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Burden of HBCU Leadership Crisis Weighs Heaviest on Boards

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There is a dawning reality about the leadership crisis at historically black colleges and universities, a reality that threatens HBCU existence more than other current crises in awareness, recruitment and fundraising.

Boards of trustees, visitors and rectors are charged with finding HBCU presidential lifers in a culture no longer designed to produce them, and to attract from a talent pool of good candidates who yearn for the opportunity to redefine HBCU excellence, but fear rejection and misunderstanding of their vision. The search and evaluation processes for an HBCU presidency or chancellorship is fraught with laziness, a vague understanding of HBCU missions and the political climate that affects them, and a painful urgency to make black colleges competitive with predominantly white counterparts within predominantly white metrics of success and failure.

And when it all falls apart, laws protecting employees and non-disclosure renders boards as silent victims of a misguided lack of confidence in their ability to run an institution.

At every level, the HBCU board is hindered in its ability to find the right fit for any given institution. Higher-ed search firms pay little attention to matching the skill sets of candidates with the needs of HBCU campuses. They work just hard enough to find a person with a decent amount of media coverage, a track record of few failures or discontent among faculty and students, and a resume' that reads with presidential stock.

Presidential interviews, like most first executive meet-and-greets, give first impressions that, while impressive, can lead to deep scars on the institution years later. The board is asked, with little more than an introduction and a few dinners, to find the leader with the greatest academic, financial and cultural competency who operates with manageable levels of arrogance, ambition, insecurity and self-entitlement.

Some people struggle over the course of a lifetime to find those qualities in their search for a spouse, and yet HBCU boards are expected to find, usually within a six-to-nine month time frame, the next great American college president.

For public HBCUs, the search is far more difficult. The institutions face tenuous relationships with state legislators; and board members must determine within a small sample of exposure if a presidential candidate intends to fight lawmakers for more academic autonomy and financial support, or whether he intends to broker with legislators to broaden his profile as a leader at the expense of his campus' faculty resources and academic integrity.

Whether a president stays for two years or twenty, he is able to alter the course of an HBCU's history for years after his last day in office. New buildings, higher enrollment, and giving alumni are the short-term goals that incline boards to expect long-term success. But the issues that do not make the quarterly or annual report from vice-presidents, deans and directors - crime, cultures of stress or harassment among employees, low faculty morale and poor advocacy and political maneuvering -- are the ones that shake HBCUs to their core.

And they are usually only recognized and dealt with once they've reached a fever pitch, out of the realm of public articulation and review.

Not every board falls under this designation. Black college boards like those at Saint Paul's College, Morris Brown College and others failed to ask the right questions at the right times to stave off the failure of financial accountability systems, athletic solvency and student development needs. They failed to see, or misinterpreted, changing trends in higher education, causing their HBCUs to be out of position on new demographics and professional needs of their city, state and nation.

Boards like those at South Carolina State University and Paine College are following the same path towards self-destruction; a path seemingly noticeable by everyone outside of their closed board meetings, but veiled well enough by scrambling administrators to build confidence among trustees that everything will be all right. When it does go right, the university grows and is made more of an asset to its community and state. HBCUs like Alcorn State, Delaware State, Dillard, Paul Quinn, and Virginia State appear to have the ideal match of presidential youth, skill set, energy and vision for the needs of their institutions.

But when it goes wrong, employee morale is diminished, the institutional profile is rocked with negative coverage, and its finances are hit hard with the cost of finding and attracting a new president.

The business leaders, politicians, philanthropists, alumni and students who serve on HBCU boards deserve far more credit and patience for their volunteer work as leaders of an institution. Often, we look at a president or chancellor as the beginning and end of leadership on the HBCU campus. Truthfully, the president is the hired CEO of a business designed to train future professionals, entrepreneurs, educators and researchers across a wide range of disciplines. He has the greatest salary, the greatest level of exposure, and the greatest level of accountability in that position.

A president earns all that he desires to work for, positively and negatively.

But no one ever gives the properly-ran HBCU board the same justly earned kudos when it all goes right, or the fairly earned benefit of the doubt when it all falls apart.