Failure Is Not an Option: Setting HBCU Presidents Up For Success

Last Updated on October 6, 2017

A typography design is displaying the words "Failure Is Not an Option: Setting HBCU Presidents Up For Success" in yellow and black letters.

Extensive newspaper and television coverage, along with social media chatter about recent leadership changes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs, led me to reach out to a dozen or so of my former administrative colleagues to get their sense of what can be done to increase the probability of presidential success, irrespective of the length of a president’s tenure. Collectively, my colleagues asserted, and I agree, that care must be taken not to conflate the length of a president’s tenure with his or her success.

In emphasizing caution, they pointed to numerous examples of HBCU presidents who succeeded in a relatively short period in repositioning their universities for success by challenging and changing academic and administrative practices that stymied student academic success and institutional effectiveness. In fact, those decisions may have significantly impacted the length of the president’s tenure.

Acknowledging that university cultures vary significantly across the diverse and expansive HBCU sector, and one-size does not fit all, my colleagues and I came up with a list of ten things we believe can and must be done to stem the tide of presidential turn over while setting them up for success. As you review our list, I suggest that you develop your own and do your best to assist the president of your alma mater in having a successful presidency.

  1. Increase support for the leadership transition by involving key stakeholders in the presidential search process, especially alumni, students, faculty and staff. The challenge for the Board is to ensure constituent engagement without turning the search process into a popularity contest or relinquishing to the search committee its authority to hire and retain a president.
  2. In developing the Position Profile to be shared with prospective candidates, the Board must be just as forthcoming in identifying challenges and threats as they are in extolling the institution’s virtues and their aspirations for it. A new president should not be left to “discover” the dire financial, enrollment or accreditation issues facing the institution once they arrive on campus.
  3. Recognizing that not all institutional challenges and opportunities merit equal attention, the Board should convey to the President a manageable list of priorities without resorting to telling the president how to do his or her job. These priorities should serve as the framework for the president’s annual assessment.
  4. Prior to commencing his/her duties the newly appointed president should embark upon an intensive and comprehensive review of the history, values, culture and traditions of the university they are privileged to serve. Such a review is not a once and done undertaking; it continues throughout a president’s tenure and is reinforced through conversations with alumni, long-serving employees, retirees, and donors.
  5. The Board should include two key provisions in the president’s contract. The first of these include funds to enable the president to cover the cost of attending the New President’s Academy sponsored by one of several national higher education associations. The second includes making funds available for the president to retain the services of an Executive Coach for up to twelve to eighteen months, which is typically the time when many presidents begin to experience difficulty.
  6. To ensure optimal success, once the Board appoints a president, whether it’s the choice of all stakeholders or not, it is critical that the person is embraced, encouraged and supported.
  7. It’s not enough for the Board to appoint a talented university chief executive; the appointee must be empowered to lead—beginning with the assembly of a team of colleagues to assist them without being micromanaged by the Board.
  8. Members of the Board should make a commitment to evaluating their individual and collective performance, and to participating in ongoing professional development activities.
  9. Newly appointed presidents must resist the temptation of trying to be all things to all constituents by making more commitments than they can keep.
  10. Newly appointed presidents—and continuing ones too— must assume a posture of humility and gratitude while considering leadership as an opportunity for service rather than personal aggrandizement.

We all know–yet it’s worth repeating–that the conditions necessary for presidential success at all types of universities are complex and defy a simple list of things to do, and things not to do. Based on chancellorships at two PWIs and an HBCU, and based on my observations of presidential dynamics at many other HBCUs, I’m well aware of the distractions with which many HBCU leaders must contend in their effort to help their institutions compete for students and resources in today’s marketplace. The suggestions referenced in this blog posting are financially neutral acts that HBCUs can undertake to halt high rates of presidential turnover and the need to start over every few years. The opportunity costs, indeed the price of failure, are too high for these patterns of turnover to go unchecked and addressed.

Scroll to Top