How Will Public Health Redefine HBCU Leadership?

Public health, the number one topic in the world over the last eight months and of particular emphasis in Black communities in the United States, has applied a forcefully harsh touch to the HBCU sector in recent weeks.

Earlier this week, Tuskegee University announced that president Lily McNair would take a medical leave of absence, her second since a health-related departure from January through May of this year.

Two weeks ago, Saint Augustine’s University President Irving McPhail died from complications related to COVID-19. He was the third permanent or interim HBCU president to die in office in the last four years following the sudden death of former Morehouse College Interim President William Taggart, and North Carolina Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who died of cancer in 2016.

Illness and death are constant companions for all of us, but for organizational leadership at HBCUs, they can be catalysts for seismic, nearly instant destabilization. Campuses with too few technological or human resources can be thrown into turmoil when the lead voice in a one-way, top-down information and leadership structure has to adapt to an unplanned long-term or permanent departure.

From presidents and chancellors to vice-presidents and deans, to coaches; how will illnesses like COVID-19 and other health disparities that are increasing in an era of decreasing health maintenance shape our institutions?

How should HBCUs, particularly their boards and presidents, deal with the likelihood of an increase in physical or mental health-related departures from leadership positions? One guess is that institutions will attempt to get younger in leadership to reduce the chances of sudden and severe illness impacting the leadership structure.

Even before the pandemic, the HBCU sector has seen a substantial number of presidents under the age of 50 at several public and private institutions in an effort to be more student-centered and innovation-minded.

What will be the new standards for leave connected to the care of spouses or aging relatives? Will HBCUs negotiate or mandate new terms for faculty sabbaticals? Will succession planning become an increased focus of board training and presidential evaluation?

Successful Black colleges have long operated in the tradition of the Black church; a president in a pastoral role helps a board of trustees to understand the operational functions as they are designed to meet financial and cultural goals, and the board blesses those operations so long as its members are made to feel that their opinions matter.

In this structure, a president and the coalition of trustees supporting the president tell everyone what to do, how to act, when to spend, and in which direction the cameras are pointing.

But when one of those key actors falls sick or dies, who calls the shots? Can HBCUs effectively sustain leadership without panic in the middle of a pandemic?