The following is an editorial written by a sitting president of a historically black institution. The identity of the writer is protected to reduce the potential of retaliation and to provide valuable perspective on executive personnel management at HBCUs.
I am frequently solicited by aspiring HBCU leaders and by those desiring to work in and/or lead an HBCU. Very often, these conversations begin with “it has always been my dream to work at an HBCU.” But more often than I care to admit, when I ask questions about educational preparation and work experience, there is seldom anything to suggest that the individual has the knowledge, skill or experience to make a meaningful contribution to the institutions they desire to serve or lead.
Why do we presume that we should be given a position that we have not earned or worse, are not qualified for, at an HBCU? There seems to be an assumption that the skill set and expectations are less stringent at historically black colleges, or worse, that their students don’t deserve the same caliber of staff and faculty that predominantly white peer institutions would require.
To be clear, I am not saying that an individual that does not have experience in a position need not apply for the position. Many applicants in many industries seek progressively higher positions for which they have no direct experience. That’s the nature of professional advancement; there is a first time for everything and every position.
However, a professional background should demonstrate certain tangible, measurable skills that fit the requirements of the job. Desire is simply not enough. Our institutions must have employees and leaders who are skilled and capable if we are to be successful. The margin for error is extremely narrow for our HBCUs. Gone are the days that simply loving the school, having attended an HBCU or simply desiring to work at an HBCU is enough. In short, the order of the day is what you know and can do, as opposed to who you know or are related to.
Our HBCUs deserve the best and their students are depending on leaders to provide it. Before applying for a job at an HBCU, applicants should conduct an honest self-assessment. Do their work experience and educational preparation meet the minimum requirements for the job? Would those experiences allow for meaningful contributions to the institution? Is this a job where giving more than the job requires is a benefit beyond what the job provides in salary or title? Most importantly, would these skills and experiences be enough to be hired at a predominantly white institution?
These are questions not only for applicants to answer but for stakeholders who want to help friends, relatives, and peers secure jobs at HBCUs. We are beyond the days where board members, presidents, and alumni can leverage influence over the university for job placement in critical areas of operation or instruction. If applicants can respond affirmatively to the above questions, then they should apply and prepare for the interview process.
If they cannot meet these requirements, then stakeholders should not force the issue and place an institution in peril by impeding efficiency, creating cultural disruption or jeopardizing its compliance efforts. HBCUs should not be soft targets for personal favors or places to find easy work; they are wonderful, extraordinarily meaningful institutions that anchor communities and make their students and graduates anchors in their families and industries.
As we go about this important work, I am constantly on the lookout for passionate, mission-driven, talent to supplement and enhance our staff, faculty and administrative team. HBCUs are special places and the people who commit themselves to labor in their vineyards have an obligation to prepare themselves for the intensity of the environment and to make a meaningful contribution. These fragile institutions can scarcely afford to employ unqualified staff and faculty whose capacity doesn’t match up to their commitment.
HBCUs need and deserve our most talented and committed people, who see these schools beyond a paycheck and benefits, or as little more than a rung on the professional ladder. Applicants and their supporters should not sell themselves or our institutions short; we need people who have put in the work to be great and who are looking to make themselves greater for the benefit of our students and our unique missions.