In 1904, a fierce Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. Not too far up the road, and 110 years later, Florida A&M University selected its first Black female president Elmira Mangum. At first glance, the selection of a woman as president of FAMU might not seem like a big deal, but it is; as is the selection of quite a few other Black female presidents as of late, including Gwendolyn Boyd at Alabama State University.
Although seventy percent of HBCU students are women, only 30 percent of HBCU presidents are female. Of course, there have been some very prominent female presidents, including Johnnetta Cole (Spelman and Bennett Colleges), Beverley Tatum (Spelman), Julianne Malveaux (Bennett), Dorothy Yancy (Johnson C. Smith), and Carolyn Meyers (Jackson State University). However, women still reach the presidency at a much slower pace than their Black male counterparts.
These recent selections are ones that signal a possible shift in the way HBCU boards are approaching the presidential search process. These women also take office at a time many consider the height of awareness of HBCU leadership and administrative practices. Recently, there has been much criticism of HBCUs, their leadership, their boards, and the ways in which these boards select individuals to be at the helm. However, the decisions of Alabama State and FAMU could signal a change in the perceived “business as usual” mindset. Boyd being an alumnus of the institution she will soon lead is not out of the ordinary. What is strikingly different, however, is her background. Boyd does not hail from the typical faculty/dean track but rather has held administrative positions and extensive professional experience in the area of STEM fields. Coupled with that is her being an ordained minister and a past president of one of the largest women’s organizations in the world, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She is a well-known public figure, but also a proven leader in various capacities—not just academe.
FAMU is considered one of the more prominent HBCUs and is known for its unabashed celebration of tradition. This allegiance to tradition has recently come under much scrutiny with numerous reports regarding ignoring an accepted (though not accepted in school policy) hazing culture, strained board-presidential relations, and accreditation scares. With the selection of Mangum, who is not an alumnus of FAMU (a rare occurrence in the school’s history), has worked at major research institutions in the country spanning every role from faculty to vice-president, and has extensive background in financial and resource management in higher education, it seems FAMU is signaling to the world that they though they still cherish tradition, they are serious about moving their institution into a new era.
Boyd and Mangum are presidents with not just impressive, but diverse leadership portfolios. But when we take a look at two institutions that are 100 plus years old selecting their first women presidents, we have to ask are HBCUs really ready to challenge the areas of academe historically riddled with sexism and patriarchal culture? These women clearly are qualified, intelligent, capable leaders so will the higher education community view their presidential tenures free from the lens of gender, or will they have the mantle of representing every woman unfairly placed on their shoulders as so many Black women have experienced through the years?
There is already activity that brings pause. Terms of Boyd’s contract came to light, regarding not being allowed to “cohabitate” in the presidential residence with persons with whom she was engaging in “romantic relations.” If Boyd were a single male one must wonder if said stipulation would be included in the contract? Were Boyd’s leadership credentials, professional background, and references not enough to ensure she was aware of expected professional conduct? Practices such as this can lead to the belief that though HBCUs want change, change must still look, walk, and talk a certain way. And if change is a woman, she does not simply deserve respect by virtue of office and results, but rather must earn it through the politics of respectability. Only time will tell if this is the case. But leaders like Boyd and Mangum do not reach their positions without learning to skillfully navigate the racist and sexist minefields of society. These firsts are merely joining the company of many other firsts that surely appear on their lists of accomplishments.
As we see the increase in women in the HBCU presidency, several questions and concerns come to mind. First, how committed are the HBCUs choosing female president, specifically boards and alumni, in supporting these new presidents? Will more females in the presidency lead to more females in other upper level administrative positions, making HBCUs less heavily male at the top? Will this increase also lead to more women on HBCU boards? With vacancies at Howard, Alcorn, and Tuskegee, will women be prominent in the applicant pool and final candidates. And lastly, will this new crop of women lead to innovation and change, and perhaps a different style of leadership at HBCUs?
About the Authors
Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.
Felecia Commodore is a third year PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was recently a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia’s research focus area is HBCU leadership, governance, and administrative practices.