Recycling Mediocrity: Presidential Musical Chairs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

As I read a recent article about the latest hiring of new presidents at various Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the country, I observed a disturbing pattern: Several of the newly hired HBCU presidents had failed at their previous institutions. The article prompted me to wonder if my fellow HBCU alums feel as I do with regard to the presidential hiring process for HBCUs. Is this practice similar to the hiring practices of the NFL coaching ranks, where it seems that the same failed coaches get rehired by different teams?

This question led me to start looking at HBCU presidential hirings and NFL hirings. What I discovered leads me to the conclusion that both organizations appear to reward mediocrity and failure. When you survey the number of failed coaches who were rehired in the NFL and juxtapose the hiring of HBCU presidents, both agencies appear to suffer from a pipeline problem and lack a healthy respect for evaluative metrics. I offer the above assessment based on the fact that many of the HBCU presidents who have been terminated for lack of performance and/or misappropriations of funds often resurface at another HBCU.

These scenarios raise some important questions. Is the HBCU pipeline so small/narrow that universities are willing to hire candidates despite their underwhelming records and ethical shortcomings?  What should happen to HBCUs if they cannot find effective leadership--should they remain independent or be merged with other institutions? There are a couple of HBCUs with four-year graduation rates of only three percent. With graduation rates this low, coupled with the pipeline challenges, questions surrounding mergers and closures will persist. In this current economy, calls may grow louder as graduation rates, leadership mediocrity, mismanagement, and malfeasance continue to plague the low-performing HBCUs.

With the right leadership, HBCUs can be transformed into successful entities with consistently improving graduation and retention rates. However, the pipeline must be expanded to cultivate and nurture new leaders for the 16 open HBCU presidencies. A Chronicle of Higher Education article exploring the reasons for the 16 open HBCU presidencies finds that most explanations for the numerous vacancies ascribe it to a crisis in leadership, the poor economy, and HBCUs’ inability to demonstrate their value to prospective students versus relying on the historical reasons to attend an HBCU, i.e., being black.

There are several salient reasons why many of the HBCUs continue to fail at educating students. Foremost amongst them: recycling of mediocre leadership; poor alumni giving; assistant professors receiving tenure; and  a lack of sound board leadership.

I will address poor leadership and granting tenure to assistant professors.

It is clear that not all HBCU leaders are mediocre, and the Chronicle article is not an indictment as such. However, it is well documented that Drs. Johnnetta Cole and Julianne Malveaux are the type of standard-bearer leaders HBCUs should seek to lead their institutions. Both have demonstrated excellent records, and they have enhanced the reputations of the colleges they have led.

It is not lost on me that HBCUs are habitually underfunded and that they recruit from a pool of students who receive inadequate education because of underfunding. Seeing this, some cite racism as a factor. But at some point, excuses must be laid to rest. The esteemed Booker T. Washington, famed leader of Tuskegee University, left the school with a $2 million endowment. In 2011, the relative value of $2 million in 1900 ranges from $46 million to $1.4 billion. As an aside, Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton College, Meharry Medical College, and Florida A&M University appear to understand that leadership must be demonstrated in the fundraising milieu; each has an endowment over $100 million. However, this still pales in comparison to Harvard University’s $30.7 billion endowment.

Finally, HBCUs that practice granting tenure to assistant professors pervert the tenure process and do grave harm to the quest to raise standards and increase retention and graduation rates.

I make this non-empirical claim based on my personal experience as an educator and administrator. I have found that institutions that grant tenure to assistant professors usually have poor graduation rates. These non-standards practices of granting tenure appear to produce adverse results.

I anticipate being challenged for drawing such a conclusion from a non-empirical, small sample. However, I feel very strongly, after having worked in these types of environments for the past five years, that tenure must be revisited.

To push the envelope further, I think tenure should be abolished and a system of renewable contracts should be instituted based on defined metrics. If tenure is not abolished, institutions that fall below a certain graduation threshold and continue to demonstrate comprehensive failure should automatically trigger some kind of post-tenure review for all faculty members at the non-compliant universities. To ensure fairness, administrator’s contracts should be voided without penalty as well when graduation rates fail to reach acceptable levels.

Posted by: Byron E. Price

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