Governing HBCUs for the Future - Higher Education
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Governing HBCUs for the Future

by Felecia Commodore & LaToya Owens

As institutional performance, outcomes and effectiveness become a major focus in higher education, the conversation regarding the accountability of historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and HBCU leadership has increased. More scrutiny has been placed on administrative practices, presidential turnover and board of trustees’ decision-making and presidential relations. Historically and contemporarily, this conversation has centered on the HBCU presidency. However, as we move into the HBCU community’s next great era, it is imperative that current ideas around leadership be broadened to include all parties that strategically plan and make decisions for HBCUs. Along with the president, this team includes senior-level administrators and the board of trustees.

In recent years, the rapid presidential turnover at a number of HBCUs has gained increased attention. Presidents at HBCUs serve an average of six years as opposed to the national average of 8.5 years (Freeman & Gasman, 2014). The reason for this high turnover at HBCUs range from resignations to poor president-board relations.

Dr. Felecia Commodore

This high turnover has not only become an area of concern for HBCU leaders and stakeholders, but also for some accrediting agencies, such as Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the accrediting agency for a majority of HBCUs. SACSCOC’s governance and administration requirements call for boards to have periodic evaluations of their CEO (the president) but have found institutions to have issues with board composition, the ways in which they did or did not periodically evaluate their president, and issues  implementing shared governance.

Though HBCUs have had a tenuous relationship with SACSCOC in the past, most sanctions occurred due to financial challenges.

However, as this age of accountability continues, it seems SACSCOC is placing special focus on evidence of functioning governance as an indicator of a healthy institution. Other accrediting agencies that serve HBCUs, such as the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), also have accreditation criteria regarding shared governance and exemplifying stability in resources, governance and leadership.

For HBCUs that aim for sustainability and success, ensuring healthy, stable and high functioning governance models is priority. This begins with the president and the board of trustees seeing each other as teammates and not opposing players. Issues of cultural fit and poor board-presidential relations can create both frequent turnover and turmoil in HBCU administrations. Board members should not overstep by micromanaging the president or becoming overly involved with day-to-day operations. Likewise, new presidents must become intimately knowledgeable of their campus and organizational cultures and keep these cultures in mind when they are communicating change. Additionally, institutions need to not only have well-drafted governance policies but documents and evidence that show policy and practice are the same. Clear policies should exist that show a distinction between the policy-making functions of the board and the responsibility of the administration and faculty to administer and implement policy. Shared governance and the minimization of conflict of interests and external influences on the board of trustees, should also be present in both policy and practice at HBCUs.

Establishing a diverse board of trustees at an HBCU can contribute to an increased trust in the decision-making process (Commodore, 2018). When discussing board diversity at HBCUs it would be irresponsible to simply focus on race. Rather, HBCUs have a variety of areas to consider increasing diversity, including but not limited to gender, age, and professional background.

Dr. LaToya Owens

Also, to be considered is achieving a balance of board members who are alumni and non-alumni. Boards lopsided in alumni members can run the risk of insular and groupthink decision-making. Additionally, church-affiliated institutions should strive for a balance of trustees who are clergy or affiliated with their respective church and trustees who are not. This proves important for institutions affiliated with churches which possess their own strong governance structures. An imbalance within board composition also creates the possibility of a strong external influence from the practices and politics of the affiliated church (Commodore, 2018). Though public HBCUs have less control over board member selection, institutions and their advocates should still push on state legislatures and governors to appoint competent and diverse trustees who also have the best interest of the institution central to their motivation for service. The movement to embrace more non-traditional HBCU board members and curate more diverse HBCU boards also brings  more diverse intellectual and social capital to the decision-making of HBCU leadership as well as more diverse streams of access to financial capital and networks. This will prove important in an era of shrinking resources for higher education institutions. There have been some exemplary board and president models that have been able to stand out in the HBCU community. These include but are not limited to Spelman College, Dillard University, Claflin University, Paul Quinn College and Delaware State University. These institutions seem to have been able to curate diverse and dynamic boards while maintaining positive president-board working relationships. This attention and investment in building strong institutional leadership teams have undoubtedly assisted in these institutions’ continued successes.

HBCU presidents have an opportunity to not only strengthen their leadership teams in the most senior levels of the institution but also within the staff, faculty and administrators that ensure that daily operations are successfully accomplished. Many faculty, staff and administrators find themselves having to create and implement initiatives, facilitate and administer programs, and overall just ensure that departments and offices are engaging in practices that ultimately produce measurable student success. Investing in opportunities for professional development for these different groups not only strengthens the spirit of leadership as a cross-campus effort but also ultimately strengthens individual institutional units at the institution and therefore strengthens the institution’s overall effectiveness. Faculty, staff and administrative leaders should also have presence and voice in a formalized shared governance model that is used for institutional decision-making. Furthermore, collaboration between these various groups and actors should not only be encouraged, but also institutionalized and incentivized at HBCUs.

Since their inception, HBCU leaders have figured out how to do more with less. Though many have been successful in doing so and in finding innovative ways to facilitate student success within tight budgets, the funding environment continues to be one of shrinking resources. HBCU leaders that consider collaborating with other HBCUs on programming and offerings stand to bode well in accessing these limited resources. A number of HBCUs have already engaged in this process. Examples include:

  • ORAU HBCU/MEI Council
  • California Community Colleges’ Pathways to HBCUs Initiative
  • Southern University and the State Higher Education Officers Association (SHEEO)
  • Hampton University / Eastern Virginia Medical School Joint BS/MD Program
  • HBCU Wellness Project

Engaging in collaboration extends the reach and impact of HBCUs but also makes them competitive for the limited funding available for supporting success producing initiatives. Institutional leaders who are able to find ways to successfully partner with other HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) position themselves well for the current and future higher education marketplace. Strong institutions often have strong leadership teams. HBCUs who not only have visionary, exemplary and stable presidents, but also healthy relationships with various governing bodies at the institution, as well as an optimally performing board of trustees, position themselves well to be able to meet the various accountability challenges laid before them. Overall, HBCU leadership that is able to see the connection between governance policies and practices, strong cross-campus professional development, and collaborative efforts to the facilitating of student success place their institutions on the path to continued success in the accountability era of education policy.

Felecia Commodore is an assistant professor of Educational Foundations and Leadership at Old Dominion University. LaToya Owens is the Senior Manager of Learning and Evaluation for the United Negro College Fund’s Career Pathways Initiative. 

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