Can HBCU Presidents Run Schools and Greek Organizations at the Same Time?

Tennessee State University President Glenda Baskin Glover was last night installed as the 30th International President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. during the organization’s international conference in Houston.

Dr. Glover is the second HBCU president in two years to be named as head of an international Black Greek-Lettered Organization, following Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. General President Everett B. Ward in 2017; just two years after being named as the permanent president of Saint Augustine’s University.

The terms of identity within these dual presidencies are obvious. HBCUs, given their central role in the establishment and growth of both of these organizations, should have a natural place in leadership for both Alpha and AKA. Their missions, money, and membership can be extraordinary forces for good in service-based improvements for black communities where HBCUs are stationed and working towards similar goals.

But for supporters and skeptics of the logistical challenges of running campuses and organizations at the same time, there are three areas of focus which will draw attention from members and non-members in deciding the legacies of both leaders.

TRAVEL

Fraternity and sorority presidents have to travel. They meet with and help to charter chapters all over the world, they attend regional meetings, meet with corporate and civic leaders, and lead international conventions. Without face time, much of the work of Greek-lettered organizational president is left undone in the eyes of its leaders and its members.

This would seem to be countercultural to the leadership of an HBCU, which over the years has shaped the college presidency as a campus superintendent role. Students measure presidential success through accessibility and charisma — both things which require being on campus.

Faculty measure a successful presidency through transparency and shared governance — things which require a president to be on campus more often than not.

But the business of higher education views a successful presidency as one spent on the road. Fundraising requires meeting companies and donors where they are. Campus administration requires presidents to attend meetings for the NCAA, accrediting bodies, advocacy groups like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, United Negro College Fund, National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and many others.

And these things are all outside of legislative lobbying and professional development.

The dual presidencies will require significant travel to be successful, but only Alpha and AKA place value upon it, while HBCU stakeholders can use regular absence from campus as a strike against a president –but only if the president fails at managing perceptions.

PERCEPTIONS

HBCUs historically have a very formulaic way of defining an effective presidency. Enrollment growth, new buildings, research, campus activity, personality, mastery and appreciation of campus traditions and check presentations are the ways that students, faculty and staff members have measured a president as good, great or legendary.

But just as travel for college presidents has evolved over the years to become a requirement of the presidency, leaders also now must serve as chief spokespersons, crisis managers, legislative liaisons, cultural critics, motivational speakers for students and faculty and executive trainers for board members. Numbers are no longer enough — the perception of the HBCU presidency is now judged by metrics and emotion. How well do campus constituents know you? How often do they retweet you on Twitter? And when is the last time you took a stand on a social issue of import to HBCU communities?

All of these areas of perceived performance in leadership are far different from those who have held the dual presidency in previous years. Walter Washington and Henry Ponder both served as Alpha general presidents while serving as presidents of Alcorn State University and Fisk University, respectively.

Both brothers are remembered fondly for their achievements in both roles.

But their turns at fraternal and campus leadership preceded 21st-century political gamesmanship, the increased speed of media through the 24/7 news cycle, and changes in the business of higher education. Presidents are fired with greater regularity, struggle with board and campus relations more publicly, and face far greater financial and performance reporting standards than at any time in history. These realities make the HBCU presidency a 24/7 position, to be balanced against the 24/7 demand for responsiveness to corporate and cultural concerns of Alpha and AKA.

And that is before the real work for both jobs begins.

DELIVERABLES

One of the exciting elements of life in a fraternity or sorority is the way professional success or failure enhances or diminishes standing in a Greek organization. Drs. Glover and Ward have faced challenges in their HBCU presidencies. Dr. Glover has dealt with Tennessee overhauling its standards on performance-based funding, enhancing its free community college program, and shifting its system leadership structure. All of these statewide measures have the potential to wreak havoc on Tennessee State now and in the future.

Saint Augustine’s has repeatedly cut staff and faculty, sold property and has been on accreditation probation since 2016 for financial problems.

A case could be made that organizational leadership expands the networks of advocacy and financial support for both schools and that increased visibility of their leaders bodes well for fundraising, recruitment and community engagement. Their leadership is supported by qualified people hired at crucial management positions, and that Drs. Glover and Ward need only to be kept close to status updates and vital information to make informed decisions about the direction of their campuses.

But another case could be made that these same challenges require an inordinate amount of attention and precision in daily operations of a campus, and that political miscalculation, missed meetings or perception of distraction could create controversy among stakeholders who will ask “would this have happened if they were not the president of Alpha or AKA?”

Any perceived gains by their campuses will generate goodwill behind their organizational presidencies. And any failure will create animosity among some members who may find their professional shortcomings to be a sad reflection of the organization at large.

Drs. Glover and Ward are capable executives in a fascinating era of leadership within the black context. Their hands are at the controls of four multi-million dollar organizations with the power to shape lives and communities. Both know well the cultures associated with their letters and their campuses, and the stakes.

So the question is not if they can do two big jobs at once, but rather how many supporters and skeptics at Saint Augustine’s and Tennessee State, and within Alpha Phi Alpha and Alpha Kappa Alpha, will work to prove their beliefs right? And at what benefit or cost to the schools and the organizations involved?