Over the last couple of weeks, the higher education community has been discussing, reflecting, and processing the recent announcement of Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum’s pending retirement. President Tatum gained the respect of her colleagues, her students, and those outside of the world of higher education during her tenure as president of Spelman. She has proven to be a highly capable, forward thinking president who has served the College well. As Spelman embarks on the search for someone to which the presidential baton can be passed, several questions surface: How do we find, place, and promote forward thinking presidents at HBCUs? Furthermore, what defines a forward thinking HBCU president? How do we ensure that those who desire a presidency fit this definition?
President Tatum exemplified many characteristics of a high performing president. Her tenure at Spelman included strong fundraising skills, a firm respect for faculty governance and a commitment to student success. Moreover, she has been a national voice on higher education issues, never shying away from difficult topics. These are the types of attributes that a president needs in order to move an institution forward and toward greatness. We can learn a lot about how to identify a president who has these qualities – who is forward thinking – from the record of President Tatum.
Forward Thinking Includes Expansion as well as Empowerment
Throughout previous administrations, the most notable being that of Johnetta B. Cole, Spelman has gained a reputation as a thriving institution full of innovation and achievement. Stepping into her role as president 12 years ago, Tatum was well aware of the shoulders on which she stood. She was also aware that she had a responsibility to not merely stand, but to also strive for more. Forward thinking presidents realize that everything evolves, including institutions. The goal is to facilitate an evolution that is progressive without being destructive. Forward thinking does not mean changing everything. Tatum came into an environment where shared governance had already been established as a part of the organizational culture and had proven to work well. Tatum did not have a need to change what was already working well, but rather to make sure to maintain strengths and buttress weaknesses. Being forward thinking means changing what needs to be changed, and bolstering what needs to remain in place. Presidents and presidential hopefuls that can understand this strategy will serve the next phase of HBCUs well. Institutions and their constituencies who can identify these individuals will also do a great service to HBCUs.
A Forward Thinking President Needs a Forward Thinking Board of Trustees
As President Tatum gave her announcement, which was preceded by an announcement of the College surpassing their its capital campaign goal of $157 million, next to her stood Spelman’s chair of the Board of Trustees. This image gives us insight into the need for a forward thinking president to have the support and assistance of a board that is headed in the same direction. In recent years there has been increasing concern about the relationship between HBCU boards, their institutions, and the office of president. Though more needs to be learned about this relationship, what can be agreed upon is that no matter how visionary or skilled a president, he or she can’t build an institution or have a profound impact alone. Teamwork is a necessity. A supportive board and board chair are necessary. To be clear, being supportive is not synonymous with being yes people. We do not suggest that board members should never question or disagree with a president’s suggested goals and the path to reach these goals. However, board members should not hinder or present themselves as obstacles to a president with well intentioned proposals for the future of the institution. A relationship of mutual respect and support is one that a forward thinking president understands and strives to create and foster. But no relationship is one sided. The board must play its part for the sake of the students.
Forward Thinking Emerges from Diverse Areas
Great leaders can emerge from various walks of life and backgrounds. There was a time that presidents of institutions of higher education strictly derived from the faculty pipeline. Tatum herself came through the professoriate, moving through the common path of dean and other administrative positions prior to her taking on the presidency of Spelman. Coming from a historically White all women’s college and making the transition to a historically Black all women’s college, it would appear Tatum would be a likely selection. Though this was the case with Tatum, HBCUs that desire to grow and thrive in the next era of higher education need not solely subscribe to this formulaic approach of leadership identification and selection. In the presidential search and selection process, HBCUs need to be courting and allow themselves to be courted by persons of various backgrounds and skill sets that will meet the current needs of the institution. Presidents such as Michael Sorrell at Paul Quinn College, Walter Kimbrough at Dillard University and Debra Saunders White of North Carolina Central University have backgrounds outside of traditional academia in the areas of business, law, government, student affairs, and administration. These particular skills and knowledge are ideal for a college president to hold. However, as many HBCUs are striving to move to the next level, they must begin doing so by not limiting their pool of potential candidates to familiar faces and comfortable spaces. Forward thinking presidents come with a sense of commitment, a sense of service, and a sense of building. These traits are not taught or acquired in limited spaces. Therefore HBCUs have to be open to diversifying the presidential pipeline in order for these leaders to emerge.
In September, Beverly Daniel Tatum will join a long list of great presidents of Spelman, great presidents of HBCUs, and great presidents in higher education. Her leadership is apparent and undeniable. But the list does not have to end with Tatum. Tatum and Spelman College have shown us the progress that can be made with a visionary president given the opportunity to serve. HBCUs have been doing significant things for such a long time and they continue to do so. HBCUs must move forward their mission of empowerment, uplift, and access. They should move forward, and must have presidents that honor the legacy of HBCUs, yet desire to honor said legacy by building upon it. As another great president will soon exit her post, the call goes out for HBCUs to make the selection of not just good leaders, but great ones a priority. HBCUs need leaders that can both cast a vision AND reach it.