When Predominantly White Schools Screw Up

Leadership struggles aren’t exclusively an HBCU thing.

Lake Michigan College trustees fired former president Jennifer Spielvogel for spending too much money on her investiture ceremony, upgrades to her home, and travel. She was four months into her presidency when she was given the boot.

In Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin fired the University of Louisville’s entire board of trustees, and appointed a new board which brokered a resignation with former president James Ramsey. Ramsey stepped down following months of scandals involving embezzlement, bloated administrative salaries, and sexual impropriety involving its men’s basketball team.

And its not yet clear if Ramsey, who also led the university’s foundation and earned over $2 million annually for the job in addition to his presidential salary, will be forced to resign from the separate corporate entity.

Former Baylor University chancellor Ken Starr resigned after revelations of a massive mishandling and cover up of rape and sexual assault allegations in its athletic department, which also resulted in the firing of the head football coach and athletic director.

The University of Akron fired its president after questionable spending practices, and unpopular leadership decisions yielded a nearly unanimous no-confidence vote from faculty. Scott Scarborough is likely to make between $450,000 and $1.5 million to leave the presidency.

Former Mount Saint Mary’s president Simon Newman resigned in March after drawing criticism for antagonistic policies and remarks against low-performing students.

Five relatively high-profile dismissals in the last six months, from predominantly white colleges of varying sizes and missions, moved the meter for higher education culture, but not so much in black culture.

But they should have, because each of these stories, and dozens of others not mentioned, show that leadership struggles that may be chronic among historically black colleges and universities, aren’t exclusive to HBCUs.

Higher education is dying, and the byproduct of that slow death at the hands of changing technology, the rise of political influence in higher education governance, the growing impossibility of affording college and the nation’s changing industrial imperative, all are creating a vacuum in which college leaders have to prove themselves as the greatest leaders campuses have ever seen, or to be blasted into higher ed oblivion at the first signs of miscalculation.

For black colleges, the timetables are shorter and the stakes higher than for other campuses, because they do not have the resources to mask ill-fitting leadership in a presidency with strategic vice-presidential hires, consultants, or other tools to avoid the public embarrassment of a presidential firing.

The politics are much hotter, because most leaders driven by ego or money are easily swayed by faulty legislative promises, or the imagined prestige of being a board member.

Save for the obvious differences in racial composition, size and finances, there is not much difference between black and white schools, or the struggles they face.

The biggest difference? The intensity of the pressure caused by the very nature of higher education, and the interconnected ways in which politicians, community members and school officials work together to resolve issues outside of public scrutiny.

White boards and presidents blow it just like black boards and presidents do. But in HBCU culture, there is inherent expectation for black folks to know better and to do better, because its higher education.

One could argue that this expectation is an inherited generational trait from the premium placed on black access to education throughout American history; but even if you don’t want to think that hard, just blame it on the proliferation of respectability politics in entertainment and social media.

Multiple things can be true at the same time. Historically black colleges have too much at stake for 30 percent of its executive workforce to be turned over in less than two years.

And predominantly white colleges engage in too much similar foolishness to avoid the same scrutiny HBCUs receive for similar outcomes in the fight to maintain higher education as a legitimate industry in this country.

There is solace in knowing that HBCUs don’t have sole propriety on executive nonsense. But given our unique challenges, we do have a more urgent need to figure out how to avoid it.

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