HBCU presidency trends demand attention


Since this spring, ten HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have announced new presidents, and of this writing, another 14 are looking for presidents.

Many people have pontificated on the whys of this instability, but I will identify some trends and important markers that might help to illuminate a pathway for stability at the top for the nation’s HBCUs.

Keeping track
For the past decade, I have kept a running log of HBCU presidential transitions. I note the new person, their age, and previous position, as well as their start time. That practice has quantified a widely-known fact: There is a lot of turnover at the top of HBCUs.

Between 2010 and 2016, there have been an average of 11 new presidents each year for the 78 four-year HBCUs, with the high point being 15 in 2015.

But I thought to take a different look this year based on two things. First, the American Council on Education released its periodic American College President Study. HBCUs are included, but are not presented separately. So I thought it might be interesting to compare some of the findings with HBCUs.

Second is the number of high-profile changes this year. Since 2015, six sitting presidents (of any type of institution) have moved to lead an HBCU. In the past few months we’ve seen rising stars leave Lincoln of Missouri, Mississippi Valley State and Florida Memorial to lead other institutions, and most recently another rising star announces that they will take their talents to form a “super team” at Howard University as the chief operating officer.

These six “free agent” presidents (otherwise known as sitting presidents) over the past three years is a high number. Between 2004 and 2009 there were eight, and between 2010 and 2014 there were only three.

What I found
I decided to look closely at the data to understand the changing nature of the HBCU presidency.

Here are some of the findings.

Just like all presidencies, HBCU presidencies are shortening. The 2017 American College President report states that the average tenure of college presidents in 2016 was 6.5 years, down from 7 in 2011 and 8.5 in 2016

I looked specifically at presidents hired in my three time periods (2010-14, 2004-09, and 2000-04). For the 49 HBCU presidents hired between 2010 and 2014, the average tenure was only 3.3 years (the maximum for anyone in this group would have been seven years).

When I cap the maximum length at seven years, the average tenure of the 53 HBCU presidents hired between 2005 and 2009 was 4.1 years, and for the 32 hired between 2000 and 2004, 4.3 years. Not only has the tenure decreased, predictably the number of new presidents increased.

The instability is highlighted by the percentage of presidents in each group still in that role at the end of a seven-year period. For the 2000-04 and 2005-2009 periods, 72 percent of presidents hired were still in office. For the 2010-14 period, ending in June 2017, only 43 percent of those selected during this time were in office.

However, there is a lack of women who enjoy tenures greater than 15 years. Presently, Dr. Beverly Hogan at Tugaloo College is the longest-serving woman HBCU president, completing 15 years. By comparison, Dr. Luns Richardson just retired as president of Morris College after more than 40 years, and Dr. William Harvey at Hampton is about to enter his 40th.

Experience is valued for hiring. Similar to the ACE study where 24 percent of presidents held the same position prior to the present one, during these three time periods between 22 and 28 percent of presidents came into the position from a presidency. The ACE report suggests colleges and universities prefer previous experience, and in this study over all three time periods at least 39 percent of hires had presidential experience.

As indicated, recent hires of sitting presidents over the past three years is at a higher rate than any of the three time periods examined. And for the most part, rising stars with young families have been lured away to more urban areas and stronger institutions.

This is a signal for boards at small schools and/or in small cities or rural areas that they should develop strategies to keep strong leaders in what might not be the most attractive places for a new generation of leader.

Ill-fitting presidents and boards. George Washington University President Emeritus Dr. Stephen Trachtenberg has an excellent book entitled “Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It.”  He generally defines a failed presidency as one that does not enter a second contract.

Since the average first contract is three years, looking at the three time periods there is a startling trend that must be reversed.

Sixteen percent of HBCU presidents hired between 2000 and 2004 left after three years (for all cases I included those who may have been lured away as well). That number jumps to 23 percent for those hired between 2005 and 2009, and then it skyrockets to 50 percent for those hired between 2010 and 2014.

Since 2000, of the 134 people hired to permanently lead an HBCU, 46 schools hired more than one. Alabama State, Fort Valley State and Bennett each hired four between 2000 and 2014. Fort Valley hired its fifth in 2016, Bennett hired its fifth last week, and Alabama State is currently searching for its fifth. All three have different governing structures, which indicates the dysfunction isn’t limited to one model. (These numbers do not include interim and acting presidents.)

Alcorn State, Edward Waters, Florida A&M, Fisk, Florida Memorial, Paul Quinn, South Carolina State, and Wilberforce all hired three during this time. Since then, Fisk, South Carolina State and Wilberforce have hired a fourth, and FAMU is searching for its fourth.

HBCU board selection of presidents continues to be one of the greatest weaknesses of this sector, and until it is corrected the instability will threaten more institutions.

A gender gap remains, but tenures are similar. The ACE report indicates that the percentage of women presidents increased from 26 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2016. Of HBCU presidents hired between 2000 and 2004, 34 percent were women. That number falls to 17 percent from 2005-09, and then rises to 34 percent from 2010-14. Since 2015, 32 percent of the presidents hired have been women as of June 2017.

In terms of tenure, women presidents hired between 2010-14 had tenures averaging 3.2 years (men were 3.3), those hired between 2005-09 had tenures averaging 4.7 years (4.0 for men), and those hired between 2000-04 averaged 3.5 years (versus a comparatively long 4.7 for men). Since 2005, women have enjoyed comparable if not longer tenures than their male counterparts.

What many have seen occurring in the HBCU community is not an illusion. Just like all presidencies, HBCU presidencies are shortening, exacerbated by problematic board governance practices. Stability is generally provided by seasoned leaders, but those leaders have options to select optimal institutional fit and are not hesitant to leave for a better situation.

Time for a summit
We need the major HBCU advocacy groups to come together soon for an HBCU governance summit. Every HBCU would send a board member, especially a chair or someone in line to be chair, to review the data on the state of HBCUs, the HBCU presidency, and strategies to stabilize the sector.

The data presented here should serve as an impetus about the real need for this kind of session for many more HBCUs to thrive. Avoiding this type of convening is not an option.

Walter M. Kimbrough is the seventh president of Dillard University in New Orleans, La. His commentary was originally posted on HBCU Digest (www.hbcudigest.com).


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