The most valuable lesson any college president can learn is that the board of trustees, even when dead wrong, is always right.
This is hard for new presidents to accept, especially when they figure out that the checklist that graduate school never taught them about, the one mentors tried to warn them about, exists.
- How many jobs are being requested of them for family and friends
- How many legislative moles are sitting among them
- How many contracts board members are trying to secure for family and friends
- How many feelings have been hurt because one or some of these requests weren’t honored
- How many votes for termination are in the room
It is not every trustee; when you think about it, there have only been a handful of HBCU boards embroiled in controversy over the last five years, mostly for lingering issues with politics and personnel.
- Alabama State University
- Florida A&M University
- Grambling State University
- Morgan State University
- South Carolina State University
These extreme cases earned national attention and were tied together with a common thread; increased college choices for students, new eligibility standards to get federal student loans, and cuts from federal and state funding that forced campuses to fall into further disrepair with limited personnel, technology and services to meet student need.
Those vulnerabilities increased the media scrutiny of university spending and management, introducing names like Joseph Silver, John Knight, Robert Bentley, Thomas Elzey, Nikki Haley, Rufus Montgomery, Rick Scott, David Wilson, Martin O’Malley, Dan Reneau and Bobby Jindal, to a nation of HBCU advocates and observers.
These are the key figures on the tragic tale of how boards became washed over by political interests, leaving behind them a trail of imperfections; punctuated by blatant displays of self-interest, contempt for presidential perspective, and increased loyalty to legislative and corporate overseers.
But is a culture of executive corruption and incompetence that shocking? Considering how boards are constructed, should nepotism and ego really surprise us?
How Boards Become Crooked
Appointment or election to a university board is seen as a status upgrade, a reward for excellence in the private sector, which in theory, should lead to economic and social clout for an institution. For most public colleges, board members are appointed by a governor. For private schools, members are elected by the body of membership.
For many, the notion of being chosen by the highest elected official in a state, or by a body of rich, influential people, is the beginning of the tainting process.
The insulation of selectivity breeds the board to become an elite social club, providing access to institutional contracts, free meals and event tickets, chances to be seen in the local newspaper, social promotion for a business or political aspirations, or hook-ups for friends and family members.
And that will never change, because just as trustees learn how to test the limits of membership privilege, those who appoint or protect them are usually making the calls to cash in on their voting power and operational influence.
The Signs of Board Crookedness
The signs of political influence on a board can be subtle, until they aren’t. Students and alumni can’t see that when a board votes for new construction, or to increase student admission standards, or to approve budget for new administrative positions, that some members are using those votes to flip service contracts for associates, anti-HBCU agenda-setting for a governor, or to help an undeserving president earn a few more years on campus to help with shadow governance on campus.
But the crookedness is there in plain sight. Unaffordable building loans turn into accreditation warnings and probation for financial insolvency. Misguided enrollment management turns into schools losing thousands of students and millions in revenue over years, or glaring lapses in campus improvement.
Willie Larkin is hired and forced to resign at Grambling State University president as its third president in as many years, following a tenure which didn’t last a year. Less than 24 hours after his resignation, Grambling alumnus Rick Gallot is floated as Larkin’s potential replacement, and hired weeks later by the University of Louisiana board as the school’s permanent selection.
Florida A&M is moving to place president Elmira Mangum on administrative leave, willing to pay her more than $380,000 a year for the next two years with a 12-month paid sabbatical included. The board is also willing to pay her moving expenses and some of her legal costs. She’ll be leaving partially because of some missteps in hiring and political navigation in the first year of her presidency, and mostly because she is disliked and has survived attempts to fire her, thanks to her achievements in fundraising and state-required institutional performance metrics.
Days after a body was discovered decomposing in an academic building, Morgan State University was ordered by a Baltimore City circuit court to pay a former student more than $900,000 in damages stemming from a 2012 shooting, the second during the fall semester that year and one of several on-campus incidents of gun violence, stabbing, or other attacks taking place on and around campus over the last six years. The violence, which continued in February with the fatal stabbing of a student at an off-campus apartment near the school and an alleged suicide in the same facility in July, serves as a backdrop to a university with board dysfunction, efforts from MSU President David Wilson to subvert a federal lawsuit between Morgan and other black colleges against the state of Maryland for maintaining an illegal ‘separate but equal’ system of higher education, and his improper and excessive use of the university’s foundation funds.
And then there was this at South Carolina State, the day former board member James Clark, whom had served at SCSU for a year, was named president without a formal search.
Wilson will stay, Mangum will leave, and both Clark and Gallot have the support of all key stakeholders throughout their respective states — this is the inevitable cycle of HBCU board leadership, which doesn’t have the money to cover its corruption, or concern to value discretion in its dealings.
The Path to Progress
These are just the most extreme examples, and the sad reality for tomorrow is that there will be no changes with these boards. They will continue to think and act like elected officials, free of the burden of campaigning or making promises they would actually have to keep to ensure future appointment. They are scripted, insulated and clear about to whom they must answer, and they are entirely clear that it is not students, alumni, or taxpayers — it is those whom can benefit most from their influence, those to whom they may be married, related by blood, or connected by political leverage, real or perceived.
The only way to beat them? Give up. Concede that board leadership means there will be no fair bidding for certain contracts. Understand that key appointments in certain faculty and staff positions will continue to be filled on credentials of relationship, not skill or fit.
Release the idea that we can change the culture, if we complain or protest enough against it. Because no matter how many boardrooms we crowd, no matter how much we say we aren’t going to give money until things change, and how clear it is that HBCU culture is dying because of board politics, we have no power to change it.
We do not vote them in, we do not sit in the closed sessions where the lion’s share of their destructive work is done, and we never catch them in the act until the damage is done. And more than that, we believe silence to be a fair exchange for the notion of us, black people, bringing down other black people in the name of institutions we love.
So the work of saving HBCUs must begin by working around the innate corruption and egotism of boards. We must ask our presidents and chancellors to be all-in with building relationships with board members, first by asking them what most benefits them, and then constructing institutional vision around those favors and personal agendas.
Boards can’t be defeated on debates about policy — they make and enforce the same, often to protect their own interests. The traditional way of asking presidents to lead and boards to support, doesn’t work. It cannot stand under the weight of politics, pride and posturing.
To beat corrupt boards, the unfortunate and only solution is to buy into corruption as an institutional reality, much like the rising costs of college or the funding disparities between black and white institutions.
That’s part of the benefit of being on a board. Even when dead wrong, members will always be right until they aren’t. And when they aren’t, it is usually too late to do anything about it.