Looking forward to the start of my presidency at Bethune-Cookman University, I have thoughts to share on three fronts: our immediate challenge, what defines us, and where we go next as a University (what I call our “North Star”).
The immediate challenge is our financial governance – and active management of this issue will primarily drive our reaccreditation process. Though my term officially starts in July, I am already at work with our new chief financial officer, trustees and other stakeholders to develop recovery plans.
The path forward will not be an easy one. Our institution’s situation requires fierce urgency and clear-eyed action by trustees, leadership, faculty, and staff. Successfully navigating our reaccreditation will require a well-coordinated, disciplined and sustained effort.
At the same time, let us not lose sight of what defines us. We continue to be a great university, guided by faith and rooted in a history that teaches us that even the most daunting challenges can be overcome. We continue to rack up admirable accomplishments. We continue to offer a uniquely powerful education. We continue to have the privilege of serving extraordinary students.
So, let’s not just fix our problems; let’s create our future. Our “North Star” will be our students and the kind of experience we can provide them that will elevate both our university and their success. We will be a global model of student development for the 21st Century by putting our financial house in order and focusing on the student experience.
These challenges and opportunities demand high-integrity, ethical, forward-thinking and disciplined leadership, and service. That is what you will receive from me. And that is what I will expect at all levels.
It is time to move forward.
Financial recovery and stewardship
With our new CFO now in place, we have begun the necessary work of reviewing, revising, and creating, where necessary, internal controls. This is especially critical in the areas that enabled the current financial crisis to occur.
In addition, we are restoring accountability across the board. Negative trends in student receivables, for example, are being addressed by the implementation of protocols to manage student debt. The University has also taken steps to reduce recurring expenditures. This will be an ongoing effort.
We are also building reserves into each budget. These reserves will be set aside in fall and spring semesters to cover anticipated revenue shortfalls each summer and allow for unforeseen circumstances throughout the year.
Finally, we are working with our bond-holders in an attempt to restructure the University’s debt obligations.
Moving forward, we are committed to increasing enrollment by strengthening the academic enterprise, raising top-line resources through advancement efforts, and leveraging our enterprise assets such as athletics and the Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center.
What defines Us
As we continue our recovery and head to the future, it is valuable to look around and see what truly defines us right now.
What defines Bethune-Cookman is the commitment of our faculty and the drive of our students.
For example, think of the twelve students from the B-CU Robotics Club in the College of Science, Engineering and Mathematics who recently traveled to Huntsville, Alabama, to compete in the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers SoutheastCon Robotics Competition. Our students placed 10th out of 44 participating schools.
What defines us is that the National Science Foundation awarded B-CU with a $939,000 grant for developing effective mathematical science teachers for high-need schools, under the direction of Drs. Masood Poorandi, Allen Pelley, Hector Tores and Mrs. Lawana Walden. Similarly, under the leadership of Dr. Danyell Wilson-Howard, the National Institutes of Health awarded $200,000 for a patient-centered intervention using virtual technology to reduce colorectal cancer disparities in primary care.
We’re also defined by B-CU students who won the 2019 HBCU National Speech and Debate Tournament held at Tennessee State University. The winning students, Ashlyn Denson, Melnetra Williams, LaVencia Walker and Terreka Streeter, like our thousands of other students and faculty members, are what defines Bethune-Cookman University.
Continuing with the theme of “winning,” I’m inspired by our student-athletes like Yudika Rodriguez, Dominic Harper and Carlin Berryhill (to name a few) who compete and win, despite profound resource constraints. There are other vital nuances to our competitive spirit that define us; chief among them is how we serve.
Our “North Star”
“Five little girls and $1.50” is more than a slogan. This refrain reflects the grit, fearlessness and the fortitude that has been central to B-CU’s character for 114 years. It also serves as a reminder that while talent and potential are commonplace, access and opportunity are not. B-CU and institutions like ours provide the essential platform from which students can seize the mantle of success.
B-CU’s history is inspiring. While I was initially attracted to this community as a result of its rich heritage, what ultimately brought me to B-CU were the students. Their strength, resilience, passion, creativity, and talent are extraordinary. I consider it a great privilege to serve them.
I also appreciate both the potential and the needs that students bring to Bethune-Cookman. Their success, like my own, is often not defined by a linear and consistently upward-sloping developmental trajectory. Their stories are often involved.
We can do more
As a result, B-CU’s institutional structure, in alignment with our academic and curricular portfolio, must be recalibrated. We can do more to ensure the exceptional long-term success of our graduates.
Toward this end, our priority will be to restructure and strengthen our academic enterprise. We will “up our game” in how we prepare students for lives of passion and purpose.
Our “North Star” will be the creation of a student experience that delivers the vitality, dynamism and the entrepreneurial creativity inherent in the world in which our graduates will ultimately live and compete. We will display a visible and enduring commitment to creating an academic infrastructure that is externally focused. It will be student- and future-oriented. As a result, our enhanced academic enterprise will develop the competencies that will make our graduates exceptional value-creators.
Our students need to be connected to the demands of the marketplace. There are a requisite of fluencies necessary for success. Some of these fluencies or skills are more intuitively developed in an academic environment: Critical thinking capabilities, technical competencies and the ability to discern come to mind. These are mostly ubiquitous among college graduates.
The truly differentiating characteristics – what I refer to as “adaptive capacities” – reflect what have been traditionally called “soft skills.” There is nothing ‘soft’ about them. The abilities to self-narrate, self-reflect, solve problems and communicate are essential.
These muscles are best developed and strengthened in experiential or action-based settings, in partnerships between the faculty and external partners such as businesses, government agencies and nonprofits. Our academic structure and portfolio must be recalibrated accordingly.
There are no easy answers to our financial challenges and no simple path to innovating our academic enterprise. I know of no magic bullets or convenient shortcuts. What I do know is that B-CU is the keeper of the hopes and aspirations of our students and they deserve the very best we have to offer. I also know that the work will be as rewarding as it is challenging.
The change our situation demands is highly consequential. I appreciate that we operate within a long, rich and storied history. I honor that history and take my stewardship of it as a solemn duty and honor.
I also understand that some of us – with the very best of intentions – may be wedded to elements of that history that could hold us back. However, we can maintain fidelity to our past while simultaneously positioning the institution for a future that demands a novel approach. That is what we must do. We owe this to our students and faculty as well as to our alumni and external communities.
B-CU’s story is a continuing one; it is not exclusively something that happened in the past. Our present and our future build on that bold past. The legacy of B-CU is still being written and we must adapt to succeed.
I look forward to working with each of you in this most important, and fulfilling, of endeavors.
E. LaBrent Chrite, Ph.D., is the incoming president of Bethune-Cookman University.