By: Dr. Crystal deGregory
Losing a campus leader is always difficult, but the passing of North Carolina Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White is a particularly painful pill to swallow.
Saunders-White took the helm of NCCU on June 1, 2013, becoming the university’s first permanent female chancellor. Widely beloved for the friendliness that became the hallmark of her personality, her tenure shaped a period of multifaceted growth at NCCU.
Her story eerily resembles that of Portia E. Lovett Bird, who assumed the leadership of the Delaware Conference Academy (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore) following the death of her husband, the school founder, in April 1897. Doing so made Bird, an alumna of Storer Normal School (later Storer College), the first ever black woman leader of an HBCU before her death in office just two short years later at age 40.
At the time, Saunders-White’s appointment was one within a seeming golden age of increasingly progressive board leadership. In a brief period, the HBCU higher education sector soon outpaced the national average for the hiring of female presidents of any race at colleges and universities.
Carolyn W. Meyers was named president of Jackson State University in 2010; Cheryl Davenport Dozier at Savannah State University in 2011 and Cynthia Jackson-Hammond at Central State University in 2012. A. Cherrie Epps, Glenda Baskin Glover and Valerie Montgomery Rice, like Saunders-White, assumed the presidencies of Meharry Medical College, Tennessee State University, and Morehouse School of Medicine, respectively in 2013.
The following year, Roslyn Clark Artis, Gwendolyn A. Boyd, Stacey Franklin Jones and Elmira Mangum, assumed the presidencies of Florida Memorial University, Alabama State University, Elizabeth City State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, respectively.
In 2015, Andrea Lewis Miller assumed the presidency of her alma mater LeMoyne-Owen College, Tashni-Ann Dubroy returned to Shaw University to lead her alma mater, and Evelyn Maria Thompson assumed the presidency of Coppin State University.
So much has changed in such little time. Up until this year, all but one of the first-ever black women HBCU presidents appointed during this decade still held office with the exception of Epps, who was 83 at the time of her appointment.
But no more. In just a handful of months, Mangum is out at FAMU, Meyers is out at JSU, the writing is on the wall for Boyd’s departure from her alma mater ASU, and NCCU loses Saunders-White to cancer.
Added to this number of disappearing female HBCU presidents is the June retirement of former Wilberforce University President Algeania Warren Freeman, and the September firing of Allen University’s President Lady June Cole, who succeeded the school’s first full-time female president.
As leader of an HBCU, the fate and future of hundreds, sometimes thousands, is in your hands. High expectations and high stakes are not gender exclusive. In all of these departures, HBCU stakeholders are divided into two clear groups; one for support and the other for scrutiny. As some hurried to their defense, others asked questions — many of them relevant — about their performance. Simply put: did they do their jobs well?
Did they raise money, protect and improve campus infrastructure, listen and respond to the concerns of their many, many constituents, and did they inspire confidence in the people they led?
These questions and others like them are valid and welcomed, because the last thing HBCU culture needs are inept presidents of any gender. But when will we talk about the elephant in the presidential boardroom? When will we also acknowledge the toxic masculinity spurred by patriarchy and sexism as real threats to the general success of HBCU culture, and in particular, to HBCU women presidents (including the most capable and competent)?
With Bennett College and Spelman College safely and respectfully outside of the conversation because of their unique HBCU missions, it is not enough to acknowledge that presidential offices of ivory and ebony towers alike have traditionally been thought of as the purview of men. It is certainly not nearly enough to disguise patriarchy and sexism as traditional (and therefore “appropriate”) gender roles, when limiting the ability of women to access the presidential offices of HBCUs, much less be successful in them.
We must seriously, regularly, and repeatedly examine the culture of HBCU leadership and its gender-based politics — specifically, respectability politics. Only then will we fairly determine how well female presidents actually do their job, instead of allowing sexism to determine performance, or if they even should have a job at all.
Novice presidents should be expected to make presidential gaffes, males and females alike. And we can fully grant that today’s financial and political pictures for black colleges makes the margin of error that much slimmer. But we must ask ourselves if these mistakes are made more costly for a black woman because she also doesn’t smile a lot, or doesn’t seem friendly enough in conversations with trustees and faculty.
Mangum undoubtedly made her share of mistakes, but when are we going to hold the FAMU Board of Trustees to a standard higher than playground fights? Likewise, Meyers’ unceremonious departure in the middle of the school year resembled that of a coach cutting a red-shirted freshman, not an accomplished administrator with two HBCU presidencies which positively changed the course of both schools.
Dillard University students were pepper sprayed on campus while a white supremacist political candidate found safe space in a lecture hall, but no one seriously called for the firing of President Walter Kimbrough. No one took him to task for setting into motion a series of events that could have had disastrous consequences for his campus community, and no one dragged him for invoking an “outsider agitators” narrative more reminiscent of 1960’s segregationists than that of his fraternity brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. No one, not even us.
Texas Southern University was plagued by gun violence last fall, with four shootings on or around campus occurring in one semester, with one student being killed. Former TSU President John Rudley was denounced by pockets of students, faculty and members of the board according to several reports, but was not fired or forced to resign in the middle of the academic year like Mangum at FAMU.
Morgan State University President David Wilson has misspent foundation funds, worked with the state to malign his university’s growth, opposed a landmark lawsuit involving the state’s four black colleges, and for his work, was actually fired by his board — only to be reinstated and offered two new contracts in the following years. He is among the unanimous number of male presidents working under contracts without stipulations concerning cohabitation in their university-owned or leased homes unlike Boyd at ASU.
That is far better treatment than Cole, who was physically escorted off campus, received when Allen trustees terminated her contract.
Because we cape for black male presidents, we offer them the space to reclaim grace from administrative errors and interpersonal mistakes. Morehouse College President John Wilson has been dogged by rumors and calls for his termination for more than two years, yet remains in place with cursory affirmations of support from board and alumni officers without detail of how he has earned it.
Women in HBCU presidencies have not received the same opportunity to get it wrong and to learn how to get it right. They are told to get out.
This isn’t to say that women don’t earn the right to be fired, or have earned the right to be judged with fewer or softened metrics of success against male counterparts. It is to say that HBCUs are in no position, collectively, to brand women as executive failures worthy of quick removal, while men can stick it out for a more appropriate time and approach.
Debra Saunders-White, even while battling cancer, stuck it out. HBCU culture’s loss is indeed, heaven’s gain.