When I began preparing this report five years ago, I was unprepared for how significant the turnover is for executives at HBCUs. Over the years, that trend has slowed, but not abated. I’ve learned how that not only impacts HBCUs prospects for growth, and the careers of those executives, but also that of the talent they recruit to their executive teams and those who comprise the middle management levels as they have to make routine adjustments to different leaders, expectations, and goals.
I also learned as I researched further, how this particularly impacts those who comprise the Black professoriate, leading them to seek opportunities at predominately white institutions when leadership is unstable, or, to leave the professoriate completely. I hoped, as this year began, that HBCUs would do more than ever to hold on their leaders, strive for consistency and stability, and recruit leaders who could take advantage of the opportunities that would arise as we emerge from the various crises presented by the last year.
A pandemic that resulted in the loss of millions of lives worldwide and over 600,000 in the United States caused additional economic fallout to which institutions of higher education were not immune. Enrollment losses threatened (and in many cases materialized) as families reticent about having their students attend in-person classes heightened in the fall, and many classes suspended on-campus operations for at least part of the year.
Some students took gap years while others found themselves vulnerable in the search for on and off-campus housing, tuition, fees, and other auxiliary revenues which financially vulnerable institutions absolutely rely upon to remain solvent. The cancellation or postponement of important cultural celebrations added to the profound sense of loss, as alumni gatherings, homecomings, coronations either didn’t occur or struggled to manifest themselves virtually.
Thankfully, federal legislation bailed many institutions out of those most substantial revenue losses and in other meaningful ways, and many institutions smartly passed as much of that aid as they could to struggling students, who even as they persisted, lost employment opportunities that they needed to pay their registration costs.
A national reckoning with regards to the value of Black life came to a generational boil, as colleges and communities dealt with the murder of George Floyd and many other high-profile incidents in which Black lives were lost and families injured irreparably across the nation. The protests, calls for police reform/defunding, and calls for substantive forms of repair for harms experienced by the Black community were met in many ways.
Of the many responses to those calls, which became a rallying cry as the nation faced a pivotal slate of local, state, and federal elections in the fall, was a renewed interest in funding institutions that serve and which are led by Black people. From calls to hire and promote more Black professionals to unprecedented corporate and private philanthropic funding of Black institutions augured well for Black colleges, HBCUs were ready to receive a massive influx of capital and support to bolster their strength as preparers of talent in all forms of industry.
Finally, from the election of the nation’s first woman of color Vice President and Georgia’s first Black senator to the superstar rise of acts like Megan Thee Stallion, and the focus placed on HBCUs by another star who dimmed far too early, Chadwick Boseman, HBCU graduates continued to remain in the spotlight in entertainment, fashion, politics, and popular culture. Known as institutions of opportunity, which for far too long have struggled from inadequate funding, this continued focus on what individuals with degrees from HBCUs have accomplished not only continues to inspire all Americans but has even shifted the focus of rating agencies like U.S. News and World Report, which are beginning to recognize and value how institutions promote access and success to all students—not just those from wealthy families or who possess top 1% test scores.
With heightened threats and unprecedented opportunities all around us, institutions of higher education have placed a higher premium than ever on attracting and retaining the best leadership talent available. Institutions with great leaders extended contracts. Those with young leaders with tremendous potential invested in their success. And those with leadership openings agonized over the decision, knowing that this would be their opportunity to either set their trajectories for decades to come or, to suffer consequences sooner than they could ever imagine.
To their credit, many HBCUs did just that. Several convinced long-time leaders to hang on for a little while longer and offer their guidance and support to see them through the storm. Others locked in great leaders with extended contracts, and several more recruited effective leaders with great promise. However, the same trends that I have written about in previous reports—scandal, supervisory board chicanery, mission creep, financial insolvency, and insufficiently diligent research to find capable leaders (often coupled with meddlesomeness, nepotism, and political intrigue)—reared their heads again this year. Combined with resignations due to retirement and untimely circumstances, there were as many executive terminations, resignations, and general furniture rearrangement this year at HBCUs as there have been in years past.
To date, 22 HBCUs have made 28 announced changes in executive leadership this year. Combined with the announcement that Johnny Taylor is leaving the White House Presidential Advisory Board, this means that nearly one out of every four HBCUs experienced an executive leadership change for the sixth consecutive year, and, that one of the chief advisors and HBCU advocates to the president was either replaced this year or will need to be replaced in the next fiscal year.
As you peruse the list below, you’ll observe that several of the institutions have appeared on the report before, meaning that they have changed presidents more than once in the past six years—an average tenure lower than that noted by researchers at the American Council on Education which show that the average length of a college presidency is 6.5 years. Several have appeared three or more times.
While the length of presidential tenure does not link causally to institutional growth, of course, high turnover correlates highly with continued threats to growth, financial solvency, branding, visibility, and political power. As we reflect on a year like no other most of us have ever experienced in our lives and look ahead to a future free of malaise—be it airborne, state-sanctioned, or otherwise—alumni and supporters of HBCU must remain vigilant, invested, and ready to hold the institutions we love accountable. This means that we need to support our leaders however we can. This also means that we must identify, isolate, condemn, and remove the political actors which threaten these institutions’ viability.
As we enter a new year, I pray for more stability, certainty, and steadiness across the sector. I’d love to see these virtual pages full to the brim of stories of joy, pride, and growth.
No. No “however.” Amen and Inshallah. Joy, pride, and growth for our institutions, our people, our students, and our leaders.
2020-2021 HBCU Executive Leadership Turnover
Alabama A&M University: Andrew Hugine, resigned
Arkansas Baptist College: New President Carlos Clark
Bethune-Cookman University: President E. LaBrent Chrite, resigned
Bethune-Cookman University: Hiram Powell named Interim President
Central State University: New President Jack Thomas
Fayetteville State University: New President Darrell Allison
Fisk University: Vann Newkirk named Interim President
Fisk University: New President Vann Newkirk
Gadsden State: New President Kathy Murphy
Harris-Stowe State University: President Corey Bradford, resigned, LaTonia Collins-Smith named Interim President
Hinds Community College: New President Stephen Vacik
Knoxville College: Leonard Adams named Interim President
Lawson State: New President Cynthia Anthony
LeMoyne Owen College: New President Vernell Bennett-Fairs
Lincoln University (Mo.): Jerald Woolfolk, resigned
Lincoln University (Mo.): John Moseley named Interim President
Lincoln University (Pa.): Brenda Allen reinstated as President
Savannah State University: New President Kimberly Ballard-Washington
St. Augustine University: New President Irving McPhail (deceased)
St. Augustine University: Maria Lumpkin named Interim President
St. Augustine University: New President Christine McPhail
Selma University: New President Stanford Angion
Southern University-New Orleans: New Chancellor James Ammons
Texas Southern University: New President Lesia Crumpton-Young
Tuskegee: President Lily McNair, resigned, and Charlotte Morris to remain as Interim President
West Virginia State University: New President Nicole Pride
Voorhees University: Ronnie Hopkins named Interim President
William Broussard, Ph.D. is Associate Vice President of University Advancement and an Adjunct Professor of English at Minnesota State University, Mankato.