As we prepare to complete the spring semester, we will likely see a wave of leadership transitions at our nation’s HBCUs. Many of us will probably say, “Here we go again.” Last week, while at NASPA’s 100th Annual National Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I presented on a topic entitled “HBCU Presidential Transitions: The Impact on Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.” It sparked a much-needed conversation on an under-discussed issue.
The research on HBCUs often motivates discussions of HBCU presidents and boards and what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but the literature is strangely silent on the impact of these HBCU presidential transitions on the determination of institutional success and the success of professionals who carry out day-to-day operations.
Transitions are inevitable; some presidents leave to pursue other aspirations. However, as Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, wrote in an article published in the HBCU Digest, “For the past decade, I have kept a running log of HBCU presidential transitions…there is a lot of turnover at the top of HBCUs. Between 2010 and 2016, there have been an average of 11 new presidents each year for the 78 four-year HBCUs, with the high point being 15 in 2015.”
As presidents leave, so do the vice presidents of student affairs, vice presidents of enrollment management, and so on. Dr. Kimbrough, in that same article, cited the 2017 American College President Report, which notes that the average tenure of college presidents in 2016 was 6.5 years. Dr. Kimbrough noted, “I looked specifically at presidents hired in my three time periods (2010–14, 2004–09, and 2000–04). For the 49 HBCU presidents hired between 2010 and 2014, the average tenure was only 3.3 years (the maximum for anyone in this group would have been seven years).”
Student affairs and enrollment management…remember them? This division encompasses a broad range of programs and services affecting each student from the time he or she first considers college until and beyond graduation. Student affairs, in conjunction with academic affairs, structurally supports a holistic approach and unwavering focus on student success, resulting in impactful initiatives that recruit, retain, and graduate students and foster career success.
Student affairs leaders focus on the whole student and attend to the forces and factors—other than academic performance—that impact a student’s ability to enroll, persist, thrive, and graduate. Student affairs professionals understand issues of access, academic support, personal health, safety, wellness, childcare, campus climate for students of diverse backgrounds, and other issues that can impact the student’s experience.
These professionals deal intimately with the aftermath of student death and lead in simulations of campus crisis scenarios like active shooter drills, viral outbreak or natural disaster. They spend hours on the phone with demanding parents and are deeply involved in the nuances of a Title IX investigation or an Office of Civil Rights visit to the campus.
HBCU presidential turnover, and the impact it creates for student affairs and enrollment management demands for boards to carefully consider the full spectrum of outcomes for hiring and firing a president. Our schools will continue to struggle with graduation and retention rates if we limit or redirect working approaches to retention and persistence. These are the factors which are most responsible for a college’s primary and ancillary revenue sources, such as housing and dining.
Boards have a tough job in managing executive transitions, and I believe they are earnestly trying to do the right thing. I am just not convinced that they understand how everything can go wrong for an extended period of time, with just one firing.
Emmanuel Lalande is the vice president for enrollment management at Benedict College.