HBCU presidents at a new crossroads

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New demands for HBCU presidents

The pride and traditions of HBCUs is a source of its strength and legacy, but navigating the gauntlet of closely held traditions while fulfilling the requirement to bring new life and resources to the university can be a daunting task for presidents. Some describe it as a juggling act of trying to please too many masters, including boards of trustees who, at some institutions, have significant influence and demand compliance.

Some presidents have operated in-dependently of boards until problems occur.

At one time, HBCU presidents served for lengthy tenures and not only were held in high regard but also wielded more power and influence.

Today, with HBCUs closing and talks of mergers, disproportionate budget cuts, anemic enrollment figures, a financial aid crisis, inequitable federal research appropriations and the mere fact that gifted African-American students have many university options the expectations of the HBCU president are changing.

The new requirement for today’s HBCU president includes a personality and gift for raising money for the university while maintaining the traditional connection to faculty and students.   A president is required to keep his/her finger on the pulse of the university’s life-line of recruitment, retention and graduation rates, as well as changing technology, including online education.

At Hampton University, Harvey has become among the rare breed of presidents who have successfully navigated a long-term presidency due in part to a symbiotic relationship with his board.

“The [university] president needs to understand that the board represents his or her bosses. You may be the CEO, but the board is your boss,” Harvey said.

“The board needs to understand that their job is to make policy, not to implement the policy. Sometimes boards want to get involved in the implementation and that’s wrong.

“When people forget their roles, that’s when problems occur,” Harvey said.

Harvey attributes his success to mentors like Dr. Norman Francis at Xavier University in New Orleans and others who helped pave the way for him, and having entrepreneurial parents.

“When I came to Hampton, we couldn’t balance the budget,” said Harvey.

“I traveled three and a half days a week for five years to raise money. Thirty-six years ago, we were not in the position we are today. We did something a lot of institutions weren’t doing, whether HBCU or not – we ran the university like a business. You bring in revenue on one side and manage expenses on the other.”

Harvey appealed to board members to let him institute entrepreneurial approaches to fundraising. “I’ve had four chairs on my boards during my tenure,” he said.

“They have been excellent and supportive. I take every-thing to the board – the good, the bad and the ugly. I have not always gotten my way be-cause I understand the role of the board, but I have not run the university in a vacuum. On a couple of instances, I’ve had to call board members to task on something because it was not their role.” His advice to presidents is to “garner respect, use the team approach, engage alumni and faculty and get them to take ownership in your vision.”

Harvey, an entrepreneur who owns 100 percent of the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of Houghton, Mich., has taken an innovative approach to managing resources at Hampton.  Its investments include university-owned commercial development consisting of a shopping center and 246 two-bed-room apartments.

When Harvey arrived, the university’s endowment was $29 million. Now it exceeds $250 million.

The university’s first capital fundraising campaign in 1979 had a goal of $30 million. That campaign raised $46.4 million. Its most recent campaign had a goal of $200 million and raised $264 million.

The politics of leadership

The cry for help was heard loud and long when Howard University trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks sent a letter with a dire warning that the Washington, D.C.-based institution “will not be here in three years” if “crucial decisions” are not made promptly.

As vice chair of Howard’s governing board, she sent the letter on April 24, which was leaked to various news outlets.

“I can no longer sit quietly, notwithstanding my personal preference to avoid confrontation, and therefore, I am compelled to step forward to announce that our beloved university is in genuine trouble and ‘time is of the essence,’” Higginbotham-Brooks wrote.

She called for a vote of no confidence in the board chairman and the university’s president.

Higginbotham-Brooks’ letter was unprecedented and, for some, seemed like a betrayal of airing HBCU dirty laundry, but to others it was a foreshadowing of what has begun to unravel.

Howard University’s decline in rankings in U.S. News and World Report and Moody’s downgrading its credit rating, and enrollment decreases due to changes to the Parent Plus Loan requirements, has created a perfect storm.

While Howard faces many of the same challenges as other HBCUs, the difference is its international reputation as “The Mecca”  the “Black Ivy League” top-tier institution that draws students to the nation’s capital with its host of celebrity alumni.

Howard’s challenges have stirred conversations about the profile of a candidate who can bring money to the institution along with their credentials. Names have been thrown around, including Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., as a measure to garner significant financial contributions.

Camille and Bill Cosby’s $20 million gift to Spelman College 25 years ago during Johnetta B. Cole’s presidency continues to be one of the largest individual gifts ever given to an HBCU.

Universities are faced with creating a new donor base.

Entertainment moguls Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Jimmy Lovine raised some eyebrows and criticism with their recent $70 million gift to the University of Southern California, instead of an HBCU.

An anonymous donor established the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard and insisted that the fellowship be named after the artist Nas.

Undoubtedly, fundraising is a significant part of the job description; however, the reality of fixing some of the areas that may be broken can come at a high price.

Former Alabama State University president, Dr. Joseph H. Silver, was fired after serving only three months for what some describe as challenging suspicious university financial information. According to his statement, “I discovered some items I considered questionable and troubling, at best, and a conflict of interest at the least.”

His allegations set off a controversial 36-page preliminary forensic audit report and investigation by state’s governor that is now underway.

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