Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus

HBCUs have the most to lose in the prospects of reopening, but some campus leaders should be applauded for their skill in a time of crisis.

“Even when the winds of misfortune blow, amazing things can still happen.” –Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

​Current and prospective students, university faculty, staff, and alumni, and higher education pundits are waiting with bated breath across the country on guidance from governors, mayors, and university presidents regarding whether or not students will return to college campuses for the fall semester. With depth or shallowness of breath remaining a central concern among the hundreds of thousands of individuals, families, and medical providers impacted by COVID-19, its fair to say that deep, relaxed breathing has become a precious commodity that most Americans took completely for granted as recently as three months ago.

Each op-ed, press conference and letter to the campus delivered by presidents and chancellors defines the leading edge of the myriad possibilities in front of us. The brazen and cavalier: Liberty University, resuming normal operations in March, leading to lawsuits filed by students who could not avail themselves of all university resources since the vast majority of students and staff could not lawfully return, per Virginia state law. 

The resolutely cautious: California State University System announcing that students will not return to traditional campus operations in the fall across their 23-member system.

Meanwhile, the majority of American colleges and universities have claimed the middle ground, acknowledging a desire to return to traditional operations tempered by a necessary wait-and-see approach as to what limits may prevent such a return (e.g. federal, state, or local restrictions; new scientific evidence; public consensus). No matter the direction they announce, cancel culture, unintended allies, and opponents, and ambitious journalists await, with traps set and eviscerations outlined. 

​This backdrop makes the announcements of two Historically Black College and University (HBCU) presidents all the more considerable, regardless of what side of the political spectrum one claims and whose opinions about public health one acknowledges as accurate. In an April 29 letter to the Howard University community, President Wayne Frederick, M.D. announced Howard’s intention to reopen in Fall 2020 as a “best-case scenario,” with a plan to ensure the safety of the university community and to continue to regard any directives issued by the mayor of Washington, D.C. and continued updates as decisions about the future are cemented.

This letter, and his near-regular appearances on local and national media to discuss these plans for Howard to support its university community, as well as the citizens of Washington, D.C., represents a vision that is bold, yet careful and is at once full of hope and compassion.

He also exhibits radical transparency in sharing the challenges associated with potential losses of revenue and how they impact the institution now and moving forward, while leading with statements that clearly exhibit care for how this experience frightens constituents and for following the rule of law. His announcement contains not only the wish but the ‘how-to’ that many frustrated and frightened people impacted by such announcements so desperately need. 

​The financial and political challenges that placed American higher education in crisis mode long before the coronavirus pandemic added to it motivate many university executives to examine every single prospect for reopening in the fall. The increasing dependence on tuition and fee revenues particularly at residential colleges with small endowments, and on athletic revenues at even the largest and most well-funded institutions drive this demand. 

Staking ground on what rhetorically appears to be a diverging executive ideological spectrum, Paul Quinn College president Michael Sorrell, J.D. recently opined in his Atlantic op-ed: “If a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.” Rather than simply responding to the crisis in the context of the challenging contemporary landscape, Sorrell calls for a full philosophical reconsideration of the enterprise. If lack of resources drives a decision that appears to run counter to public health demands, this is the time to demand radical change, which can include public pressure and lobbying for new legislation that calls for investing in education as a public good.

The bravery of Sorrell’s demand comes not from a pundit or philosopher comfortably pronouncing boldly from the sidelines. Rather, as the president of a college that lost accreditation and nearly closed due to financial concerns just over a decade ago before he took the helm, he leads exactly the kind of college imperiled by this crisis and thus, would have the most to gain from calling for a face-to-face reopening in the fall semester.  

​The risk for campus executives is higher than ever, especially as we enter June—which to paraphrase Eliot—higher education’s cruelest month. Even in non-pandemic years, June is the month in which crucial financial decisions are often made and announced due to the end of the fiscal year, and this is the month in which many presidents and chancellors’ contracts are either renewed or terminated. The contemporary American college presidency has become fraught with demands from powerful alumni, boards prone to chicanery and meddlesomeness, and near-impossible demands from the private sector and state and federal legislatures.

It is no wonder, according to recent data from the American Council on Education, presidential tenures are shorter and presidents are getting older, as younger higher education professionals and aspiring executives increasingly see the presidency as less attractive and unstable, portending negatively for their career trajectories. After all, the competing myriad of demands of constituents is akin to walking a tightrope on a windy day, and increasingly, the desire to end one’s career with dignity, comfort, and with an in-tact legacy likely suggests to qualified candidates that college presidencies simply aren’t as desirable as they used to be.  

In that context, it should be a point of pride that two of the boldest visionaries during this crisis lead HBCUs. The aforementioned challenges are the subtext for every non-announcement announcement—every non-updating update—issued by the leaders of U.S. based institutions of higher learning while constituents thirst for definitive direction. The stakes of a president or chancellor veering an inch too far to the right or the left (or, the Right or the Left) could result in dire financial consequences and retaliations for their institution.

Recall Harvard’s decision to return CARES Act funding, presidents being accused of a lack of compassion in favor of financial concerns (see the responses to announcements at Brown and Purdue), and the first victims of those announcing bold visions of a new future leading into the fall semester, as a chancellor and president in the Vermont State College System have already experienced a derailing of their careers. If there’s any question why your alma mater’s president hasn’t come out with a commanding, resolute, and definitive announcement regarding the campus’ potential to resume normal operations this fall, bear in mind that announcing those plans is unimaginably consequential.

Even in the best of cases, that they are weighing many considerations of which the vast majority of people simply aren’t aware. Lives, jobs, and entire institutions are at risk, and a virus that has affected the lives of millions and the psyches of billions waits in the wings without compassion for any of them. 

When researchers and pundits of the future analyze how public officials led (and failed to lead) during this period, some will be remembered as scoundrels, others as saviors. That perspective will likely be unfair, or at least myopic, as the many underlying data points, political considerations, and invisible prodding and restrictions hide in the background, leaving us only to point at the executives who make the announcements and whose signatures accompany the memoranda. 

William Broussard, Ph.D. is a scholar of HBCU executive leadership trends and a contributor to the HBCU Digest.