Increasing the Probability of HBCU Presidential Success

Last Updated on May 27, 2023

Recently appointed HBCU Presidents: top left, Willie Larkin (Grambling State University), Top right, Mary Schmidt Campbell (Spelman College), Bottom left, Tashni Dubroy (Shaw University), and bottom right Maria Thompson (Coppin State University).
Recently appointed HBCU Presidents: top left, Willie Larkin (Grambling State University), Top right, Mary Schmidt Campbell (Spelman College), Bottom left, Tashni Dubroy (Shaw University), and bottom right Maria Thompson (Coppin State University).

Given the array of presidential leadership changes taking place in the HBCU sector, I have given a great deal of thought to what can be done to increase the probability of success for new presidents. While there are no magic bullets, I believe that there are at least five things that can and should be done to strengthen presidential leadership success.

Here are five practical strategies for success

1. Appoint a Transition Committee

Immediately following his/her appointment, the president, in consultation with the board chair, should appoint a small transition committee, comprised of internal and external members, to identify critical challenges and opportunities he/she should be prepared to address within the first year of appointment. The committee should identify key players from the campus, civic, corporate and alumni community who can be helpful to the president.

2. Participate in a New President's Academy

The board of trustees should provide the president with the necessary financial resources to participate in a New President's Academy or other appropriate professional development activities offered by one of the national higher education associations or major universities. There is enormous value in new presidents being able to establish positive relationships with peers who can serve as a sounding board when they encounter challenges in their presidential leadership journey.

3. Acquire an Authentic Mentor

Everybody needs a mentor, including college presidents! No matter how bright, experienced or committed a new college president may be, there is far more to know about leading than one knows. A mentor can be invaluable in helping new presidents think through what it is they wish to accomplish and how to do so without creating a backlash within the ranks of key constituent groups. An authentic mentor is one who possesses knowledge, wisdom and credibility and is willing to tell a president what he/she needs to know even when he/she may not want to hear it.

4. Fill Key Leadership Positions

If the need exists to fill key leadership positions, it is critical that such positions be filled expeditiously and in a manner consistent with the values of the institutions. Having access to an executive search firm, or consultant, can spell the difference between success and failure. While search committees that organize their work around the traditional academic calendar may engender positive feelings within the university community, they do little to fill major leadership vacancies in a timely manner. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, which supports the view that taking 9-12 months to fill a leadership vacancy yields a better appointment.

5. Create Synergy Between the President and the Board of Trustees

The success of the president and the effectiveness of the board of trustees are inextricably linked. The extent to which each party is able to do his/her job depends on three important factors: each entity acknowledging and accepting the crucial role of the other, the board empowering the president to do his/her job, and the board's willingness to engage in continuous professional development to optimize effectiveness and the fulfillment of its fiduciary responsibilities.

In four decades of university leadership at PWIs and HBCUs, I have observed first- hand the dynamics surrounding leadership changes at the presidential level. Though unstated, in nearly every instance, communications and the lack of fit were the reasons that led to the decision by one or both parties to sever their relationship and go in different directions. While there will always be such instances, the question is how can the frequency of such decisions be decreased and the impact on the institution minimized. Unlike more secure and better financed universities, HBCUs can hardly afford the effects of starting over amid an environment of diminished financial resources and increased competition for students.

To thrive rather than simply survive, HBCUs need both effective leaders and boards of trustees. Each has an important role to play and his/her success is inextricably linked.

Scroll to Top