12 Years a HBCU President

Every year around this time I post this picture. December 13, 2004. This was my first day as president of Philander Smith College. I have now completed 12 years as a college president, and have entered into my 13th year. I have seen a great deal during this time, learned a lot, and have really enjoyed doing the work of president.

Over this time I have had concerns about the future of the presidency. One of the major concerns was instability as I have watched a number of people come and go during this time, with especially high turnover in recent years. I’ve even written about the crisis and what might be done to strengthen potential presidents.

Fortunately, new initiatives have emerged to help address this need. In March of 2015 the Higher Education Leadership Foundation (H.E.L.F.) was organized “to provide bold, engaging and innovative learning and mentoring opportunities for current and aspiring leaders.” Just recently they hosted their fourth cohort of the program.

More recently, The Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania announced a new aspiring leaders initiative. This initiative will also provide mentoring and professional development for mid career professionals interested in leadership. These programs join others in existence, including the Millennium Leadership Initiative (MLI) hosted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which has provided this kind of training for over 18 years.

And while there still is instability, there is a strong sign that HBCU leadership has moved into a new, more progressive era. Back in 2004 when I began, there were only 5 HBCU presidents aged 50 or younger. In 2016, there were 5 HBCU presidents aged 50 or younger- and that was just the ones who started their presidencies in 2016! In fact, there are now 17 HBCU presidents aged 50 or younger.

Eighteen have been hired since 2012, with 16 of those still employed. This compares favorably to 30 of the 44 presidents over 50 hired during that time who are still employed. As someone who will turn 50 next year, it has been remarkable watching this major shift for HBCUs. Having many chances to engage this new generation of presidents I have been encouraged by their creativity, willingness to explore and take risks, and commitment to best practices.

While it is still early, with most still in their first contract, if this group is successful it will solidify a new era for HBCUs, one that bodes well for this sector, its students, its alumni, and the nation.

I recently found myself back at the same door I entered 12 years ago as president of Philander Smith College. Today there is a newer, younger president moving Philander Forward. My role has changed, not only as president of Dillard University, but as a big brother (along with Paul Quinn’s Michael Sorrell) of a new crew of HBCU leaders engaged in the critical work of strengthening these schools and writing new narratives.

I wish them all at least twelve years as a president, but not simply for their own careers. The HBCU community needs them to be successful, and for a long time.