December 5, 2023

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Presidential turnover at historically black colleges and universities spiked in 2023, with institutional leaders leaving through resignation, early retirement or outright termination at both small and large HBCUs.

This problem is not necessarily unique among HBCUs, as it has been with college presidents shortened in recent years, Felecia Commodore, a professor at Old Dominion University with experience in HBCU leadership, administration and administrative practices, he said in an email.

However, the numbers at HBCUs are staggering.

As of 2022, more than 20 HBCU presidencies have become vacant due to retirements, resignations, or involuntary resignations. This resulted in nearly one-quarter of HBCUs being led by interim, incumbent, or retiring presidents, Terrell Strayhorn, director of Virginia Union University’s Center for HBCU Studies, he said in an email.

The turnover includes presidents of public HBCUs such as Prairie View A&M Universityin Texas; Texas Southern University; and Jackson State University, in Mississippi. It also includes smaller private colleges like Tougaloo College, in Mississippi, Rust College, in Mississippi; and LeMoyne-Owen Collegein Tennessee.

The departures at HBCUs are uniquely different but have important commonalities, such as women leaving many of these positions and leaders having strained relationships with their boards, experts said.

The large number of vacancies is “relatively worrying”, Strayhorn saidbut they could also represent opportunities for an exciting future in which new entrepreneurial, diverse and student-centered leaders “create new possibilities for the future of America’s black colleges,” he said.

Rising departures, increasing demands

Waves of presidential departures hit HBCUs every few years, said Sydney Freeman Jr., a University of Idaho professor who studies HBCUs and the future of minority-serving institutions. But because HBCUs are historically underfunded and underserved, the transition and changes in leadership can be “very disruptive to our institutions for continuity,” he said.

In general, institutions with frequent rotations of several presidencies — over five to seven years — are worrisome, the Commodore said.

“Institutions need stability in leadership to facilitate successful strategic planning, relationship building and fostering success,” she said. “While it is also unhealthy to keep bad leadership at the helm for an extended period of time, where there is constant presidential turnover for no apparent reason, concerns should be raised.”

The past year has seen an increase in presidential departures at HBCUs.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer than five HBCU presidential openings, Strayhorn he said. But the exit rate in 2023 is “remarkably high,” he said, with more than a dozen since March.

Departures also occurred earlier than expected, with the average tenure of recently departed presidents at 2.1 years — half the usual four- to five-year contract extended to HBCU presidents. Strayhorn said.

Challenging work becomes more challenging

The most interesting aspect of the current trend is Freeman he said many of the outgoing presidents are women.

Lesia Crumpton-Young at Texas Southern, Carmen Walters at Tougaloo, Vernell Bennett-Fairs In LeMoyne-Owen and Felecia Nave v Alcorn State University she is among the departing women.

It is not always clear why these women leave.

When Crumpton-Young resigned in May, she said in a statement that she was leaving to “elevate HBCUs to a larger national stage.” Texas Southern’s board chairman said members unanimously agreed to her request to retire, but declined to comment further on the matter to The Texas Tribune.

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