Clark Atlanta’s Growing Pains

CAU showcases the promise and pitfalls of typical HBCU administration.

Earlier this month, Clark Atlanta University chemistry professor Dinadayalane Tandabany received a National Science Foundation HBCU Undergraduate Program Research Initiation Award for nearly $300,000. He, along with several students from the university will use the award to build their knowledge and research base in bionanoscience over the next three years.

In a release, Dr. Tandabany expressed optimism that the grant would go a long way in helping black scientists to stake claim to valuable research and development real estate in an emerging scientific field.

“My goal to increase the number of underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students in computational chemistry and nanoscience research by applying for more research grants,” said Tandabany. It is also in keeping with CAU President Ronald A. Johnson’s directive to equip all students with “stackable credentials” to boost their global competitiveness upon graduation.

Dr. Johnson’s emphasis on work-ready training and certification through baccalaureate degree programs has attracted attention and funding. In January, the university secured $494,000 from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to revitalize its undergraduate research center.

But if the drinking game buzzword was the term ‘stackable credentials,’ his media and press releases would have half of the city pre-gamed to perfection.

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“CAU is hoping to be the first historically black college doing this type of competency-based education with the stackable credentials. The university’s core requirements have been reduced from 58 hours to 32 hours to free up hours for students to pursue the credentials in each discipline. We are working toward launching the new curriculum for incoming freshman in January 2016. Existing students will be able to earn the credentials as they are built into the programs.”

In the Saporta Report:

Johnson said Clark Atlanta will be in the market next year for a permanent business dean. “The business school is at the forefront of our university,” Johnson said, who would like CAU students to get “stackable credentials” — multiple certificates demonstrating that they have more employable skills.

In the State of the University presentation:

Higher education as an industry is changing dramatically behind the ways in which institutions use technology to teach and monitor student progress, and how quickly colleges can get students out and into or creating jobs.

The federal government is so desperate to abandon its college loan subsidies program, that it is trying to eliminate for-profit schools while simultaneously hiring other for-profit businesses to teach students how to work and earn jobs in coding and manufacturing.

HBCUs are being left behind, thanks in large part to a lack of engagement between the feds and black colleges, and the reticence of many HBCU presidents to either recognize or accept that these changes will likely signal the end of many of the smaller, private HBCUs and a few publics as well.

But Dr. Johnson is moving CAU ahead with an innovation imperative, and for most cities and institutions, this is more than a novel concept; it is an essential one. But for HBCUs, there is a careful balance executives must strike between preparing a school for the urgency of now, and embracing the social, political and cultural traditions which have helped HBCUs to survive for 150 years in the face of white privilege, black ego, and American economics.

A Change in Leadership

A look at Clark Atlanta’s Department of Political Website list Kurt Young as the chair of the unit. But two months ago, members of its faculty ranks were searching for answers as to why Dr. Young, a CAU alumnus and faculty transplant from the University of Central Florida regarded as a respected university community member and standout professor, was removed from his position just three years after his appointment. Letters from faculty members, program alumni and others came into Dr. Johnson’s office, opposing Dr. Young’s removal and resulting salary reduction. By their accounts, communication was never returned, beyond the cursory “service at the will and pleasure of the president” employment caveat.

In a July 1 email written to members of the university’s Faculty Assembly, Dr. Young laid out the details of his removal and replacement.

I would like to bring to the attention of the Faculty Assembly recent actions by the CAU Administration that arguably undermine the principles of shared governance and violate basic standards of academic management, professionalism, and collegiality.
By now, many of you are aware of the decision by President Johnson to remove me as Chair of the Department of Political Science. While I was offered that “the chair serves at the pleasure of the President” as justification, there are broader and deeper concerns that deserve the attention of this body. Please consider the following summary:
1. Dr. Johnson has provided no formal explanation or cause for this decision.
2. I am not in violation of any of the department chair or faculty responsibilities as outlined in the Faculty Handbook.
3. I was made aware of the decision at a very late point (June).
4. Dr. Johnson has yet to respond to my appeals indicating that the extremely late timing and the large reduction will have an immediate and adverse impact on my family.
5. Dr. Johnson only provided me with less than two weeks’ notice of the significantly large reduction in my salary, thereby denying me the opportunity to prepare accordingly.
6. My contract with CAU includes no reduction statement or agreement on such a large amount.
7. The Administration installed as Interim Chair of the Department of Political Science someone external to the current faculty.
8. The proposed interim chair currently heads another department and holds credentials from an entirely different discipline (Public Administration).
9. The offer to and acceptance by the proposed interim chair was announced to the Political Science faculty well after the fact.
To this point, Dr. Johnson has not responded to my letters and meeting requests. I understand that similar requests from supporting faculty members, alumni and students also remain unanswered.
Thus, I opt now to consult with this body for any appropriate intervention, commentary, guidance and/or support. I have provided attachments for context and in the spirit of openness. I look forward to an audience with the Faculty Assembly at the first possible opportunity.

Was Dr. Johnson within his rights as campus CEO to make a change in departmental leadership? Was Dr. Young within his rights to question the timing and nature of the change? These questions, as is the case with most institutions, never yield to a formula of how to determine who was most right, or who wins. In the short term, the president typically emerges as the winner by virtue of the leadership prerogative.

In the long-term, it will be the faculty who wins because, the president can’t fire all faculty members, but all faculty members can get together to fire the president — but only when he or she doesn’t deliver on the promise of progress.

There’s no indication that CAU faculty are simmering to force a presidential ouster, although in HBCU culture, it is not impossible. But there is some indication that Dr. Johnson did not account for the courtesy of transparency that is so important in academe, and critical to the success of the 21st century HBCU president.

Who knows why Dr. Johnson would replace Dr. Young? Maybe he wanted to replace him eventually with someone he trusts from a previous stop. Maybe he thinks or was led to believe that Dr. Young wasn’t all in for the ‘stackable credentials’ movement. Or perhaps he believes he has a better man or woman to make the department better fit his institutional vision.

This is the dichotomy of the HBCU presidency — the burden of having a vision that seems so right to move a vulnerable institution towards progress, but the actions of that vision being so countercultural, it almost renders the vision to be a blinding distraction to the stakeholders it was created to support.

The most successful HBCU presidents in history understood that vision is nothing without relationships which build and support it, because without them, the vision will fail because of lack of support, or at the hands of internal sabotage.

And this is not a culture unique to HBCUs; typically, the relationship building with faculty is richest at the dean level, but at smaller institutions, there is a value upon knowing why and how presidents arrive at key decisions in fundraising, personnel management and institutional strategy. It comes with the job, and while it surprises some new executives, their response is a key element of predicting how long their tenure will be at an institution.

Great presidents create relationships and outcomes. Decent presidents create relationships that make outcomes. And fired presidents work to create outcomes without prioritizing relationships.

So Dr. Johnson has had his full introduction to the contemporary dealings of higher education executive leadership — worlds of potential melding as the foundation of institutional culture, with a hot new stackable controversy placed neatly on top.