Are HBCU Boards Reversing Course on Presidential Firings?

Kentucky State University President M. Christopher Brown II received a four-year contract extension this afternoon, with officials citing growth and increased awareness of the institution just over a year after his appointment in March 2017.

“President Brown’s forward-thinking has advanced many of the metrics set by the board,” Dr. Elaine Farris, chairperson of the Board of Regents, who commented on the extension on behalf of the board, said. “He has increased enrollment, advanced the brand and reputation of Kentucky State University, promoted access and affordability and actively advocated for support on the state and federal level. We are confident in the continuity and solid leadership President Brown is providing Kentucky State.”

Dr. Brown’s extension follows a year of new contracts for HBCU presidents across the country. West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins received a five-year extension last month, and in February Morgan State University President David Wilson inked a new five-year deal.

Last summer, Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick signed on for five more years of leading his alma mater.

HBCUs and higher education at large still are struggling with finding presidents who can stay around for long periods of service. Presidents at three of Maryland’s four HBCUs alone have been replaced in the last three years, and across the sector, 31 seats were occupied with new leaders in the 2017-18 academic year alone.

But are these extensions at mid-to-large sized public and private HBCUs a sign that some boards are trying to turn the tide on the costs and controversies associated with executive turnover? The common thread spurring each of these extensions is increased enrollment, campus expansion, programmatic development and legislative lobbying victories.

In recent years, growth and achievement haven’t spared some presidents from dismissal. Elmira Mangum at Florida A&M University and Brian Johnson at Tuskegee University were among the more notable executive separations — mostly for political and personal reasons, but separations nonetheless.

But with at least four presidents locked in for the next half-decade, and several others on a similar trajectory of sustainability, perhaps boards are valuing performance over politics. Maybe the costs of a search, negative publicity in media and the growing trend of HBCUs not being allowed to organically choose their own presidents has turned the tide for the sector.

Every HBCU president may not be deserving of an extension, but every HBCU is more than worthy of sustainability. And if boards are doing a better job of finding great presidents, or making mediocre ones serviceable in building confidence in the HBCU enterprise, then more power to boards with good and bad intentions alike.