More than a dozen presidents have stepped down at historically Black colleges and universities across the country over the last year.
The departures include Ruth Simmons stepping down early at Prairie View A&M University and Vernell A. Bennett-Fairs leaving LeMoyne Owen College just 2.5 years into the job. Turnover has also rocked Mississippi’s HBCUs over the last year.
While presidents nationally are serving shorter terms than ever — 5.9 years on average — frequent changes at the top are disruptive as a university president is expected to manage relationships with students and faculty on campus, board members, and current and prospective donors.
Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr., a professor of Adult Organizational Learning and Leadership at the University of Idaho, studies HBCUs and leadership challenges at universities. We spoke with Freeman about this trend. (This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Many students don’t know the importance of a president. Can you put in layman’s terms what a president is and their responsibilities to a university?
A president is an individual who is charged with providing and seeing out their vision of a higher education institution. They are the chief executive officers of the institution, meaning the responsibility of the institution is put directly on them. And, in some ways, [they] manage the institution.
How does the departure of a president impact the stability and reputation of an HBCU?
Stability is in jeopardy, especially in states like Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, where there is an attack on Black life, Black history, and how money will be allocated.
If an HBCU doesn’t have a president who has a strong vision and is leading them in navigating those challenges, it leaves the institution vulnerable.
The constant turnover in leadership creates a certain instability that makes faculty, staff, and students panic, especially at a time when a lot of black students want to come to HBCUs because of the unique environment and educational experience that you get from an HBCU.”
What are the common reasons behind these abrupt departures?
One significant factor is the challenge of managing limited fiscal resources and making decisions on how to allocate those resources effectively. Additionally, state institutions are under pressure to address diversity concerns, especially in states like Texas and Florida, where recent legislative decisions have raised questions about affirmative action and support for underrepresented populations, including Black students.
This creates an environment where there are questions around diversity, equity, and inclusion, with discussions about whether specific funding should be allocated to support these underrepresented populations. Often, Black institutions try to figure out ways to support their students and their mission, even though they have limited resources. And that puts pressure on boards of trustees, faculty, administrators, and in particular, the president.
Can you elaborate on some of the other distinctive characteristics and challenges that HBCU presidents face in their roles compared to presidents of predominantly white institutions (PWIs)?
Essentially, Black institutions have the same challenges as white institutions, but with a narrower margin for error. For example, consider the issue of enrollment dips: When an HBCU experiences a decrease in enrollment, it often attracts more scrutiny compared to similar declines at predominantly white institutions. Especially because, in many cases, HBCUs are tuition-dependent. If an institution is dependent on tuition to run its day-to-day operations, it’s going to be more challenging.
Additionally, other issues can compound these challenges. A year or two ago, several HBCUs, including those with smaller endowments like Edward Waters University, faced cybersecurity threats. These institutions lack the substantial endowments and resources that predominantly white institutions typically have to address such issues. While there are various factors at play, it often comes back to fiscal resources. Limited resources can create difficulties in retaining highly qualified leadership
What do you find are some of the reasons for the disparity we’re seeing in the fiscal resources that you mentioned?
Many aspects of this issue have deep historical roots. Let’s take Tennessee State University as an example. A study revealed a striking disparity of over $500 million in the funds allocated to Tennessee State University, an HBCU, compared to the predominantly white institution of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As a result, Tennessee State University has been traditionally under-resourced based on what they were supposed to be allocated.
When we examine the graduates of these institutions, we often find that they are first-generation college students. They’re the first ones in their families to have significant wealth. And with that, you’re often trying to take care of your family, so they’re not able to make donations to the level of their white counterparts.
These disparities are deeply entrenched within institutional and systemic structures. When people compare endowments, such as Howard University and Harvard University, it’s essential to look at why that is: a lot of that is rooted in anti-Black racism.
In what ways do the historical and cultural significance of HBCUs influence the leadership dynamics and expectations of the presidents?
I’ve written extensively about the kinds of skills and competencies that HBCU presidents need. Part of that is there is a preference for HBCU leaders who have either attended HBCUs themselves or have prior experience working within the HBCU environment. This preference stems from the crucial understanding of the culture and the context in which those institutions operate. When a president transitions from a well-resourced institution to an HBCU with a different legacy of resources, they often face a steep learning curve in navigating the fiscal challenges specific to HBCUs. Additionally, they must navigate relationships with alumni, students, faculty, and staff.
Historically, HBCU leadership has followed a model akin to that of the Black church, where the pastor is seen as the final decision-maker and chief protector of the institution. This dynamic isn’t exclusive to HBCUs; it also occurs at predominantly white institutions. However, there’s a distinct difference in the visibility and role of the president. At predominantly white institutions, the president often remains relatively unknown to the majority of the community. In contrast, at HBCUs, the president assumes a different level of prominence as the institution’s face and chief representative
Are there specific administration or governance challenges that are more prevalent in HBCUs that could contribute to the turnover of presidents and how are these challenges different from those that other institutions?
When an institution has fewer resources, you’re not able to bring in as many resources as you need. This leads to increased outside influence on an institution’s decision-making. One of the challenges I’ve often discussed is the influence of the Board of Trustees. Because there are fewer resources, you often have Board of Trustees members trying to make decisions that are typically expected of the President. Sometimes, there can be clashes between the board and the president. In various instances where Presidents have stepped down, these departures have stemmed, in part, from disagreements between the President and the Board due to these complex challenges.
What are the potential consequences for enrollment, fundraising, and academic programs?
All of those are possible. When it comes to enrollment decisions, parents invest in more than just an institution’s brand. When it involves their child, parents feel like they’re entrusting their child to individuals. In this context, the president is the chief individual they will hold responsible for their child. So, it is reassuring to know that there are stable leaders for parents to bring their children to.
For those who are considering donating money to an organization, knowing that the institution has a trustworthy leader who has the institution’s best interests in mind is important.