Musings of a Retired HBCU Chancellor

Last Updated on May 27, 2023

Musings of a Retired HBCU ChancellorIt’s hard to believe that it has been five years since I announced my retirement from full-time university administration. That’s right, five years! Two days following my “retirement” I immersed myself in a wide range of activities related to improving student retention and graduation, enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education and in strengthening governance and institutional effectiveness. I have had the privilege of serving as a full-time advocate for the HBCU sector, while also serving as a consultant to over 50 universities, foundations and higher education associations, among other entities. I haven’t had a slow day yet, and the pace doesn’t show signs of abating anytime soon. The beauty of my new life’s work is not being stressed out by the attitudes and demands of those who purportedly knew more about leading the university than I did. I no longer have nightmares about an unbalanced budget, where to “find” $2 million to replace the heating and cooling system in a high-rise residence hall, or how to deal with the combined effects of budget cuts and enrollment shortfalls. The truth is, I have lost a few pounds and my blood pressure has declined, and some people say I even look a couple of years younger!

It’s a rainy day here in the Midwest, and I’ve just returned from back to back visits to two HBCUs, one public and the other private. Both universities can rightfully lay claim to a rich legacy of helping first-generation college graduates excel personally and professionally. While both are staring fiscal challenges in the face, the question isn’t whether they will survive, but whether they will thrive. You see, I’m convinced that both of these institutions have strong brands and good cost-to-benefit ratios. What they need are funds to support a limited number of strategic investments that will enable them to provide a uniformly high quality collegiate experience for all students, not just the small cohort of Honors students. It’s time for alumni at all HBCUs to back up our avowed love for our Alma Mater in two concrete ways: sharing our financial resources and referring prospective students to the institution.

When I was a university CEO, I had a hand full of close colleagues with whom I could share my innermost thoughts and trepidations about work. Now that I’m retired and serving as a purveyor of hope, optimism and realism, I have only a couple of individuals with whom to share my thoughts. So, I decided to share them with whoever reads this blog posting. My executive leadership team used to grant me a moment of personal privilege to share my thoughts, but now that I’m “retired” and they’ve gone on to bigger and better things, and my spouse has no interests in hearing any of this, I’m grateful to you for taking time to read this blog posting.

  • I have a confession to make. I miss the spring college commencement ritual. Having worked in the academy for over forty years—three times as a Chancellor— Spring commencement was one of the most energizing days of the academic year. It was the one day of the year when I could set aside worries about budget cuts, trustee or faculty governance discord and dissatisfied alums, among a plethora of other issues. I miss shaking the sweaty hands of graduating seniors, listening to lengthy commencement speeches by speakers who seem to have forgotten the request not to exceed a 15-minute speech. I miss meeting the children, spouses, significant others, mothers, fathers and grandparents of the graduates— people who’d made significant sacrifices to support their graduating senior. I especially miss meeting those Black parents with deep facial wrinkles and bloodshot eyes and calloused hands who reminded me of my parents. I miss the smell of stale perfume, cologne and shaving lotion worn by parents of many graduates. I miss the toothless smiles of babies and old folks too. I miss being asked by graduates to take a photo with them. I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but I miss the grads who couldn’t resist doing a praise dance upon receiving their degree, or giving an embarrassingly loud shout out to their fraternity brothers and or sisters. Wow, do I miss commencement!
  • As a full-time advocate for HBCUs, I am growing increasingly weary of the leadership and governance drama playing out at our institutions. There are too many trustees who appear hell-bent on substituting their administrative judgement for that of the person they hired to serve as president of the institution. At the same time, I’m aghast at the number of HBCU presidents who confuse being president with being “the boss” and expecting others to abide by their directives whether they are reasonable and appropriate or not. In reality, the most effective institutions are those where presidents and trustees have found a way to ameliorate the differences between various campus constituencies and to chart a course forward. Just as presidents do not have to win every little scrimmage, nor do board members have to always emerge as winners. Trustees and presidents come and go, but students are the reason for the institution’s existence!
  • I’m troubled by the growing number of HBCU leaders complaining about how poor their institutions are. Didn’t you know the university was a low-wealth institution before you accepted the presidency? If not, you may want to think seriously about whether there’s a good fit between you and the institution. If the fit is not a good one, there’s no shame in acknowledging this reality and accepting a position where your skills can best be utilized. By the way, unless you are prepared to lead the way in your giving, you are definitely in the wrong place. Compared to many of your predecessors, the institution’s assets are enormous. The question is simple: are the resources deployed to achieve optimal returns? HBCUs have never had enough money, and it’s unlikely they ever will. Every expenditure must be scrutinized and in instances where the impact cannot be established, reallocation must be considered.
  • HBCU trustees, alums, students, and employees, we need to stop expecting our presidents to walk on water and swim upstream! In all probability, the fiscal woes besetting the university existed long before the president’s arrival. The infrastructure needed shoring up, the technology was outdated and undependable, the residence halls were in disrepair, and all but a few employees were adequately compensated for their work. Resolving these and other persistent issues take time, attention and financial investments. Having said that, I do not believe it’s unreasonable to ask the president for an action plan and timeline for addressing these issues. Upon receipt of such a plan, each of us must do our part to advance the well-being of the university. In the meantime, we must refrain from using social media to speak negatively about our institutions. At the end of the day, the injury is to the institution, not the president.
  • Ms. & Ms. President, pare down your institution’s menu of academic programs and stop trying to be all things to all students. Be honest with yourself; you cannot offer a high quality major in an academic disciple with one full-time faculty member (or none), and a bunch of adjuncts. We must refrain from shortchanging our students and charging them an arm and a leg in tuition and fees. Why does the institution, for example, offer 20 or more degree options when some of those programs have as few as 2-3 graduates? Academic program review is hard work– and it’s taxing emotionally and politically too. As you make the program cuts that must be made, make sure the trustees are on board, and you aren’t deterred by the despairing voices of those who oppose your recommendations. The last thing you need is for trustees to say that the proposed program discontinuations are news to them. Trustees, if you are not prepared to make tough decisions and support your president when you know she is right, please think seriously about whether you can credibly serve the institution.
  • Mr. & Ms. President, you and every member of your executive leadership team must ask yourselves a simple question. Are we spending too much money on administrative overhead? Please hear me clearly, the structure that you adopt should reflect what you’re trying to accomplish and not what you’ve observed at other institutions. There is nothing sacred about structure; it only exists to facilitate goal attainment. Do you really need all of that sophisticated administrative structure for an institution the size of yours? While we’re on the subject of administrative overhead, why retain staff at any level who are not doing their jobs? There should not be people on the institution’s payroll whose contributions can’t be documented, no matter how long they’ve been affiliated with the institution or their connection to members of the board of trustees.
  • To those local business executives and civic leaders, start supporting your local university now or suffer the consequences. Do you know how much money students spend at your local Wall Mart, Target, Kroger or Walgreen’s? Do you know how much in taxes faculty and staff pay? It’s time for you to ante up and support your local higher education institutions. Have you seriously considered, for example, the economic impact or value of a football or basketball game on your local economy, or the impact of Homecoming?

Well, the rain has ceased and the sun is shining brightly. My mood has lifted, and I’m about to pack for a quick day trip to Washington, DC to do a little advocacy work!

4 thoughts on “Musings of a Retired HBCU Chancellor”

  1. Shelley Fisher, Ph.D.

    I found the “governance drama” interesting. Boards who supersede their administrative roles over the person they hired to do the job create problems, even wreak havoc.

  2. Dr. Nelms,
    Your musings are priceless, especially for a doctoral candidate who seeks to make an impact in higher education. As a former Registrar, I share your thoughts about commencement. Your contributions are appreciated and I look forward to learning more from you.

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