Two HBCU boards and their presidents are approaching public controversy in very different ways, and we can sum up their direction through excerpts from two letters the campuses have released in recent weeks.
Many of President Frederick’s accomplishments are already steadily moving the university forward, including efforts to revitalize academic offerings and develop support programs that aid students in pursuing internationally competitive scholarships. Recently, a Howard University student was selected as a recipient of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, a direct result of these efforts. Enrollment management strategies are continuously being evaluated, resulting in an overall increase in the academic credentials of students while also adhering to our mission and values. We are seeing an emphasis on the modernization of buildings on campus, a key element to attracting top talent and nurturing student achievement. Efforts to leverage real-estate and other underutilized university assets are a priority. This emphasis on academic excellence and modernization affirms our strong reputation and is in keeping with Howard tradition of educating the next generation of leaders.
The University continues to successfully navigate challenging financial circumstances. Under Dr. Frederick’s leadership Howard’s finances have been stabilized and a culture of accountability is being championed. Howard University Hospital is no longer recording a loss, but is profitable for the first time in recent years. Efforts across the enterprise have been made to increase resourcefulness, streamline and strengthen operations, and ultimately steady our financial outlook. This is no small task, and a testimony to the President and the leadership team he has put in place.
And then from Morehouse:
The various efforts being made to influence sentiment among the Morehouse community through the leaking of confidential documents and false reporting only serve to diminish our brand during one of the greatest times of celebration in the College’s history. More specifically, and even more troubling, is that inaccurate information and false claims have been shared publicly which allude to alleged reasons for the Board’s decision. While many of the facts surrounding the Board’s decision must remain confidential, it should be noted that the Morehouse Board of Trustees is filled with highly accomplished professionals who dedicate their time to Morehouse and work tirelessly to shape the college’s direction, no matter how difficult the course may be.
In January, the Board voted in an overwhelming majority to invest in a new future for Morehouse College. It is important to note that the Board’s decision was made after a long and comprehensive review process which weighed a myriad of factors beyond mere conflicts of personality. Further, certain members of the Board met with students, faculty and others to discuss the matter, and will be meeting with faculty again this week to continue discussing next steps in our transition process.
Howard trustees are working to provide details about Dr. Frederick’s successes, while Morehouse officials are hoping that students and alumni can read between the lines about Dr. Wilson leaking information to the media and mobilizing students and alumni to reverse the decision on his dismissal.
The issues at Howard University and Morehouse College are not questions of value or direction, but of leadership adjusting to new realities of finance, operations and media climate thriving amidst very distinct and conservative forms of HBCU tradition. One board is on track to diffuse a small group of dissenters with fact-based support, while another is playing zone defense against its own divided ranks, with faculty and staff following its lead.
These displays are a direct reflection of the presidents at the center of these controversies.
Howard has never been a campus where students and faculty stay quiet on its operational structure and executive agenda. There is no such thing as “no comment” or selective conversations with some students, some alumni and some faculty members. In our era of instant communication, you’re either talking to everyone or the perception becomes that you are hiding something from everyone.
Dr. Frederick, for all of his successes and his unlimited potential to lead Howard for years to come, must embrace the millennial Mecca and work hard to convince his board to do the same through its giving and its communication with key influencers.
Morehouse did not forget how to fire a president, and Dr. Wilson didn’t forget the Morehouse Way. Both have exchanged the ‘Mystique’ for mess; opting to oppose each other with subversive tactics which began with Dr. Wilson’s controversial hiring, his proclaimed power over the board during a Crown Forum, his one-year extension, the call for his firing, and his actual announced dismissal in January. These led to Dr. Wilson’s campaign to use media as a tool to threaten the school’s accreditation status and to show the board as weak and misguided on metrics of success.
Morehouse trustees created this monster with a lack of unity on removing Dr. Wilson years ago, and by boxing out students, faculty and alumni when they were able to secure the votes. Now they can’t figure out how to slay the beast, or why it has captured the attention of the media.
The traditions Howard and Morehouse used to reply upon for executive immunity and trust no longer exist. Everyone questions everything, and expects leaders to answer their questions in person, on Twitter and via Facebook Live. It is time for HBCU leaders to embrace new tactics and new practices about governance, and to understand that the more they dig in on maintaining outdated forms of executive communication and decision making, the greater the jeopardy for cultivating enrollment, philanthropic and corporate partners, and functional relationships with media.
Letters from the board, silence in the midst of protests and conspiracy theories, and disrupting executive decisions will no longer do. Boards must lead, not be led, by trends and politics; and when tough times require tough decisions, make them, hold a town hall meeting with students and faculty and get on with the business of preserving HBCU culture.
Anything less diminishes the culture and insults the intelligence of a community built on the notion of training minds and hearts for higher calling in scholarship and industry.
People in power who know better and do worse is the primary sign of politics at work. It’s time for people, not politics, to do the heavy lifting of running our campuses.