Academic Hunger Games: HBCUs in a Fight for Survival

This commentary is authored by Dr. John M. Rudley, a former Special Assistant to the U.S. Department of Education; a former interim President and Chancellor of the University of Houston System; and the Eleventh President of Texas Southern University, where he now serves as President Emeritus. Dr. Rudley received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Toledo in Ohio. He holds a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision and an educational doctorate from Tennessee State University.

Although it is encouraging to see historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) mentioned in national media because of President Trump’s recent Executive Order, the attention may be obscuring a bigger issue complicating these institutions’ survival. In fact, it could be asked: If President Trump was to convene another summit of HBCU presidents again next year, would his Oval Office then be full of different faces?

It’s a fair question. Prior to the latest HBCU Summit at the White House, recent headlines about HBCUs weren’t painting such a rosy picture. Those stories had darker titles like:

  • Grambling Loses Third President in Three Years.
  • Jackson State Fires President Amid Budget Crisis.
  • Howard University President Under Fire
  • Florida A&M President Fired By Board of Regents

Meetings and photo opportunities in the White House aside, there is a clear crisis situation happening in terms of HBCU leadership. There is a revolving door of presidential openings at many HBCU institutions simultaneously, and it underscores the fact that educational institutions do not thrive without stable, longer-term leadership. Ever-tightening budgets, state interference, over-reaching boards and even well-meaning but meddling community members can be some of the outside influences that can cause undue and undeserved pressures on HBCU presidents.

At the end of the 2015-2016 academic year, I decided to leave the HBCU that I led since 2008.  Today, having led an HBCU for eight years actually makes me a rarity. Few other current HBCU leaders have longer tenures. Today, being an HBCU president can mean taking on a job with a host of threats to the university (including financial instability, unbalanced budgets, possibility of losing university accreditation, external pressure from oversight boards, governors and state legislatures) all while attempting to improve student academic performance.

The average six-year graduation rate for public HBCU’s is 36 percent – which means that nearly two-thirds of students that initially enroll do not finish at that particular college within 6 years. Now more than ever, HBCU presidents are under the gun to make reforms on their campuses.  In my opinion, this change must occur rapidly, and these changes should be necessarily intrusive, requiring faculty, students and staff to adjust to new expectations.

HBCUs face similar problems to those at predominantly White institutions (PWIs), but often HBCUs’ challenges are greater because these schools often lack the resources and organizational support of their White counterparts.

Another complication can be that some new HBCU presidents lack prior higher education leadership experience helming major universities but are tasked with heading institutions in crisis. I had served in executive leadership positions at the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Board of Regents, and the University of Houston before I landed at Texas Southern University. At HBCU institutions however, often the universities’ challenges are more critical and issues are often more acute due to prior histories of mismanagement and revenue shortfalls. The difficulties of HBCU leadership involve simultaneously solving complex problems like raising student academic performance while adding academic programs; raising and improving the public images of the universities; securing funding for operations and facilities. All academic leaders face challenges but HBCU presidents must succeed at these tasks while often having more distractions and far fewer resources.

Many HBCU institutions are tasked with providing a quality higher education to less academically prepared high school students yet must do so without resources that allow the university to correct these students’ academic deficiencies. So although the president of a large Tier One research institution and the president of a HBCU may share the same missions (providing a positive learning environment and preparing students to become trained professionals), the HBCU leader must succeed despite academic, socioeconomic, and sociological challenges that many of our students bring to our campuses.

One of the biggest surprises I found as an HBCU President was that many people who consider themselves stakeholders (alumni, community members, and even political influencers) don’t understand the true demands of the job. These external constituents’ lack of understanding of the president’s job can lead them to be negatively influenced by internal factions on campus who resist institutional change. For example, my plan to improve academic standards meant implementing admissions requirements for the first time in our institution’s history, yet some in the community erroneously perceived evolving away from Open Admissions to be contrary to the university’s mission.

So a key question is: Are HBCUs positioning themselves for the future or are they mired in the past?  The answer lies in whether new leaders are allowed to execute plans that require major overhauls of student academic expectations and improved faculty/staff performance.

Newly appointed presidents are dropped into HBCU environments that may have been dysfunctional for many years with university boards that expect instant results for longstanding problems. In a scene reminiscent of the Hunger Games movies, some new HBCU Presidents may find themselves thrown into vicious fights for power and survival, and the fight may even begin before the new leaders have a chance to start improving the schools’ long lasting issues.

The culmination of all these issues can reduce the HBCU president’s effectiveness and slows the forward progress of their universities. Meanwhile their presidential peers at PWIs can simply focus on the traditional tasks of improving their institutions without constant challenges to their authority.

New presidents are brought on to be change agents, but many traditionalists in and around the university resist any evolution. If HBCU presidents are to be allowed to develop a new vision and strategic plans then it is crucial that their faculty, staff, students and community embrace these necessary (and sometimes painful) changes to ensure the future of their institutions. Recent headlines suggest that talented HBCU leaders aren’t being supported but are being sabotaged in their efforts to spark change. If some HBCUs don’t change course, the constant internal power struggles will cause talented leaders to abandon these institutions for less stressful positions.

Without strong leadership support many HBCUs may be significantly stymied, and some may not survive at all.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Jerald Henderson, PhD says:

    Dr. Rudley’s summary of the issues regarding HBCU’s leadership as well as overall challenges are very accurate. Although I am not an alum from an HBCU, I have done some consulting with a couple of them as well as talked with many faculty and staff who work at these institutions. The resistance to change by some stakeholders can unfortunately be the ultimate demise of the very institutions that they want to sustain. Change is inevitable in order for most of them to survive. I hope the resistors will engage in some serious reflection of the issues involved given the current higher education landscape. Setting current and future administrators of these institutions up for failure will continue to facilitate a revolving door and repel those who want to just do what Presidents at other institutions are supposed to do and that is provide leadership for fund raising and improve as well as expand the academic programs at the institution. Last but not least, if student success suffers because of the constant turmoil, the reason for the institutions themselves will be in serious question.

  2. Elwood J. Thornton III says:

    Why is it that many HBCUs do not have a key document to illustrate the future of their respective university? Many have 5 year short term strategic plans which does not hold its management accountable for showing what the university will look like or be in 20 or 30 years. What is needed in being accountable to its alums is a comprehensive long-range facilities plan. It is very easy to talk about balance budgets every year if you do not have one. Norfolk State University, Virginia Union University, Virginia State University and a few other HBCUs have invested in such plans and have gotten the alums attention and interest in implementation of those future plans. The donation level have increased due to the interest in seeing the recommendations implemented.

    The other serious issue today is leadership terms in HBCUs. 30, 40, 50 year tenures is disaster to the university and breeds complacent. It is very important to have changes in leadership that will bring in new management skills and innovations and this is very important considering the change in technology and in general new management skills. .

  3. Ed says:

    There simply aren’t enough college ready black kids to sustain 100+ HBCUs and satisfy the diversity demand of non-HBCUs. HBCUs tend to attract students with middling test scores & GPAs, which makes their graduation unlikely unless standards are lowered. Many HBCU students are also saddled with a high amount of debt and little to show for her it.

    The Trump admin should allow the market to take its course.

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