What Happens When Hero Presidents Leave HBCUs?

When institutional destiny is tied to one man or one woman, will campuses be able to adjust to a new direction?

When institutional destiny is tied to one man or one woman, will campuses be able to adjust to a new direction?

One day, William Harvey will no longer be president of Hampton University. To be fair, his 39 years at the helm is responsible for why that statement trends more towards disbelief than inevitability, but the truth is that he will not be there forever.

And when he’s gone, sailing on his yacht somewhere or working on his next book, or even calling back to check on the school he helped to build into a historically black college powerhouse, what happens next? How does the board adjust to a new voice, a new perspective and a new business acumen? How do alumni brand the institution in their minds and hearts, even though Harvey was never in the classroom with them?

Dr. Harvey will tell you that the key is succession planning with the board, something he’s done regularly since his arrival.

“It’s part of running a business,” he says. “Hampton is going to be alright, because we work to make sure that we are reviewing our people, their experiences inside and outside of Hampton, to secure our leadership model.”

But for those HBCUs which don’t, or haven’t begun succession planning, what happens to that HBCU community when the core of its braintrust, the motivation, the hatred and resentment and the money — all follow the greatest president a school has ever known out of the door?

It is a legitimate question for many historically black campuses, even those who may not have their greatest presidents of all time sitting in the seats, but especially for those who are lucky to have attracted a certifiable candidate for the title.

Washington Monthly recently and bluntly asked the question about Michael Sorrell, a two-time HBCU Male President of the Year who guided the school out of closure, off of a football field and onto an organic farm, into a new institutional identity of community activism, and through to a new urban college model which may jumpstart new conversation about affordability and access in higher education.

It’s no wonder that Sorrell’s innovations are a hot topic in higher ed reform circles. The question is whether those interventions are, in wonk-speak, “replicable.” In other words, can other schools achieve what Paul Quinn College has without a one-in-a-million leader like Michael Sorrell?

It’s not surprising why this continues to linger as a question for historically black institutions. Maybe its the Civil Rights tradition of waiting for and receiving messages of hope from one or a few chosen people with the charisma and the understanding of the ages. Maybe it traces back to the black Christian tradition, where one man beckons the masses to salvation, and we follow the lead.

Since the career sunsets of Benjamin Mays, Ralph W.E. Jones, Mordecai Johnson and Mary McCleod Bethune and continuing through to the retirements of Dorothy C. Yancy, Frederick Humphries, Johnnetta Cole, Earl Richardson and Dianne Suber; in a culture of low budgets, high need and and dramatic changes in the industry of higher education, HBCUs have been working to replace the irreplaceable — and the results have been less than stellar in many cases.

The number of executive transitions at HBCUs nationwide is quickly approaching 40 in just over a year’s time. Each of those transitions translates into additional costs in searches, replacing personnel, relocation, and potential investiture ceremonies; and that’s without mentioning the burden placed on institutional vision as a result.

C. Reynold Verret followed Norman Francis at Xavier University, and credited the iconic long-serving president for making it easier on him to build upon a foundation, while continuing to offer wisdom from the comforts of retirement.

Leaders like Makola Abdullah at Virginia State, Roslyn Clark Artis at Florida Memorial, Tashni Dubroy at Shaw, Brian Johnson at Tuskegee, Walter Kimbrough at Dillard, Dwaun Warmack at Harris-Stowe State and Harry Williams at Delaware State appear to be on a fast track to greatness, with each having made respectable gains in philanthropy, enrollment, academic development and engagement on social media as hallmarks of their respective administrations.

But what happens if they are courted by other schools? Brian Hemphill was among that cohort of young and talented HBCU presidents during his successful run at West Virginia State University. He’s now the president of Radford University.

What if their boards suddenly become less-than-engaged in fundraising, or demand greater influence in institutional operation?

What if being the hands-on supervisor of enrollment management, facilities and maintenance, development, external relations, public relations, alumni affairs and academic development becomes too stressful, even for the young and dynamic?

Are HBCUs, specifically private institutions, able to offer the kind of competitive salary that keeps a great president? Do they have the vital support system of board-alumni harmony that makes fundraising and legislative lobbying easier to navigate?

Do they have institutional culture where faculty can’t ‘no confidence’ a president out because of necessary changes to the academic business model, or where board members’ personal objectives can’t interfere with campus progress?

How many of our campuses can make these claims? Because that’s the number of HBCUs that will be able to replace an irreplaceable leader. And that number is what is sure to sink HBCU culture at large, because as hard as it is to find a good leader, it is that much more difficult to replace them if culture and industry become too much to handle.

Who Wants to Be an HBCU President?
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