There is a persistent narrative about historically black colleges and universities that is devastatingly pessimistic and foreboding. Each crisis confronted by one HBCU becomes, in the minds of the public, a predictor for all HBCUs and the HBCU brand is broadly and undeservedly tarnished. Unstable leadership, fiscal and accreditation challenges, declining enrollments, aging infrastructures, government indifference and a press that spins a provocative story are a few of the ills that plague many HBCUs and places them at heightened risk. To be sure, these issues are very real and many institutions face real challenges. At first glance, the general news for this sector of American higher education is decidedly not good.
Yet, there is a dormant force at every HBCU that represents a powerful source of hope and optimism for the future. At these institutions there exists a group of young, well-credentialed, talented scholars and administrators who are absolutely committed to the ascendency of their institutions. They are articulate, formidable, clear and unwavering in their desire to see HBCUs in general and their institution in particular thrive and maintain their respectable place among the nations’ colleges and universities. Armed with impeccable academic preparation and degrees, they have come willingly to HBCUs despite often having to justify their professional choices to family and peers. These young men and women are the future of HBCUs and they have the skill, talent and commitment to chart a wonderfully vital course for HBCUs that reimagines their purpose and unlocks anew their potential to provide quality higher education to anyone seeking a collegiate experience. These young academicians defy description. They represent all races, many have attended HBCUs; many did not. They cover the political spectrum and represent startling diversity of experiences and attitudes. Across every HBCU, the common theme uniting this group is a shared belief that HBCUs are important to this nation, cannot be allowed to become extinct and can and will be beacons of academic excellence and institutional efficiency.
They have accepted the challenges facing their institutions and they require no convincing that hard and honorable work is necessary. They have also accepted the sacrifices inherent in working at institutions with limited resources yet they willingly commit to their institution, their students and the academic enterprise. They often work unnoticed and unheralded which is the shame of their existence on many HBCU campuses. Too frequently, their value and significance are fully recognized as they are leaving HBCU campuses for opportunities elsewhere. Leveraging this enormous leadership potential requires institutional cultures which affirm these aspiring leaders and offer and support opportunities for their growth and development. Their aspirations must be acknowledged as institutional assets and not threats and their voices must find legitimate vehicles for expression. The value of their particular experience as supporting players to their respective presidents must be appropriately noted in developing the bench strength needed to sustain effective leadership. It is not solely about the single individual who presides over an institution, but rather the cast of administrators and faculty who assist in executing the leadership vision, know intimately the guts of an institution and yet remain committed to doing hard work required for institutional transformation. Indeed, this commitment, experience and point of view should not be ignored.
Clearly, aspiring leaders will thrive in institutional environments that are led by presidents who recognize these valuable assets on their campuses and are transparent, transformative, collaborative and collegial in word and deed. In truth, there is an unsettling reality at many HBCUs that ultimately works against institutional ascendency. Often the best and brightest are routinely overworked and under-appreciated. Their dedication and commitment to the historic mission of an institution and what it can become are taken for granted. What results is a slow, steady and unrepairable diminution of spirit and will until nothing is left and what was once an aspiring leader is now a disgruntled and disillusioned administrator or faculty member seeking desperately to leave an institution. The HBCU community then loses another who might have brought their special gifts to an institution. We must rethink the notion that hard-driving, oppressive institutional environments get the best results from teams and that caring and nurturing environments suggest weakness and indolence. Simply, we must learn to treat people well, something many HBCUs are accused of not doing.
We cannot and should not rely on others to save our institutions. We are also not compelled to accept the prevailing idea that HBCUs are on the precipice of extinction and lament the lack of available leadership talent. We must, however, acknowledge, cultivate, nurture and develop this leadership potential with thoughtful, intentional and pragmatic strategies. On any given day, the naysayers are strident in their prognosis about the future of HBCUs often offering sobering data to underscore their point. In my work at an HBCU, I look into a hopeful future everyday as I engage young colleagues who are smart, innovative and fearlessly committed to HBCUs. We need only learn to tap their enormous leadership potential and willingness to serve and re-craft a confidant and bullish story about the future of this nations’ historically black colleges and universities.
Finally, I am reminded of a quote from Gwen Ifill’s 2009 book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, “The real test of leadership had never been who can get people to follow them. We’ve got charismatic leaders who get followed a lot. The real test of leadership is to motivate people to be leaders themselves and to carry the burden”