HBCU leadership – let’s move beyond the blame game

Running an institution of higher education is like running a multi-million dollar business. There are negotiations for property, talent, capital, innovation, partnerships, and oh – student recruitment, retention, graduation, and curriculum specialization. Both business and education have to focus on ethics, equity, brand, competition, financing, changes in the marketplace, the “customer experience”… The responsibilities and expectations can seem dizzying and overwhelming to those of us who don’t sit in such executive roles.

These responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities are magnified when an institution of higher education is an historically Black college or university. These presidents are often asked to do the impossible; to pull “a rabbit out of a hat;” and to resolve the results of historical inequities and underinvestment in the blink of an eye. “We expect you to hit the ground running,” is a common expectation as a president begins their tenure.

Yes, college presidents and university chancellors represent the top tier of educational leadership. They “should” be up to the task. But the task that most have prepared for has been changing at an accelerated pace, traditional funding streams are disappearing or gone, and the competition for top talent can be next to impossible when institutions are dealing with or facing budget cuts, enrollment drops, and noncompetitive compensation packages. The challenges are most extreme at private  institutions. But the performance expectations only continue to increase.

HBCU leadership – the revolving doorThe following represent our observations related to the challenges facing executive leaders at HBCUs. These were gained over recent decades working within and with HBCUs. We share these as a way to help contextualize the conversation, and to help current and potential presidents, and the boards who hire, support and evaluate them.

  1. Lack of resources. This is the number one challenge facing HBCUs and no one person can change this – and the implications – overnight. This includes little or no endowment, encumbered endowment, or endowment “pay outs” that are already pledged to meet prior financial commitments. Today’s current lack of resources is also tied to historical lack of investment and/or disinvestment combined with lack of unrestricted annual funds and major debt. A president or chancellor who takes the reins of an institution with these challenges needs to require board and community engagement and investment to address these. They cannot do this on their own, especially if they are new to the community without a history of strong relationships with influencers.
  2. Changing leadership requirements. Today’s top leaders need c-suite business experience in addition to educational leadership. They need to know business modeling, finance, and fundraising. They also need to be politically informed, connected and astute. They need to navigate, negotiate, build, and sustain mutually beneficial relationships across campus, and across the city, region and state. They need to be attuned to the Congressional agenda and funding opportunities or threats, and they need lobbyists to advocate for the individual and collective HBCU agenda.
  3. HBCU leadership – let’s move beyond the blame gameBoard of trustees. While business, nonprofit, and educational leaders are known to complain about “my board,” the challenges at an HBCU can be dire. It is the board of trustees who selects and evaluates the president, and that is the “make it or break it” decision for the college. First the institution has to attract a pool of qualified applicants. Believe it or not the composition of the board impacts whether or not top candidates will apply or accept an offer. Our experience has shown that challenges arise when the board lacks diversity: yes, that means including board members who are not African American and a healthy gender balance. It also means the board must include people of power, wealth and influence with diverse expertise, relationships, and resources. The board has to give financially in a meaningful way and open doors for the president. And, the board has to offer a competitive compensation package: if you are looking for top notch talent you have to pay for it. This is true not only of the president, but of academic leadership, faculty, research, administration, and staff compensation. As a board you cannot delegate financial responsibilities to the president and expect that person to wave a magic wand: the board has to be an integral part of all solutions.
  4. HBCU leadership – let’s move beyond the blame gameEach institution needs to define its vision, mission and uniqueness. Historical status is not enough in today’s competitive educational market. Top leadership has to know and communicate the institution’s niche internally across campus constituencies, and externally amongst stakeholders, funders, donors, and partners. Ideally the niche builds on current or historical strengths, addresses current and future needs at the local, national, and global levels, and meets a need in the educational marketplace/ecosystem. The institution’s uniqueness should be embraced by all stakeholders and should inform its business, strategic, and fundraising plans.
  5. Leadership Churn. The turnover of top leadership at our historically Black colleges and universities is often “blamed” on the president. “They didn’t deliver,” is what we are asked to understand as the reason for early termination of a contract, or an unwillingness to renew a contract. The formal words may be different, but at the core the issue is often that the institution faces challenges and the board of trustees doesn’t believe the current president can solve them. But what one person could? The challenges facing our HBCUs are many and they require the engagement of many to resolve. And, no matter how successful an HBCU president is there will always be people who want them to do more and to do it better and faster, creating a “no win” situation.

Given all that we – and so many others – have observed, we close this column with food for thought. We offer questions for those who seek a presidential role, and for those who are charged with recruiting and hiring the president.

Hiring an HBCU president: questions for presidents and trustees.Questions to ask yourself if you are considering a presidential position:

  1. Are the expectations of the hiring board clear and achievable? Will I have access to the resources I need to meet those expectations?
  2. Do I have – and I am willing to recruit or expand – a circle of advisors with the skill sets, experience, and relationships required to support my presidency?
  3. Is my knowledge of fund development and fundraising deep enough and wide enough to secure the funds my institution will need? Do I know how to set and manage fundraising goals?
  4. Do I understand the case for support for the institution I want to lead? Do I know and understand the full meaning of current and anticipated fundraising priorities?
  5. What do I know of the community surrounding the college or university? Who can show me the “lay of the land” and help me develop working relationships with stakeholders, influencers, power brokers, and door openers in the community?
  6. With all the demands that will be placed on me, can I make fundraising – and fund development –a priority?
  7. Am I really willing to allocate fifty to eighty percent of my time to fundraising?
  8. How am I prepared to negotiate with the board for the resources I need to be successful?

Hiring an HBCU president: questions for presidents and trustees.Questions to ask yourself if you are a member of the board who is hiring a president:

  1. How realistic is the job description for the president? Is this a job for one person or for three people?
  2. Have we allocated adequate compensation for the president and a highly qualified cabinet?
  3. How am I – and how are we – prepared to support the new president?
  4. How will we evaluate the president? Do we know the institution’s priorities, and can we communicate, define and measure these?
  5. What is the current status of alumni relations, engagement, and giving? What are our expectations of ourselves and the president as it relates to alumni?
  6. Do we meet frequently enough as a board? Are our meetings productive or more ceremonial?
  7. How much do I give annually, and how much do we as a board give collectively on an annual basis? Is it meaningful or symbolic?
  8. Do we have the right people on the board? Do we as a board have what it takes to advance the college?
  9. Do we have active and engaged committees?
  10. How politically astute are we? How are we engaged in the community?

These lists are a starting place that focuses on fundraising. We want you to be successful – we want our HBCUs to be successful. Thank you for your leadership.


Copyright 2019 – Mel and Pearl Shaw

When you are ready to build a fund development program, grow your fundraising, or increase board engagement we are here to help. (901) 522-8727. www.saadandshaw.com.

Image courtesy of 123RF.com.

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