Examining Characteristics of Effective Leadership at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Leadership is essential for the survival of any organization. Some have argued that for many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), leadership, particularly effective leadership, is one salient aspect that not only warrants greater attention, but that is also one fundamental element missing from individuals charged with leading these institutions. For example, HBCU researchers often cite that low enrollment, fiscal mismanagement, and poor leadership are some of the critical factors that weaken the sustainability of HBCUs and precipitate their closures. Research shows that some of the contributing factors to the poor leadership of HBCU leaders are recycling ineffective presidents, presidents being micromanaged by the governing boards, presidents with a lack of fundraising experience, and presidents with a dearth of experience running large, complex higher education institutions.

Given the critical link between effective leadership and the success of HBCUs, some in the higher education community have focused on increasing the capacity of institutional leaders at HBCUs to be more effective in their roles. For example, the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania has produced a report that contextualizes the critical skills that effective leaders of HBCUs need in the 21st Century to be forward-thinking institutional stewards. Moreover, Lincoln University of Missouri has started a Master’s program that is designed to prepare students seeking careers in student affairs and leadership positions at HBCUs. Along the same lines, Howard University has announced a PhD program in Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies to prepare leaders and policy analysts to work at Minority Serving Institutions generally and HBCUs specifically.

In the spirit of helping HBCU leaders increase their leadership efficacy, we conducted a study with 21 HBCU stakeholders. Many of the individuals we interviewed were HBCU presidents that modeled effective leadership practices. Other participants included experts on HBCU leadership and exemplary executive leaders at HBCUs (i.e., provosts). While several themes emerged from this study, in this current article, we will discuss a few of the emerging themes and delineate areas where more research is needed.

One of the themes that emerged from the interviews was the need for HBCU leaders to be servant leaders. There was a consensus among the participants that some individuals seek to become HBCU presidents because they are more attracted to the glitz and glam, as opposed to being vested in working to understand the needs and concerns of HBCU students, faculty, staff and other external stakeholders. Participants shared that being a servant leader facilitates the development of a strong morale among HBCU students, faculty, and staff, which contributes significantly to the growth and sustainability of HBCUs. Participants underscored that servant leaders focus less on their own ambitions and make decisions with the heart of the institution in mind.

Another theme that we heard was that there are underperforming HBCU governing boards. Although various reasons were shared for this issue, there was a general consensus that there is a need for enhancing board training that prepares members for the specific challenges facing HBCUs. Participants emphasized that board members should bring technical expertise such as business acumen to the table. However, participants shared that it was important that board members set macro-level institutional policy and allow their institutions’ presidents to implement and manage the day-to-day issues. Board members must bring a love for the institution and its mission. Moreover, they must seek to preserve the greatest aspects of the institution while championing strategic changes that position their institution for the future.

One of the most surprising themes that we found was how important the role of the provost was to HBCUs. Many of our interviewers shared that it is one of the most underappreciated leadership positions within the academy. If functioning correctly, the person occupying that position takes on the day-to-day managing functions of the institution, which enables the president to fundraise and engage in the external relation activities that advance the institution. Additional research regarding this role is very much needed.

Interestingly, a lot of current research related to HBCU leadership has focused on the role and preparation of those serving as institutional presidents and on governing boards. However, we learned that there are other key stakeholders that wield a lot of influence and provide on the ground leadership at HBCUs. For instance, we know very little about the role of student governments in influencing institutional change, even though in recent years they have played an incredible role in speaking out in areas such as board governance. Ultimately, we learned that HBCU leadership is an under-researched, yet important topic that needs to continue to be investigated by individuals that have the best interest of these institutions at heart. We believe that higher education preparation programs like the new PhD program in Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University can serve as the epicenter of that work.

Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is associate professor of higher education and qualitative research at the University of Idaho. His research investigates the challenges facing higher education administration specifically, higher education as a field of study, the university presidency, and the leadership of Historically Black Colleges Universities. He is a proud product of a Historically Black Boarding Academy (high school), Pine Forge Academy, an HBCU, Oakwood University, and previously served as an administrator at Tuskegee University.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and Interim Department Chair at Howard University. His research examines issues of access, equity, retention, persistence, and the college experience of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Black men as well as other student groups at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

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