Four years ago, former Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor raised an alarm in the sector about the growing trend of public higher education systems circumventing executive searches to handpick leaders. His concern was that black colleges were being subjected to leadership choices without processes for vetting or input from HBCU faculty, student and alumni communities and that the practice was putting black colleges on par with K-12 institutions in that presidents were chosen for them instead of by them.
Since then governing boards and system presidents throughout the country have expanded the practice, appointing interim presidents and elevating them to permanent positions. That trend took a unique turn this week when leaders from the University of North Carolina System fielded a proposal from System President Peter Hans that would all but eliminate traditional executive searches at public institutions.
Hans’ proposed change would allow the UNC System president to add up to two candidates to search process[es]. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward as part of a slate of finalists for the position. In effect, the president would have the power to both insert candidates into the search process without approval from the board of trustees, those candidates would become finalists for the positions whether or not the board of trustees approves and the president would then choose a final candidate from those finalists.
There’s no need for a search if the system president, who by all assumptions would only inject finalists into a process with the recommendation and blessing of a majority on the UNC governing board, picks the winners before the game is even played.
Here’s what some anonymous trustees at state institutions had to say about the proposal.
Members of boards of trustees at N.C. A&T, UNC-Greensboro and Fayetteville State University all told Policy Watch that they have reservations about the planned change as well. None were willing to go on record, however, saying that the political environment is fraught and it could negatively impact their boards and schools to criticize moves by the board of governors.
Interestingly enough, two of North Carolina’s five public HBCUs are missing from the anonymous feedback — Winston-Salem State University and Elizabeth City State University. WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson was among a group of three chancellors to not receive a pay raise in 2018 — the other two leaders from East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, both resigned in early 2019.
The other missing voices are from ECSU, which in 2017 was forced to welcome a “working group” to the campus from the UNC System’s main office to support the school in tuition increases and campus improvement projects. The group came in just one year after former ECSU chancellor Thomas Conway was elevated from interim chancellor to permanent status.
From the system’s publicly virtual vote of no-confidence in Robinson to its conversion of two interim chancellors to permanent leaders in a span of four-years to the schizophrenic and politicized approach to leadership of its own office; North Carolina lawmakers have always had a system of forcing out and handpicking the leaders of thousands to serve the political interests of a select few. And this week’s proposal was a formal proclamation for a system that has always successfully victimized its public historically black institutions with a strategy it now intends to also scale up for its predominantly white institutions across the state.
HBCU stakeholders and advocates should realize by now that very few things are more important to institutional survival than leadership; not just if a school remains open or closes, but what form the school will take for generations because of a leader’s decisions over the course of a handful of years. If we aren’t willing to lay claim to that prospect or to protect the dignity and right to choose our own leaders of our own communities who can execute our interests, then the truth is that there’s very little that separates HBCUs from PWIs other than the myth we perpetuate of the schools truly being something to call our own.