HBCU Presidents Are Leaving at a Rapid Clip – Here’s Why

Recently, HBCUs have seen a number of presidents leave their jobs. Read on to learn about the factors contributing to this leadership turnover.
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  • HBCU presidents play a key role in student success and stakeholder relationships.
  • The mass departure of HBCU presidents raises questions about the impact on the schools.
  • Conflicts with university boards and financial constraints are among the reasons for departures.
  • The departure of an HBCU president can have destabilizing effects on staff and donor giving.

Lately, a surge of presidents from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have left their positions. According to Higher Ed Dive, over 20 HBCU presidents have left their jobs since 2022. Some departures, of course, are due to retirement, while others are due to voluntary resignations and unexpected terminations.

Furthermore, a study by the American Council on Education suggests that 55% of college presidents plan on stepping down after five years of service. What does the mass departure of presidents mean for HBCUs?

The History and Importance of HBCUs

HBCUs were established to provide educational opportunities for Black people, specifically formerly enslaved people who were denied access to higher education institutions that were exclusively white. Administrative leadership embodying shared social and cultural experiences has largely benefited students at HBCUs.

Additionally, HBCU presidents often build positive relationships with students by being visible and interacting with them regularly. Strong leadership is crucial to an institution's success. Therefore, in their leadership role, HBCU presidents must also connect with alumni, the community, and other stakeholders.

Factors Influencing HBCU Presidents' Departures

Within the last two years, there have been notable departures and resignations from presidents at public and private HBCUs, including Prairie View A&M University, Langston University, Texas Southern University, Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and Rust College.

Three significant themes can lead to leadership turnover.

Conflict with University Boards

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, who led Bennett College, a private HBCU for women in North Carolina, for five years, suggests that the role of college president is no longer a lifetime position and that it is more common for HBCU presidents to have shorter tenures.

Presidents typically will sign a five-year contract, which may be extended beyond that time. It depends on a few things, as the president may have institutional goals she or he still wants to accomplish, or perhaps there are other opportunities available, Malveaux told BestColleges.

She suggests that some departures may stem from conflicts with university boards — particularly micromanagement and generational differences — which can lead to dissatisfaction with the president. Younger presidents may have limited tolerance for such issues.

Demands of Job

According to Malveaux, another reason presidents may leave is the constant pressure to raise funds. She also cited the political climate surrounding education and dealing with state legislators, adding that not every president is good at or wants to play political games.

Some presidents may feel they have accomplished their goals for growing the institution, and it is time to move on.

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, who served as president of Philander Smith College in Arkansas and Dillard University in Louisiana, told BestColleges that leading a university is more difficult than many realize.

The average candidate for a presidency really does not understand how hard the job is, especially in this political climate. People are sometimes too hungry to be a president without being discerning enough to know if that presidency is best for them.

He went on to say that often the board of trustees doesn't know how to choose a good president and will often choose the wrong person for the wrong time.

Financial Constraints and Resource Allocation

The issues of funding and limited resources are nothing new for HBCUs. Forbes reports that Black land-grant universities have been underfunded by $12.8 billion, compared to predominantly white land-grant institutions, over the last three decades.

Kimbrough pointed out that HBCUs are underresourced institutions that serve underresourced people and receive significantly less private and federal funding — yet two-thirds of students at HBCUs receive Pell Grants.

Despite financial constraints, HBCUs are expected to do everything a well-resourced institution does. Despite limited resources, HBCUs continue to enroll, retain, and graduate students.

The Impact on HBCUs

What are the consequences of a president leaving?

Malveaux believes that if the departure is planned out, say a year in advance, the transition can be smooth since there will be adequate time to prepare for the next president.

However, if not, there can be destabilizing effects, specifically for staff who may have come in under the departing president. There may be a fear of job insecurity.

Faculty who are tenured, however, may not be impacted too much.

According to Kimbrough, the president is responsible for ensuring the overall operations and administration of the campus, as well as developing a culture of success.

This is carried out by other administrators at the college or university. Therefore, leadership turnover at the very top will likely have little impact on student enrollment, learning outcomes, and academic programs.

Since the president does not technically handle the distribution of finances, there would be little impact there as well.

However, long-term implications may affect donor giving and fundraising if the institutional brand or reputation is not strong. It is the brand of the institution that attracts students, faculty, and external partnerships.

Of course, if the institution has a history of a revolving door of presidents who tend to last for only a couple of years, this could affect students' decision to attend that school. Additionally, this would affect private donations since it would be a sign of unstable leadership.

Dr. Ruth Ray Jackson was appointed to be the interim president at Langston University after Dr. Kent J. Smith retired. Jackson said that while students missed seeing Smith, who served as president for over a decade, at campus events, they know their perspectives continue to be valued by the entire administrative team despite his departure.

Jackson told BestColleges that student success is a team effort.

University presidents play a significant role in shaping the strategy, but the responsibility for enrollment, retention, and student success is a part of everyone's job. The education they receive and our rich traditions as a historically Black college and university remain steadfast.

Strategies for a Successful Presidency

Kimbrough and Malveaux both agreed that HBCUs should retain professional recruiting firms to help with presidential searches.

While these searches can be expensive, they can help locate the best candidates for the jobs. These firms can also conduct a deep campus assessment to determine what kind of person would help the campus succeed and see growth.

Once the board hires the president, it is up to the president to fit into the environment, build relationships with stakeholders, and seek funding. Some board members will work to raise funds for the institution, but not all.

Below are three strategies that presidents have used to find success during their tenures.

Seek Professional Development Opportunities

Individuals who want to be HBCU presidents should seek out current and former presidents who have had successful tenures to serve as their mentors. They can get direct insight into the day-to-day responsibilities of being an HBCU president and learn what to expect, specifically how to interact with stakeholders.

Build Strong Board Alliance

In order to be successful, HBCU presidents must have the full support of the board of trustees who hired them. It is necessary to have clear evaluation metrics, which should be discussed during the interview process. Disagreements and conflicts will be more problematic for the president than for the board.

Communicate With Alumni

The president must develop a strong relationship with the school's alumni association. If the president attempts to make any moves without alumni support, it could be detrimental to the institution's success.

Empowering Leadership for the Future

A college president's average length of tenure has continued to fall. For HBCUs, fiscal and leadership constraints have had an undue impact on presidents that significantly shortens their tenure.

Nevertheless, even during a short tenure, a president can have a positive effect on students' success by building positive relationships with student leaders and working to provide opportunities for them after graduation.

Despite the challenges HBCUs face, they have been a stable fixture for over 100 years and continue to thrive.

Those truly interested in serving as a president at an HBCU should already understand the history of financial constraints and be aware that one of the major responsibilities will be to seek private donations. Additionally, they must take an active interest and role in ensuring student success.

Further research is needed to determine whether a president's tenure affects the institution's long-term success and, more importantly, what was accomplished during the time.

The challenges faced by HBCUs will likely not go away anytime soon. Students continue enrolling in record numbers, and these institutions are still relevant. Even with turnovers in leadership, when an HBCU has a strong, positive standing and reputation, it will remain successful.