A Suggestion for Improving HBCU Leadership: Co-Presidents (yes, really)

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Karen Gross

There has been no shortage of media coverage of the challenges of filling leadership positions and enabling quality presidents at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Not only are there abundant presidential openings at HBCUs but the tenure of HBCU presidents is shorter than that of presidents at non-HBCU institutions (the terms of which are also shortening as half the presidents report that they plan to serve for less than five years).

The departure of President John Wilson at Morehouse, one of the best-known HBCUs, was a wakeup call for me and perhaps many others about the HBCU leadership complexities. Recognizing these difficult issues, the Thurgood Marshall Fund helped form a search firm to help remediate these issues. The appointment of Ruth Simmons as the permanent, not interim President of Prairie View A&M University, sends a different link of signal, suggesting for me the possibility that more “retired” presidents will consider giving back, including to HBCUs, as their careers wind down.

Make no mistake about this: leading a college or university of any sort in today’s world is a serious challenge and the job is getting harder not easier with the passage of time. The challenges are wide-ranging from fund and friend-raising to quests for academic excellence and its quality measurement to developing a healthy culture on campus without sexual assault and harassment to access and financial support for students who are not from wealthy families or elite high schools and prep schools. Add to all this the problems that arise in athletics, running an art (and other) museums (and their collections), dealing with deferred maintenance and wrestling with the parameters of free speech.

And, we have a federal government that is challenging the role and importance of a college degree, a government that is also forcing us to re-think institutional finance due to changes in the tax laws that impact many while reflecting deeply on notions of truth and power as well as civility, cooperation, and collaboration. Not all states are exactly higher education aficionados either.

Perhaps this is why there is even a recent book with the frightening title: Presidencies Derailed.

But, leaders of HBCU face added challenges (recognizing that these institutions are quite different each from the other): some of these institutions are small in size (a threat in an of itself), they have relatively small size of endowments, they have long serving boards with well-known proclivities (not all positive) and face the particular needs and preparation of their students, many of whom hail from high schools that are suboptimal.

For me, the students attending HBCUs are the very students we want and need to educate well. Indeed, these institutions create opportunities for a myriad of students who otherwise might not progress to college. And, for those students for whom HBCUs are their institution of first choice, we need institutions with stable leadership, doors to opportunity and quality education that will enable their graduates to enter the workforce success. (How students find out about and enroll at HBCUs is another set of issues, although beyond the scope of this piece.)

Here’s an idea to consider to improve leadership at HBCUs: co-presidencies.

Recognizing that this approach (about which I have been writing with some frequency) is filled with risk, it also offers numerous benefits. I think some (note the word “some” not “all”) HBCUs could benefit greatly from co-presidencies. Here’s why.

We shouldn’t underestimate the price institutions pay – literally and figuratively – for failed presidencies and failed searches. And, the rush of recent resignations of longer serving presidents is also not exactly a sign of leadership good health. And, calls for resignation, even if not realized immediately, are institutionally disruptive.

So, why not consider a solution that has been tried outside academe. For example, co-presidencies are increasingly common in business. In late 2017, Apollo Global Management LP became the most recent example. Decades ago now, the GSE at Harvard had co-academic deans. And, within the academic sphere, there are several instances of Interim Co-Presidents.

I could detail the risks of co-presidencies but people surely can imagine those with little effort. (Just picture parents fighting over childrearing approaches in theory and practice.) What’s harder is to see the benefits and demonstrate that is some not all situations a co-presidency makes extraordinary sense. And, those critiquing my idea misstate that I mean for co-presidencies to be appointed at every institution. Wrong. That is not what I am saying; nor would such appointment necessarily work. Knowing when they might work within an institution’s needs, culture, structure, challenges, and history is key.

Instead of thinking about co-presidents like parents or conductors of an orchestra (a common analogy used when thinking about leadership generally and leading an educational institution with its multiple interests (sections) in particular), ponder surgical teams — two humans as opposed to a human surgeon and a robotic president (something even I am not suggesting at colleges and universities). Yes, there used to be a lead-surgeon in most surgeries but in many of today’s complex medical situations, different established attending surgeons work together on different body parts and body systems as co-surgeons. They are partners in ensuring the well-being of their patients,

Surgeons may fight on television and perhaps in an occasional OR suite. But, were I a guessing person, good surgeons learn to work together and prefer working with fellow surgeons and anesthesiologists and nurses they know. Recent studies suggest some noticeable benefits of co-surgeries (with two attending physicians not one lead surgeon and one resident) although the literature is still not robust. And let’s not ask about the complexities of the billing and insurance coverage issues in these contexts.

While some surgeon decisions are grand in size and impact, it is not as if every decision is one with massive consequences. Small decisions are delegated all the time on campuses. The big strategic decisions are usually ones that require both time and reflection and often require Board input among other groups; two people can do that as well or perhaps better than one person. And, if there is an emergency or a disaster and an immediate decision must be decided, perhaps the co-presidents could agree with the Board ahead of time as to who makes that call or the responsible person could change from month to month or year to year.

And, if there were to be consideration of co-presidents, they would have to be interviewed both together and separately. I can see interview teams asking each possible co-president to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his/her counterpart. And there would need to be opportunities to see them engaging with each other and with others including faculty, staff, and students. Trustees too.

And, in the context of HBCUs, might it be possible for HBCUs to consider a non-minority candidate as part of a co-presidential team? Don’t panic here; I am not suggesting stodgy white men as co-presidents. I can hear the hue and cry: the white president would dominate and worse, not survive.

Perhaps the co-president candidate is someone of a different gender, from a different ethnicity or who lived in poverty (white intergenerational poverty) or suffered abuse or toxic stress or a high ACE score. To personalize this, as I detail in my book Breakaway Learners, those who have been traumatized have skillsets that can make them very able leaders, including at and perhaps most particularly at HBCUs given the students that are enrolled.

So, how would one come up with individuals who could be co-presidents? I think we’d need to change the paradigm for how presidents are identified and selected. I also think there would have to be a movement, a shift, in how the hiring is done, a response to the realities of the jobs college/university presidents face. To be clear, I am not suggesting a matching like in the television shows “Married at First Sight” or “The Bachelor.”

I can think of a half-dozen people right now with whom I would and could happily serve as a co-president (were I ever to consider another presidency, another issue altogether).

Here are two examples:

I can think of a person who has been a law school administrator who went to the same college as I did, decades earlier. She is smart and thoughtful and remarkably organized. We have worked on projects together (not in the same institution). We have read each other’s work. We have shared ideas about education and life. We have discussed faculty development. For the record, she is a minority.

Then, there is an individual with whom I have worked who heads up diversity programs and who has been a vice-president at a larger institution. He grew up in Puerto Rico (so we both speak Spanish); he is extraordinary talented at motivating students to bring their best selves to the table and even when they fail, he is able to get them back on track. He is technologically savvy, deeply self-reflective and a wonderful grant writer.

And, neither of these individuals would be scared to voice their views if they differed from my own. They all have.

My point is this: no one person in this day and age can have all the skills it takes to be a college or university president. The list is simply too long and too diverse. And, while a leader can surround him or herself with excellent talent and a sensational senior leadership team, ideally in areas in which the leader is not as strong, there is a value to considering a different model: co-leadership.

Co-presidencies would, I think, increase the pool of candidates at HBCUs, including curbing the loneliness at the top and giving added support with respect to the challenges leaders face. Co-presidents foster diversity in all ways – age, race, skills, ethnicity, experience. Next, they would send a loud and clear message about collaboration and cooperation and the busting of silos. An academic could partner with a government or business official. A financially savvy person could partner with someone with vast expertise in student life. It is about putting one’s ego in the right place and giving glory to another and accepting blame. It is about, fundamentally, some the very skills we want students to acquire: problem-solving, teamwork and decency.

I think a co-presidency would set an example for HBCUs and put them on the cutting edge of new approaches to build their institutions and leadership. Co-presidencies role model risk-taking and out-of-the-box approaches in real time. It shows the capacity to try new ideas and explore new territory thoughtfully and with deep regard for the risks and benefits. And, it highlights the real world: the complexity of problems we face and the need to ask for and get help – not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.

Co-presidencies are not toys of the moment; there are rich examples and case studies that can be evaluated. I see co-presidencies at this moment in time as enabling key educational institutions in American culture, including HBCUs, to be lead with expertise, grace, equanimity, talent, and collaboration. And, it is reflective of how many decisions are needed and how many are ones that can be shared.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there are added upsides to co-presidencies for HBCUs that we do not yet know about or cannot anticipate. I, for one, believe those positive possibilities exist.

Based on a similar article published by the Aspen Journal of Ideas

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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