Symbols are an important piece of American society. Symbols can inspire and they can also remind of us of a time passed. People take their symbols seriously, sometimes religiously. One only needs to look at the current climate around the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol building to understand this to be true. Symbols mean things. Symbols communicate values, tradition, community, shared mindsets, and institutional identity. In the same vein, symbolic change represents similar sentiments. In most cases, symbolic change happens before actual structural and cultural change occur. Symbolic change is used to communicate a shift in values, thoughts, and processes. It often points to what an organization aspires to or how they desire to perceived. Symbolic change doesn’t necessarily indicate that a society or an organization actually wants to change. When an organization makes an act of symbolic change that is mere theater, an act that was not ever intended to be followed with true structural and cultural change, but finds that real change is indeed happening it can find itself in shock, turmoil, and sometimes distress. Some would say we are witnessing this occur at Florida A & M University (FAMU).
A few years ago FAMU found itself at the center of various news stories concerning the death of Robert Champion and the culture of hazing and cover up now associated with the institution. This unfortunate story led to public conversations about FAMU’s governance, leadership, and its tendency towards insularity and possibly overly loyal to traditions, even if those traditions proved detrimental to its existence. Pressures of multiple scandals and concerns of the board led to the resignation of then President James Ammons, and a new president had to be selected. All eyes were on FAMU. Who would they pick next? Would they be the FAMU that only trusted its own or would they challenge tradition? Enter President Elmira Mangum.
President Elmira Mangum was a presidential pick with a background unlike what we had commonly seen at FAMU. She had no direct connection with FAMU, having not attended, taught, or worked there prior. Though an HBCU graduate, she came from an upper level administrative position at a private, ivy league, PWI. President Mangum would also be the 127- year old institution’s first permanent female president. President Mangum represented a new day in various ways at FAMU. She looked like change. The decision to select her as president looked like change, and therefore the general public and FAMU stakeholders were to believe that FAMU would be turning a corner, taking the best of who they are with them and leaving the worst behind. Or so we thought. One can tell if an organization has embraced the process of true structural and cultural change as opposed to just symbolic change when a challenge to an unspoken value, informal process, or informal protocol occurs. It appears Mangum’s hire choices and leadership style was interpreted as affronts to the aforementioned by certain stakeholders, board members, and especially the board chair. Public dissent from the board chair begs the question if Mangum’s hiring was to act as simply symbolic change, not real change. If so, it seems President Mangum has not gotten the memo.
The problem with symbolic change is that it merely sparks or inspires progress, but it does not ensure progress. Not to mention, when the symbolic actor engages their role as an actual change agent, engaging in real structural and cultural change, there is bound to be conflict with those in positions of influence and power that never intended for real change to occur. Unfortunately for FAMU we have seen this play out over the last year in numerous ways including fiery debates over hires and dismissals, challenging President Mangum’s competency to lead, a desire from some board members for a micromanagement of the president, and a seemingly public battle between the board chair and president—one of the most important relationships to ensure high functioning institutional leadership. I would also be remiss if I neglected to mention the sexist ways President Mangum’s character has been assassinated and her leadership questioned. This includes allusions of sexual relationships with hires, claims from FAMU stakeholders that a school with a woman president will never have a successful football program, and pushes to bring in former presidents to help her lead as if she accumulated all of her prior leadership experience by happenstance and suddenly became incompetent to lead once gracing FAMU’s halls and corridors. We know these attacks on her lack of effective leadership are not true by merely looking at what President Mangum has accomplished in her short tenure at FAMU. These accomplishments include but are not limited to:
- Receiving $110,000 for First Generation students from the Florida Board of Governors
- FAMU Named as one of America’s Top Colleges for 2015
- FAMU Receives $1.3M NIH Grant To Support Innovative Cancer Treatment Research
- State legislature providing a total of $7.6 million for student affairs building and completion of Pharmacy Phase II building
- Awarded $6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Agency
I don’t suggest that all has been perfect under the Mangum administration. No transition is. I don’t suggest that every decision made by Mangum should go without question. Good governance allows for multiple voices and viewpoints to be heard. I also don’t suggest that Mangum has amassed all of these achievements as an island. She has undoubtedly had some team players, on the board and across the campus, to support her along the way. However, the embattlement with the board of trustees and with the board chair in particular, that President Mangum has had to and continues to endure is not only uncalled for, it is unhealthy for the institution. And really, shouldn’t that be the focus of what everyone is doing here—sustaining a healthy and effective institution? As we continue to watch this case play out, it is my hope that the board and President Mangum will be able to find a resolution that does not include micromanagement of the president nor an irreparable chasm created between the board and president.
Institutional stakeholders (students, alumni, faculty & staff, funders, etc.) at FAMU, and all institutions, must become more aware of and adamant about who sits on the institution’s board of trustees. Not only should constituents be concerned with what financial and capital means these board members bring to the table but also what value systems they carry through the doors. It is ultimately these value systems that color how trustees engage their work and the decisions that they make. HBCUs hold tradition in high esteem. Tradition is important as it creates a lasting bond between generations and speaks to the heart and identity of an organization. Tradition is the constant current that holds steady as organizations grow in an ever changing world. However, when one cannot distinguish between tradition and poor practice one’s role in the decision-making process may need to be questioned. When we began to care about doing things the way we have always done them more than whether that process will aid in reaching goals and being effective, the time for reevaluation has arrived. We have to ask, if our leaders desire progress and success or are they more concerned with position and power? Do our board members really desire leaders who are innovative and daring or do they want puppets that look the part but have no real say? Do we as stakeholders desire symbols of change but no real change at all?
As the current and next generation of FAMU students, donors, and other community stakeholders view what appears to be an unwarranted attack on a president who is working hard to do the job she was hired to do, what will be communicated? Will they see an institution that they can invest in? Will they see an institution that survived the worst of times and with the hiring of President Mangum was ready to continue to grow the great, rich legacy of FAMU and put down the parts of themselves that hindered true progress and success? Or will they see a reluctance to move forward because of persons who never expected to have to share power or have to embrace cultural and organizational change? What interpretation stakeholders make will bode important for the institution’s future. No one wants to be associated with what seems to be instability—not donors, parents, or students. President Mangum isn’t just a symbol—she is a leader. She is the president. She serves at the pleasure of the board, but the board should be her chief partners in “Building a Brand that Matters in the 21st Century and Beyond”, not her chief enemy. FAMU deserves more than symbols. FAMU deserves a board that is willing to work alongside and respect the president as an invested partner and not expect her to simply be a silent puppet. FAMU is indeed experiencing growing pains, but hopefully it will grow together not fall apart.