12/13/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Caring

Throughout my 40-year career in higher education, students were always the center of my attention, irrespective of the institution with which I was affiliated or the position that I held. In deciding whether to recommend a tuition increase, initiate a new program or service, construct or remodel a building, or discontinue a program, the litmus test for me was always "what impact will the decision have on the students?"

My passionate and unwavering commitment to students was rooted in my experience as a student activist during the turbulent era of the 1960s. The protests that my fellow students and I mounted were designed to make the university more responsive to the interests and needs of students -- anything less was unacceptable! The desire to create a more relevant and responsive university is what motivated me to pursue a career in higher education and to serve as chancellor at three different universities. While I certainly had my share of challenges during the course of my career, my actions were always propelled by the needs of students.

In reflecting on my career, the things of which I'm proudest are not the buildings constructed or programs initiated, but the culture of caring that I sought to create, nurture and sustain. Even when students disagreed with with my decisions, they never questioned my motives. The rapport that I shared with students was undergirded by my deep respect for them on the one hand, and my desire to make sure they graduated with the knowledge and skills required to succeed in a graduate or professional school and in the world of work, on the other. My unapologetic commitment to excellence was about taking seriously my call to lead.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the chancellor and vice chancellor of academic affairs at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Their collective commitment to the culture of caring for which the university is known was not only evident in their words but, more importantly, the actions they have taken over the years on behalf of students. It is this commitment and passion that will ensure the university's legacy of educating students that many institutions would not consider "college material."

More than a dozen HBCUs currently have searches underway for a president or chancellor. In choosing their CEO, I implore the boards of trustees, and those who will make the appointments, that in addition to possessing strong skills in finance, fundraising and enrollment management, the person appointed must be committed to creating and sustaining a culture of caring. Such a culture is essential and it is priceless. Indeed, it is the most salient aspect of the value proposition of those HBCUs that will thrive in the years ahead.