Many reasons exist to explain higher education executive departures. Some presidents, after long tenures in higher education as faculty members, chairs, deans and provosts finish off stellar careers that end with well-earned retirements. Others earn opportunities to lead larger, higher-ranked, more excellently-funded institutions, or find a much-garnered opportunity to return closer to home, or the thrill of earning a shot to lead their alma mater. Some depart for the private or non-profit sectors, others more to university systems.
On occasion, executive departures are necessitated by terminations or forced resignations. Even with the best of intentions at the onset and after significant effort in the interim, sometimes presidential appointments aren’t a good fit. Sometimes malfeasance occurs. Sometimes political chicanery interferes.
Institutions that are likely to continue to grow and excel after executive leadership transitions have well-established reputations as institutions of higher learning, stable faculty engagement, and administrative leadership across the board, and longstanding fruitful relationships with alumni, private donors, legislative partners, and corporate sponsors. Even when the most earth-shattering scandals lead to presidential departures, institutions such as these don’t miss more than one or two beats with regard to repairing their images.
Institutions with long-tenured presidents are not necessarily the nation’s most successful, nor does a long presidential tenure guarantee legislative support, fundraising growth, innovation, or student recruitment success. However, they do tend to provide a foundation for institutional stability and the potential to establish long-term, meaningful relationships that mutually benefit town and gown, institution and community.
Conversely, high executive turnover rates at an institution, or within an institutional type, may send a message about institutional stability or reputation that can be harmful. If retention is a recurring issue, is it because of a surfeit of resources, support, and guidance or because of a surplus of internal and external contentiousness among staff, alumni, boards/board members, and legislative liaisons? And when the high turnover seems to plague an institutional type, might that reputational harm extend to all institutions of the type, marring some institutions’ future efforts to recruit the most talented and qualified leaders?
Whatever the case, we’d likely be alarmed if nearly 33% of the institutions in a category turned over in a single academic year. If 1/3 institutions in the Ivy League, Big Ten, or Pac-12 turned over their executive leadership in 12 months’ time, it’s likely be seen as an aberration, and would not repeat often. So when 34 of the 107 historically black colleges and universities in America, between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016 either terminated or accepted the resignation of a CEO, or introduced a new interim or permanent CEO, is this trend or aberration?
Whatever it means, on 1/3 HBCU campuses in 2015–16, a new executive had to introduce himself or herself to a new student body and vice versa. A new executive had to hustle to fill vacant executive positions, takeover tasks left incomplete, and begin developing a vision for success even as they learned the lay of a new land. New relationships had to be forged, often from scratch, with alumni, corporate sponsors and donors, and legislators, mayors and governors. At some point those initial efforts will payoff (one hopes, if new executives are given enough time and they pursue them appropriately), but each time the leadership is reset, the payoff date is potentially delayed. Certainly this can threaten recruitment of all sorts: of students, faculty and staff, and supporters.
Hope springs eternal, and in the best case scenario, alumni and supporters will place their love for their alma maters and the students who need our support the most ahead of ties to previous leaders (or disgruntlement about the recently elected one) and that our newest leaders give them a vision they’d be inspired to support. I, for one, wish the new HBCU presidents all of the success they can imagine and more, despite the data which suggests that such success will be all the more challenging to achieve. Given that HBCUs face greater existential threats and philosophical inquiry about their continued existence than any other type of post-secondary institution, your institutions aren’t the only ones dependent upon your success.
All 107 are.
2015–2016 HBCU Executive Transactions
1) Arkansas Baptist College — Fitz Hill (resigned)
2) Albany State University — New President Arthur Dunning
3) Allen University –New President Lady June Cole
4) Barber-Scotia — New Interim President Yvonne Tracey
5) Clark Atlanta — New President Ronald Johnson
6) Coppin State — New President Maria Thompson
7) Drake State-Helen McAlpine (resigned)
8) Elizabeth City State — Stacey Jones (resigned)/Thomas Conway (interim chancellor)
9) Fisk University — James Williams (resigned)/Frank Sims (interim president)
10) Fort Valley State — New President Paul Jones
11) Gadsden State CC — New President Martha Lavender
12) Grambling — New President Willie Larkin
13) Grambling –President Willie Larkin (resigned)/New “Person in Charge” Larry Sanders
14) Kentucky State — Raymond Burse (resigned)
15) LeMoyne Owen — New President Andrea Miller
16) Lincoln University (Pa.) — New Interim President Richard Green
17) Norfolk State — New President Eddie Moore
18) Shaw — New President Tashni DuBroy
19) South Carolina State — Interim President W. Franklin Evans (resigned)/New President James Clark
20) Southern University Baton Rouge — New Chancellor Ray Belton
21) Southern University System — New President Ray Belton
22) SUNO — Victor Ukpolo (resigned)/Lisa Mims-Devezin (interim chancellor)
23) SU Law Center — John Pierre (interim)/New Chancellor John Pierre
24) SUSLA — Ray Belton (resigned)/New Chancellor Rodney Ellis
25) SU Ag Center — New Interim Chancellor Adell Brown
26) Texas Southern — New President Austin Lane
27) Virginia State — New President Makola Abdullah
28) Virginia University Lynchburg — Ralph Reavis (resigned)/Kathy Franklin (interim)
29) Virginia Union — New Acting President Joseph Johnson
30) Voorhees College — Cleveland Sellers (resigned)
31) West Virginia State — Brian Hemphill (resigned)
32) Winston Salem — New President Elwood Robinson
33) University of District of Columbia — New President Ron Mason
34) Xavier University — New President Raymond Verret