Mentoring is a hallmark of the historically black college experience. Despite the numerous challenges their students face, many credit the level of personal attention paid to individual students for the disproportionately high number of African-American graduates these institutions produce relative to the number enrolled in higher education overall.
Now, three former presidents are taking that same level of attention and emphasis on mentorship and applying it to the future leaders of the institutions. Responding to what Johnson C. Smith President Emerita Dorothy Cowser Yancy called “a leadership crisis” at the nation’s HBCUs, Yancy, Thurgood Marshall Fund President in Residence John W. Garland and former Howard University President Sidney Ribeau joined forces with North Carolina A&T alumnus Chris Braswell to heed the call to identify leaders for the institutions.
Their new endeavor, the TM2 education search firm, was launched to recruit qualified pools of potential leaders for the institutions. But just as important as the recruitment, they say, is the mentoring of these rising leaders, the offering of guidance, and a listening ear to help retain the leaders and address the high turnover rates associated with presidencies at these institutions.
The former presidents sat down with Education Dive Monday to share their keys to success for aspiring presidents.
Become an expert in something. If you become an expert in something, that means you have developed a certain skill level and a way of thinking to problem solve. If you’re not an expert at something, I don’t think you’ve really applied yourself in one manner or area sufficiently to develop a sense of accomplishment. Being an expert in your discipline means that you have developed tools necessary to analyze and solve a problem.
Develop a sense of humility. Being a university leader or president doesn’t mean that you’re in charge and you know everything. But it means that you will listen, you will be the kind of person to work with the student, the maintenance person, the provost, the parent. Develop a sense of humility because you don’t know it all and you will learn more by listening than by saying or doing.
Make sure you’ve got a good exercise regimen. These are jobs that require a lot of energy, a lot of focus. I don’t know how many times I’ve had my doorbell rang at 3:30 in the morning and seen 25-30 students outside wanting to complain about something.
Have an understanding of higher education. And I used to think that you could get that understanding if you had been a professor, a department chair, a provost, and somehow moved up the ranks, but I now understand that you can skip over most of those positions and you can still be a successful president, but you need to have some kind of an understanding of administration.
Have a vision for what you think higher education should be and what your institution should become. You can’t lose focus. You’ve got to be able to focus, and you’ve got to be able to prioritize and do more than one thing at a time.
Have a commitment to higher education and all the people that it entails. You’ve got to be able to multitask. You’ve got to be able to deal with students, alumni, parents, your board, your faculty, your staff and the people you’re going to be raising money for, but of all things you cannot forget the students, because that’s the only reason the institution is there. It’s there for the development of students as the next generation of leaders.
Intellectual curiosity. You have to have an inquiring mind that likes to learn about different things, different people, different places, different natural phenomena.
You need to be decisive. It’s not an option not to make a decision; you need to be able to weigh the facts, evaluate, listen to people, but then make a decision.
Love [the population you’re serving]. Because [when] you don’t have the resources, don’t have the physical plant, don’t have the operating budgets, you don’t have the endowments, [you will still be] expected to graduate students that can compete for medical school, law school, graduate school with the best programs in the country. But you have to do it in a way that takes into consideration culture, history.
All agreed that the ability to manage priorities is of the utmost importance. “There are so many things coming at you simultaneously when you’re in a senior leadership population,” said Ribeau. “And it goes up exponentially from chair to dean to provost to president, but you’d better be able to say that these three are the cornerstones, we’ve got to get these done before we move on to do anything else ...” and Yancy interjected, “and you’d better pick the right ones.”
Garland said also key is understanding the difference between presidential priorities and institutional priorities, those belonging to the provost, vice president, governing board, alumni and other constituent groups, and not letting the responsibilities and agendas of the various staff members and constituencies overcome the responsibilities and agendas of the presidency. In other words, delegate so you don’t lose your mind.
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