with a new leader at the helm, or, continuing the search for a new leader (see reports from 2016, 2017, 2017). While a 2017 American Council on Education study showed that presidential tenures are decreasing in length (from an average of 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2016), few HBCUs can lay claim to a president or chancellor who has served for 6.5 years. The realities facing American higher education at the moment—the expectation that states will continue decreasing educational subsidies while state and federal governments propose more and more measures tied to performance—mean that the stakes are higher, and the pedestal less comfortable than ever before for HBCU executives. Additionally,
I’ve written in previous years about the concomitant effects of HBCU executive turnover, namely, that it impacts cabinet members and department heads’ careers as well, making recruitment for these crucial on-campus positions increasingly difficult. Finally, given the length of time it takes to cultivate and develop relationships with alumni, legislators, and stakeholders each time a new leader takes the helm (especially if other key campus figures depart in the wake), institutions often have to hit reset on the pursuit of their growth trajectories as new leaders enculturate and begin their tenures.
This is not to suggest that long-tenured leaders are guaranteed continued success and that new executives are imperiled, certainly (in fact, for three consecutive years, first-year leaders at their institutions won “President of the Year” awards from HBCU Digest four times). However, trends are always worth continuing to observe to determine what, if any, relationships there are between duration of executive tenures and growth and success at HBCUs. While five of the eight HBCUs that were placed on accreditation warning or probation in 2017-18 experienced leadership turnover in the past 12 months, only one of the four HBCUs receiving NCAA post-season bans in 2018-19 experienced leadership turnover, and their four presidents have served an average of five years.
Regardless of the outcome, on average, 28 HBCU’s each year since 2013-14 have either accepted the resignation of or terminated a presidency, or, welcomed a new president. Of the 106 HBCUs, 71 have turned over the CEO position in the past five years, or nearly 67%, and many have done so more than once. By comparison to other sectors, the Ivy League has only replaced one of its eight presidents in the last five years, and their average presidential tenure is eight years. Meanwhile, in the Big Ten, featuring several of America’s premier public research universities, only three presidents have been replaced since 2014, and their presidents have enjoyed average tenures of over five years.
HBCUs continue to pursue the success and growth that generally emerge from the relationships engendered by stable campus leadership with new leaders at the helm. All HBCU executives will need support, whether they’re entering year one or year 40, and at many of these institutions, success cannot wait another minute—let alone another year.
2017-2018 HBCU Executive Transactions: 31 at 27 institutions
Alabama State: New President Quinton Scott
Alcorn State: President Alfred Rankin (resigned)
Albany State University: President Art Dunning (resigned)
Benedict College: New President Roslyn Clark Artis
Bennett College: New President Phyllis Dawkins
Bethune-Cookman College: President Edison O. Jackson (resigned)
Cheyney University: New President Aaron Walton
Clinton College: Elaine Johnson Copeland (placed on leave)/Lester McCorn (Acting President)
Delaware State University: President Harry Williams (resigned)
Delaware State University: New President Wilma Mishoe
Edward Waters College: President Nathaniel Glover (resigned)
Edward Waters College: New President A. Zachary Faison
Elizabeth City State University: Chancellor Thomas Conway (resigned)
Florida A&M University: New President Larry Robinson (promoted from interim)
Florida Memorial University: President Roslyn Clark Artis (resigned)
Johnson C. Smith University: New President Clarence Armbrister
Knoxville College: New President Keith Lindsey
Lincoln University (Mo.): New President Jerald Woolfolk
Morehouse College: New President David Thomas
Mississippi Valley: New President Jeryl Briggs
Morris College: New President Leroy Staggers
Norfolk State University: President Eddie Moore (resigned)
Prairie View: New President Ruth Simmons (promoted from interim)
Shaw University: President Tashni Dubroy (resigned)
Tuskegee University: New President Lily McNair
University of Maryland Eastern Shore: President Juliette Bell (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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