Presidential turnover at historically Black colleges and universities surged in 2023 — with institutional leaders leaving by way of resignation, early retirement or apparent termination at small and large HBCUs alike.
The issue is not necessarily unique among HBCUs, as tenures of college presidencies across higher education have been shortened in recent years, Felecia Commodore, a professor at Old Dominion University with expertise in HBCU leadership, governance and administrative practices, said in an email.
Nonetheless, the numbers at HBCUs have been staggering.
Since 2022, more than 20 HBCU presidencies have become available because of retirements, resignations or involuntary resignations. That’s resulted in nearly one-quarter of HBCU colleges being led by interim, acting or departing presidents, Terrell Strayhorn, director of Virginia Union University’s Center for the Study of HBCUs, said in an email.
The turnover includes the presidents of public HBCUs, such as Prairie View A&M University, in Texas; Texas Southern University; and Jackson State University, in Mississippi. It also includes smaller private colleges like Tougaloo College, in Mississippi, Rust College, in Mississippi; and LeMoyne-Owen College, in Tennessee.
The departures at HBCUs are uniquely different yet have important commonalities, such as women leaving many of those posts and leaders having fraught relationships with their governing boards, experts said.
The large number of vacancies are “relatively concerning,” Strayhorn said, but could also present opportunities for an exciting future, in which new entrepreneurial, diverse and student-centered leaders “will create new possibilities for the future of America’s Black colleges,” he said.
Surging departures, increasing demands
Waves of presidential departures hit HBCUs every several years, said Sydney Freeman Jr., a professor at the University of Idaho who studies HBCUs and the future of minority-serving institutions. But because HBCUs are historically underfunded and underserved, transition and leadership changes can be “very disruptive to our institutions for continuity's sake,” he said.
Generally, institutions with frequent turnover of several presidencies — within five to seven years — are concerning, Commodore said.
“Institutions need stability in leadership to aid in successful strategic planning, relationship building and fostering success,” she said. “Though it is also unhealthy to keep poor leadership at the helm for extended periods of time, where there is consistent presidential turnover without clear cause, concern should arise.”
The past year has seen presidential departures at HBCUs spike.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer than five HBCU presidential openings, Strayhorn said. But the rate of departures in 2023 is “remarkably high,” he said, with more than a dozen since March.
The departures have also occurred sooner than expected, with the average tenure of presidents that recently exited being 2.1 years — half of the usual four to five-year contract that is extended to HBCU presidents, Strayhorn said.
A tough job grows more challenging
The most concerning aspect of the recent trend, Freeman said, is that many of the departing presidents are women.
Lesia Crumpton-Young at Texas Southern, Carmen Walters at Tougaloo, Vernell Bennett-Fairs at LeMoyne-Owen and Felecia Nave at Alcorn State University are among the departing women.
There’s not always a clear understanding of why these women are stepping down.
When Crumpton-Young resigned in May, she said in a statement that she was leaving to “elevate HBCUs to a broader national stage.” The chair of Texas Southern’s regent board said members unanimously agreed to her request to retire, but declined to comment further about the matter to The Texas Tribune.
More light has been shed on some departures than others. Public board meeting minutes show the trustee board overseeing Alcorn State University fired Nave “for the board’s convenience, effectively immediately,” Mississippi Today reported.
The board’s decision came two days after Nave interviewed for the chancellorship at Louisiana State University, Shreveport — a position she did not get.
“I think people are alarmed that as soon as we have the opportunity to have more women presidents in leadership, many of them are stepping away from those roles,” Freeman said. “It’s important because they serve as role models for women.”
Declining or shrinking enrollments, inadequate facilities, vacancies of key positions, fiscal issues, and a loss of productive faculty and staff were considered issues at several institutions that saw departures, Strayhorn said.
“It’s hard to maintain costly labs and residence halls or handle deferred and delayed maintenance with limited finances,” said Strayhorn.
Leading an HBCU can require a complex set of skills that doesn’t come easily to everyone, said Strayhorn. Chief among those skills is knowledge, experience and proven success in enrollment management, fundraising, fiscal and business acumen, communication, team and community building, having an entrepreneurial mindset, and shared governance, he said.
Moreover, the role of president has become harder in recent years.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been increased calls for HBCU leaders that have deep understanding of crisis management, social media skills, and the ability to grow revenue, he said.
And recent social movements against racial injustice, sexual assault and Asian hate have also led to an uptick in HBCU boards and hiring committees looking for presidents with student development knowledge or experience, Strayhorn said.
Presidents also face scrutiny through social media, which can influence the way people perceive their leadership and the institution at large, said Freeman.
Across the board in higher education, presidents tend to be older, often belonging to the Baby Boomer or late Gen-X generations. They have to navigate a social media learning curve, Freeman said.
Also, in states like Florida and Texas, where lawmakers are pushing back against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, as well as racial history, presidents are left trying to figure out what that means for their institutions.
“If you’re not sure if your state is going to be supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the way that they have done in the past because of the pushback on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, it becomes particularly challenging,” Freeman said. It can cause students, faculty, staff and alumni wondering who’s protecting and speaking up for the institution during a time of unrest, he said.
HBCUs’ historical underfunding poses an additional challenge for presidents that need to operate under tight budgets, said Freeman. Structurally, predominantly White institutions have more room to navigate through some of those same challenges, said Freeman.
Trouble with the board
A number of recent departures have involved disputes between the outgoing president and the institution's board.
For instance, Ruth Simmons at Prairie View A&M University left her presidential post earlier this year following disagreement with the system’s board of regents.
Simmons, who was already planning on leaving, moved up her departure date after the chancellor’s office reportedly denied her the ability to make high-level appointments. The system’s chancellor has said this is standard policy for outgoing presidents, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Simmons told the publication in April following her departure that the Texas A&M system neither shared her passion nor were capable of managing the affairs of Prairie View.
In general, higher education boards of trustees have recently infused themselves into the day-to-day operations of institutions, said Freeman. People who give money to institutions and are tasked with looking out for their long-term wellbeing naturally tend to try and influence decision-making — more-so when money is tight, he said. That can create conflict.
“When presidents feel like they’re hamstrung and are not able to make the decisions they feel are best for the institution and they have tight budgets, those make for, in some ways, untenable situations,” said Freeman.
To really understand the presidential turnovers, a deeper understanding of the composition, dynamics, and decision-making processes and practices of HBCU and state-level governing boards is needed, said Commodore.
“The more we understand these areas, which often we know little to nothing about,” Commodore said, “I believe the more we can begin to consider how these institutions can receive the support needed to ensure more stability, health, and success in recruiting and retaining exceptional HBCU presidential talent.”