There has been a lot of controversies lately about presidential appointments at historically black colleges and universities. And rightfully so; a president is charged with shaping the identity of institutional standards for fundraising, academic and capital development, legislative lobbying and community outreach for those years which cover his or her service, and the years following.
Some institutions have underlying cultures steeped in tradition, politics or the legacies of past leaders. Some have personalities likely to embrace the potential of an unconventional leader for the campus; a woman, a non-academic, or one who is not an alumnus or a native of the state or region.
All are different, but a robust search process allows campuses of varying traditions and personalities to more effectively search for a president, and to better pair the style and personality of a candidate with its surrounding community.
When this doesn’t happen, because of political or cultural reasons, I cringe because there is a near certainty that the presidency will struggle to find success. The president will enter without familiarity with the campus, and the campus will have no established connection with the new leader.
And even in the case of a popular interim or a preferred candidate who has the affection of stakeholder groups, boards should reserve the right to purge possibility in the search for the best long-term fit for a campus.
That is why I am ecstatic to see that Kentucky State University is going against a frightening trend among HBCUs where leaders are retained or appointed without the benefit of a comprehensive search. Six historically black institutions in the last two years have selected presidents without the benefit of a search, and while I hope for and anticipate that each of them will be successful, their tenures each began with internal distrust and doubt from invaluable stakeholders when they did not have to.
Kentucky State is avoiding the prospect of political drama through its use of an independent firm and the publishing of its final recommendation of candidates. Some local coverage in Frankfort has depicted the search as a source of contention for alumni and faculty, but as an advocate working on behalf of KSU and 46 other public HBCUs, I believe that this process has, unlike others conducted at peer institutions, been managed free of legislative influence and political pressure.
This is important for the state of Kentucky, which has in recent weeks drawn criticism for the role of state legislators in the management of its public institutions. How refreshing it is to see that, while lawmakers are working out the kinks of how it can most efficiently oversee higher education and the price tag which accompanies it, KSU is operating with the autonomy and governance prerogative it deserves and has earned in long service to the state and its citizens.
Some may question the qualifications or past records of the finalists. But having reviewed the list, it is not difficult to see that officials have done a remarkable job of creating a pool with experience, personal brand resonance and a commitment to brand excellence in the HBCU sector.
Kentucky State has a chance to demonstrate the effectiveness and necessity of traditional executive searches for HBCUs. They are not high schools subject to popularity contests or political agendas; they are living institutions with the demonstrated capacity to change lives and industries.
I applaud the board, lawmakers and advocates who support the work of KSU in leading this critically important task.