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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.
Some departures shed more light than others. Minutes from a public board meeting show that the board of trustees overseeing Alcorn State University fired Nave “virtually immediately for the convenience of the board.” This was reported by Mississippi Today.
The board’s decision came two days after Nave interviewed for the chancellorship at Louisiana State University, Shreveport — a position she did not win.
“I think people are concerned that as we have the opportunity to have more female presidents in leadership, many of them are walking away from those roles,” Freeman said. “It’s important because they serve as role models for women.”
Declining or shrinking enrollments, inadequate facilities, vacancies in key positions, fiscal issues, and the loss of productive workers and staff were cited as problems at several institutions that experienced departures, Strayhorn he said.
“It is difficult to maintain expensive laboratories and dormitories or to manage deferred and delayed maintenance with limited funds,” he said Strayhorn.
Leading an HBCU can require a complex set of skills that are not readily available to everyone, he said Strayhorn. Chief among those skills are knowledge, experience and proven success in enrollment management, fundraising, fiscal and business acumen, communication, team and community building, entrepreneurial thinking and shared governance, he said.
In addition, the role of the president has become more difficult in recent years.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increased call for HBCU leaders with a deep understanding of crisis management, social media skills and the ability to increase revenue, he said.
And recent social movements against racial injustice, sexual assault, and Asian hatred have also led to an increase in HBCU boards and hiring committees seeking presidents with knowledge or experience in student development. Strayhorn he said.
Presidents also face scrutiny through social media, which can affect how people perceive their leadership and the institution as a whole, he said Freeman.
Generally in higher education, presidents tend to be older, often Baby Boomers or late Gen-X. They have to go through the social media learning curve, Freeman he said.
Also, in states like Florida and Texas, where lawmakers reject diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, as well as racial histories, presidents are trying to figure out what that means for their institutions.
“If you’re not sure if your state is going to support historically black colleges and universities the way they have in the past because of stifling diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, it becomes especially challenging.” Freeman he said. That can leave students, faculty, staff and alumni wondering who protects and speaks for the institution in times of turmoil, he said.
Historic underfunding of HBCUs presents another challenge for presidents who must operate on tight budgets, he said Freeman. Structurally, predominantly white institutions have more room to navigate the same challenges, he said Freeman.
Problems with the board
A number of recent departures have involved disputes between the outgoing president and the institution’s board of directors.
For example, Prairie View A&M University’s Ruth Simmons left her presidency earlier this year after falling out with the system’s board of regents.
Simmons, who had already planned to leave, pushed back her departure date after the chancellor’s office reportedly denied her access to high-level meetings. The system’s chancellor said this is standard policy for outgoing presidents, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Simmons he told the publication in April after her departure that the Texas A&M system neither shared her passion nor was capable of managing Prairie View’s affairs.
In general, higher education boards of trustees have recently made inroads into the day-to-day operations of institutions, he said Freeman. People who give money to institutions tasked with looking after their long-term well-being naturally tend to influence decisions — more so when money is tight, he said. This can cause conflict.
“When presidents feel they’re crippled and unable to make the decisions they think are best for the institution and they have tight budgets, in some ways it creates unsustainable situations,” he said. Freeman.
A deeper understanding of the composition, dynamics and decision-making processes and practices of HBCU and state-level boards is needed to truly understand presidential turns, he said. Commodore.
“The more we understand these areas, about which we often know next to nothing,” Commodore said, “I believe the more we can begin to think about how these institutions can get the support needed to ensure greater stability, health and success in recruiting and retaining exceptional HBCU presidential talent.”