OpEd: Leading With Faith: Inside Wiley’s Decision to Become the First HBCU to Close in Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

March 29, 2020 in Leadership

February 25, 2020

What was a seemingly routine weekly cabinet strategy session ended with what would unknowingly alter the trajectory of our semester, our college, our lives, and our world. I left the team with a fairly innocuous directive, “I need you all to put together a proactive emergency management plan regarding this Coronavirus thing.”

Immediately after the cabinet meeting I called our Associate Vice President for Student Health, Counseling, and Wellness and requested a briefing for the cabinet. Wiley is fortunate to have a health and wellness operation that is staffed with a clinical psychologist and a nurse practitioner. Their plan included educating our campus, providing emotional support, issuing guidelines on safety, and reminding us of the signs of infection.

The unspeakable toll that this global pandemic would place on our students also triggered a call to the Dean of Chapel to be “at the ready” to provide spiritual support and guidance for the college as well. Our Executive Cabinet deliberated ad nauseam about several plans until at last, we were resolved with our final decision. We would close the college for the duration of the semester, a decision which would make Wiley College the first Historically Black College or University to close, send students home, and complete the year using online instruction.

While this seemed premature or driven by understated motives, my faith prevailed. I am grateful for the governance and support of the Wiley College Board of Trustees, the support of our outstanding alumni, the critical analysis of our executive cabinet, the teamwork of the entire Wiley College family, and most importantly, the resilience of our students.

The Process

In early March, I made the decision to cancel all external travel for the College and its members. This impacted our Great Debaters, The A Cappella Choir, faculty and staff professional development, and research conferences, and more. The following week we canceled all travel for our athletic teams, effectively ending their conference competition and championship hopes.

Students, faculty, and staff were somewhat taken aback at what seemed abrupt and premature. Parents wasted no time in sharing their sentiments. “What about my child’s eligibility?” “We have no known cases anywhere around us!” One parent suggested, “I suspect this isn’t about student safety, this is more about saving money.”

I knew that our college would not be the best place for our students and teammates, nor could I protect them in the way I would want my family protected.

My next step was to call the Chairman of the Board with the decision and to seek his support. He inquired, expressed his unconditional support, and I composed a memo, requesting a conference call with the full board pursuant to their by-laws. The date was set, and now the real work began. During the seven days between the initial notification and the scheduled board call, there were so many essential questions to determine. I visited with local board members, and responded to emails and phone calls with answers to questions, while simultaneously seeking their support for the aggressive approach I was to share with our Wiley family. I also called my predecessor and shared my thoughts with my village of presidential peers.

We looked at what assistance students would need. Did we have the infrastructure to deliver instruction completely online? How would our students manage if broadband access and laptops/pcs were not available in their homes? How would students get home? What impact would this abrupt decision have on their health and wellness? We than asked, what would this mean for those left behind after students departed 711 Wiley Avenue.

March 11, 2020

The virus and its impact on the glob had progressed rapidly. The board peppered me with questions. I answered them affirmatively and transparently, given the level of preparation and exhaustive table-top like planning the executive cabinet had experienced over the previous past seven days Ultimately, the board unanimously agreed to effectively close the college, instructed our students to depart all residence halls, switch to on-line instruction, and proactively ensure the safety of our teammates and students.

Immediately after my call with the board, I made my way to the Dr. Julius S. Scott Jr. Chapel where our entire Wiley College family awaited. I was nervous given the students, faculty, staff and even a few alumni were assembled, with bated breath, to learn of our new normal. I shared the college’s decision to close for the duration of the semester. I described for our students the need for them to move off-campus and begin online instruction. Knowing how difficult this would be, I went on to describe how committed we were to help them make the transition. Wherever we could and with the resources available, we would, as a family support one another.

I informed students that we would be assisting in their travel. We would purchase airline tickets for international students, and purchase domestic fares, bus and train tickets, for individuals who would otherwise go without. Additionally, we would help with gas, pay air, train, and bus baggage fees. Ultimately, we even provided individuals with resources to purchase meals while they were traveling. Equally critical was the availability of our licensed mental health official and our ordained clergy to aid them with any trauma this decision may have caused.

Our commitment to our students’ transition extended beyond travel. With 90% of our students identifying as first-generation college students and 85% Pell Grant eligible, I recognized neither our students nor their families would have the resources to pick up and move immediately. We strategically allowed a time frame of one week after the announcement for students to transition home. This would give us time to ensure that all faculty members were trained to provide effective instruction in Canvas, our learning management platform. Critically important as well, this week provided the college and our students ample time to work out all the foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges in delivering instruction online.

The college purchased laptops, connected students to broadband carriers, contacted social workers, parents, and friends all to bring calm and normalcy (as much as possible) to the chaotic upheaval that neither we nor our students were prepared to handle. This aggressive decision was made with foresight, in the midst of a whirlwind of events we did not anticipate. Despite the enormity of pressure placed on our students and our faculty and staff, I began to feel more confident in how we would deal with challenges collectively and move forward with the assurance of faith in order to thrive.

As each student departed, I felt the weight of the world being lifted. By the time our very last student had their last meal in our Student Union and departed our campus, I stood with bated breath wondering if the virus would breach on our campus.


The inevitable has happened. One of our beloved team members has been diagnosed with the first case of COVID-19 here in Harrison County.  It is devastating to know that one of our members has been infected with this virus and we pray for the family. I cannot imagine the grief I would have felt in writing this had I not made what I thought to be a prudent decision.  We do find a silver lining and reflect upon the rocky and turbulent uncertainty surrounding our decision to act aggressively to save our students from this global pandemic. As it turns out we trusted God and he saw us through.

Fortunately, I have learned invaluable lessons from time served in the United States Marine Corps and have resolved that strong leadership requires that leaders gather, digest, analyze all information, decide, and commit to what is most prudent, even in the face of uncertain resistance. Responding to the looming pandemic known as COVID-19 was inevitable and required the response of strategic leadership.

In moments of crisis, decisive and lifesaving leadership requires prudence, but that prudence can create isolation and criticism. Ron Carucci wrote in 2018 that too many leaders avoid making tough calls in an effort not to upset others or lose status in the eyes of their followers. They concoct sophisticated justifications for putting off difficult decisions, and the delay often does far more damage than whatever fallout they were trying to avoid.

Thankfully, my faith prevailed over my fears, ultimately guiding me to answer the call.

UNCF Partners with Higher Education Leadership Foundation to Develop New Generation of Top HBCU Leaders

February 5, 2020 in Leadership

UNCF announced today a new strategic partnership with the Higher Education Leadership Foundation (H.E.L.F.). The historic three-year partnership is aimed at building a sustainable pipeline of qualified individuals who aspire to lead HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) at the president, provost, and dean levels. In addition, the organizations will launch a Presidents and Board Chair Institute that will work with a cohort of newly minted HBCU presidents and board chairs to develop competencies necessary to ensure both successful and effective leadership and governance.

As the preeminent leader in providing bold, engaging and innovative learning and mentoring opportunities for current and aspiring leaders at HBCUs, H.E.L.F.’s mission is to encourage leaders to “lift as they climb” in order to ensure HBCUs survive and thrive as national models of achievement. “Everything UNCF undertakes emphasizes student success and the strengthening of our nation’s HBCUs. In doing so, we want to ensure current, and future executives of these vital institutions are provided with comprehensive development that produces great and effective leaders who are innovative and creative and are positioned to have a lasting impact on their respective institutions,” said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president, and CEO of UNCF. “We are excited to partner with H.E.L.F., so we can continue to demonstrate our commitment to the future of HBCUs. What is unique about this partnership is that this is the first time UNCF has undertaken to create a sustained pipeline of high-performing leaders.


Who’s in your Wallet: Mentoring as a tool for making professional decisions with returns

July 19, 2019 in General

Mentoring means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but there are some common themes. Most consideration regarding mentorship has been given to understanding the benefit of staff serving as mentors to students, and the research focused on mentorship for staff has focused broadly on how mentoring can augment one’s career development. One less explored theme, “intentional” peer-to-peer staff mentorship, can be used as a tool for creativity, productivity, emotional well-being, and ultimately student-centered development.

Social and psychological research indicates a relationship between social wellbeing, cognitive functioning, and performance.  Subsequently, one could assume if the balance for the aforementioned is present that good work will be produced.  We’d like to make a case to assert just that.

Overextended and emotionally distressed, the brain and the body shut down. Working within these parameters often contributes to mediocrity in our personal and professional spaces. Given the frequency with which scholars and practitioners at HBCU’s are overworked and under-resourced, distress creates ripe environments for underperforming. Within this context, how can higher education professionals give their best to their work and ultimately our students? The answer: create healthier more productive staff through peer-to-peer mentoring and accountability.

The desire for belonging and connection are innate human needs. When these fundamental needs are met, and strong social bonds are formed there are a myriad of helpful outcomes, of note are positive self-esteem and healthy attachment, i.e., we feel better about ourselves when we feel good about the people with whom we connect. Despite empirical support demonstrating the value of interpersonal connections, norms within higher education promote individualism when navigating stressful scenarios- the proverbial suck it up and keep it moving, or the alternatively narrow “feel-good advice” from well-meaning colleagues.

Most of us can recall a parent, friend, or colleague saying to us, “Go treat yourself to a spa day, you will look better and then feel better,” or “Get board room ready and put on your Sunday’s best. You’ll feel better!”  Instinctively we tie looks to feelings.  There is an unmistakable feeling associated with looking and feeling good, yet, most believe feeling good is only a portion of the equation. How, then, is the nexus between feeling good and being well tied to social well-being? As supported by research, there must be “movement with purpose,” such that when your passion, vocation, and location are all in sync, social wellbeing and healthy cognitive functioning are likely present as well. Here is the platform from which we will launch.

Instead of (primarily) having peer-to-peer mentors who make us feel good about perceived professional gains, cultivate connections that help you reflect upon your personal and professional needs.

Peers can play a pivotal role in creating a culture where feeling good aligns with performing well. Often times we engage with friends and colleagues who are similarly situated with aspirations that mirror our own.  This co-existence can be extremely beneficial if fostered appropriately.  Here’s why peer-to-peer mentorship really matters.  Where we miss the mark in these mentor/relationships is the lack of critical curation.  Find a truth-teller and an accountability partner (or whatever that person is referred to) who is given the licenses to stretch you!  While this may be a tricky proposition, we think it’s an obligation when peer-to-peer mentoring really functions at a high level.

Picture this. You find, what you believe, is the perfect career opportunity.  The title, vocation, and salary are all palatable, and you say to yourself, “Let’s fill this application out, interview, and bag this gig!” Not so fast. Fit matters. If you reside professionally in a place that does not fit, internal fulfillment will likely escape you, and your ability to produce at levels indicative of pay raises and promotions will be difficult if not impossible to reach or maintain. If you’ve researched the organization, its leadership, your direct report, and the team and you feel congruency is present, you are in good shape.  Further, if the mission of the organization, the ethos and spirit of that ethos speak to you, then one should proceed.  Answering affirmatively to most of the aforementioned insulates you from running when the “wheels fall off” and you’re faced with the difficult realities of laboring at an HBCU.  Valuable peer-to-peer mentoring now becomes invaluable if professionals have this tool of critical curation to vet career and vocational opportunities.

Remember we’re talking about an assertion within social and psychological research that draws a nexus between social wellbeing, cognitive functioning, and performance, and if we discover that a shinny object really isn’t all that shiny, well, we know what happens to those thing – they’re discarded and the desire or interest in them wanes, fast.  We imagine this is likely what occurs when folk aren’t happy at work. Again, does mentorship have a place in preventing unhappiness at the work place-we’d say yes.   If having an extra critical set of eyes is mandatory when writing a memo, why then would it not be appropriate to have a critical conversation about opportunities to ensure we’ve viewed the opportunity, not through rose-colored shades, but a fresh pair of blue blockers!

The HBCU space is particularly special to so many people. The excellence, the pageantry, bonds formed and memories that last a lifetime are built on these historic campuses. However, perfecting one’s vocation will likely come with challenges. Our institutions are grounded on the power of community. We recognize the intrinsic value of helping by “reaching back” or mentoring. This places mentorship at the core of fostering personal and professional wellbeing for higher education professionals and suggests it is a key factor in creating healthier, more productive and innovative work environments (which promotes the best environments for our students keeping us student-centered). If administrators are connected socially and in meaningful ways such as mentorship, they are empowered, motivated, and productive. Essentially, mentorship is a means to help caregivers and servant leaders thrive.

Here are suggestions for curators in mentorship:

  • Be intentional when selecting peer mentors.
  • Agree upon parameters and the frequency of your communication (accountability matters).
  • Invest the time (even if only electronic) in your relationship.
  • Assess along the way to see what works (ed).

When these criteria are met, we are primed to meet subsequent adversity with focus, support, and strategic problem-solving. Without peer-to-peer mentorship, the critical need of fit when selecting “shiny objects” as opposed to syncing mission, passion, and vocation are significantly discounted… Who’s in your wallet?

Wilberforce Announces Leadership Transition, Felton Named Wiley President

December 19, 2017 in Leadership

Wilberforce University’s Board of Trustees today announced that Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard will serve as the school’s new, permanent president following the departure of Herman J. Felton, who arrived in Ohio in July 2016 and will depart to become the new president of Wiley College.

In a statement, Board Chairman Mark Wilson praised Dr. Felton for his leadership and called his work at the institution, “complete.” Dr. Pinkard, who served as executive vice president and provost, received a unanimous appointment to the permanent position.

Read More on HBCU Digest

To Be or Not to Be: Presidential Aspirations and the HBCU Challenge

November 8, 2017 in Leadership

I get it. If you have spent a career as an academic administrator and imagine yourself possessing some leadership talent, ascending to a presidency might seem the logical next career move. You may also have a chorus of voices urging you to step into the void left by so many presidential vacancies. However, careful consideration must be given to the pursuit of a presidency.

There is, however, a vast difference between an ego-driven assessment of one’s perceived suitability for a presidency and the reality of becoming and being a successful president. While Boards of Trustees have assumed the brunt of the criticism for the president-institution mis-match that has led to the revolving door in the presidential suite at many HBCUs, we have been reluctant to explore the part individuals play in their failed presidencies. Far too many presidential tenures have been self-sabotaged by arrogance, incivility, bullying and tone-deafness to the obvious markers of potential trouble. How does a vote of no confidence, dissatisfied students, excessive staff turnover and disgruntled alumni not be viewed as possible symptoms of a problematic leadership style? Yet the egomaniacal self-absorption that consumes many individuals once they become presidents is blinding and ultimately self-destructive.

It seems everyone wants to be the boss whether they are prepared or not. It is true, this sector needs well trained, highly skilled, principled leaders to lead them into the future but just as every athlete will not make it to the pros, every academic administrator or scholar who imagines themselves a college president will not become one. I have seen far too many presidents who are, quite simply, unimpressive and uninspiring at first glance yet seem pathologically preoccupied with themselves and their fast track to a presidency.

Every aspiring president needs to engage in a very honest and deeply personal introspective internal conversation about their individual vocation and the requirements, demands and expectations of the institutions that wish to lead. That conversation should include an assessment of the right fit between individual preparation, character and ability and the institutional mission and saga. And, most importantly, there must never be an assumption that leadership success in one sector of higher education automatically transfers to the HBCU space. Tellingly, a stellar and exemplary career as a leadership star at a predominantly white institution (PWI) is not a predictor of presidential success at a HBCU. The road is littered with those PWI leadership stars and their failed HBCU presidencies.

An aspiring president must look beyond the status and accouterments which accompany a presidency and imagine the real work of leading an institution. This work is all-consuming, demanding and occasionally thankless. It requires a complete commitment of time and energy. The HBCU presidential terrain is especially tenuous and one can lose one’s bearing suddenly and quite publicly. A certain temperament is required; equal parts humility, hubris, and fearlessness in the face of certain and free-flowing criticism. There are competing constituent groups vying for the president’s attention and favor. Managing that whirlwind of constant drama is not an easy task for leadership novices. It takes a healthy degree of self-knowledge and self-possession and a special talent to negotiate a workable peace with a board chair, board of trustees, alumni, faculty, donors, legislators, and accreditors all while cultivating a life of balance and personal well-being.

An effective president most often possesses a confluence of leadership talent, charisma, skill, and unfaltering personal conviction. A presidency is not for everyone nor should it be. Perhaps, it might be helpful to acknowledge that there is no shame in building and cultivating a career in administrative positions and spaces that suit one’s vocation and temperament while fully supporting institutional missions and the president with whom one might serve.

My journey in the academy is illustrative. As a young administrator, colleagues told me repeatedly that I would make a great HBCU president. It was a constant and intoxicating confirmation of my own sense of my intelligence and academic pedigree. While I had never really considered a presidency as part of my personal manifest destiny, these collective urgings came so often and with such sincerity that I began to entertain the notion. In retrospect, however, I never had the fire in my belly and never set out to develop a practical plan of action to get a presidency. I did not seek a mentor or advocate and was painfully awkward and inept at networking and self-promotion.

In 1986, I was a Woodrow Wilson Foundation Administrative Fellow with a placement at what was then Florida Memorial College in Miami, Florida. I was appointed Chair, Division of Social Sciences and served four years in that administrative capacity. Midway through my time there, the president, Willie C. Robinson, announced his retirement. I was an arrogant, annoying, young administrator with a Harvard doctorate and an accompanying snarly attitude of self-importance. I was all of 34 years old and thought myself the savior of this little black college so naturally I applied for the presidency. I was ill-prepared in the most profound and fundamental ways. I had scant knowledge of the workings of an institution of higher education, especially one with a special mission. While I was well liked by my students and peers, I did not know how to effectively galvanize people around a vision for institutional transformation. This was a choice that was purely ego-driven as I listened to the imaginations of others about my noteworthy presidency. Most importantly, I lacked the personal conviction that I was stepping into my destiny and that this was work I was built to pursue. I was granted an interview, most probably out of curiosity. When a colleague on the search committee asked me why I thought I should be president, my response was an embarrassing, ill-conceived bumbling indication of my internal ambivalence and lack of clarity. I did not get the job and was most likely never even a real consideration. It was an important and humbling lesson that I never forgot.

In retrospect, I would have been well-served and spared myself epic embarrassment if I had done the following:

  • Developed and cultivated a leadership perspective and approach that acknowledged the unique contributions, opportunities, and challenges of being an HBCU president.
  • Been unafraid to engage in an internal conversation about my motivation for wanting to be president and alignment with my personal vocation.
  • Sought the input and advice of presidents and thought-leaders whose service, work, integrity, and commitment I admired.
  • Sought the perspective of colleagues and peers with whom I worked in the HBCU space.
  • Sought the input and perspective of those who knew, loved, and cherished me unconditionally for their brutally honest assessment of my leadership acumen and presidential aspirations.

All institutions need good, solid, presidents to lead them but HBCUs are particularly needy. What these institutions don’t need are pretenders with oversized egos and an inflated sense of entitlement. What’s needed are individuals fully informed and knowledgeable about HBCUs and their role in American higher education, solidly anchored in their craft, confident, morally centered and prepared to do the heavy lifting. There are many potentially strong candidates who possess the timber currently working, often unnoticed and unappreciated, at colleges and universities across the nation. They may be outside of established networks, may be unconventional in their training and experience but they are strong contenders with the potential for long and successful tenures. Many have done the soul work, having reconciled personal vocation and the mission of HBUCs. These are the presidential hopefuls primed to lead HBCUs in the 21st century.

Eighty HBCU presidents, Eighty different perspectives… Here is Mine

October 25, 2017 in Leadership

Several days ago, I attended a “listening session” at the White House with eighty Historically Black College and University (HBCUs) presidents and chancellors. The session was billed as “an opportunity to engage agency leaders who interface with our nations gems.” The opportunity was also a chance to advocate for the next chapter of federal support for our distinguished Colleges and Universities. In the days that have passed, there has been much ado about someone sitting on a couch, suggestions of presidents getting duped, questions about who fell for the okey doke, and whether or not this was the ultimate bait and switch.

Not surprisingly since the visit, many HBCU presidents have been vocal about their impression of these meetings at the White House, which were coordinated as an opportunity by President and CEO Lezli Baskerville (NAFEO), President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. (TMCF) and President and CEO Micheal Lomax (UNCF) as a way to advocate for our institutions. The concerns shared by the vocal presidents included observations regarding the amount of time allotted to speak, changes to the itinerary, the tone of the President’s press release that announced the Executive Order, whether or not this was an authentic engagement or simply a photo opportunity for the Trump Administration. When we were invited to participate, we were informed of logistics for the visit, of which included a scheduled conversation with senior officials. The conversation did occur with only seven out of the 15 Presidents giving remarks on behalf of the entire HBCU community. I think it’s important to note, each president was given 1-2 minutes to speak. Not surprisingly, none of my colleagues stayed within the allotted time, which is understandable considering their passion, expertise, and insight as leaders. To express the magnitude of our visit, Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and other senior cabinet officials, attended and provided greetings, pledged their support for HBCUs, and reaffirmed the assertion made by the President and others that we are an immediate priority for the Trump Administration.

As the days followed, there have been questions regarding our visit, our integrity, and a philosophical debate of whether we should have attended. Speaking for myself, I can live with these mischaracterizations, attacks on our integrity, and the lazy research used to rage against our decisions to attend the meeting. To many of us, the purpose of participating in this meeting was to promote our institutions, in my case, Wilberforce University. I believe HBCU presidents have come to this work because of our clear desire to serve our community. Sometimes serving the community comes with making unpopular decisions. As a United States Marine, I have been taught to lead from the front, which limits your exposure from the background noise and distractions in the rear, which invariably will impede forward progression.

Our visit was an important first step to what we hope to be a deep and true commitment to uplift our institutions. What will happen next from this Administration, to address our under-funded and under-resourced institutions, is the right question. The visit to the White House also reminded me of how much work there is to be done in educating others about HBCUs. Perceptions of our institutions became clearer as a result of this meeting. Every step along the way, we who believe in our HBCUs must remind the world that we have time and again produced some of the best and brightest graduates, even under less than desirable conditions. That racism and segregation, created us, but excellence defines us.

I, as the 21st President of Wilberforce University, went to the White House to remind them of our venerable institution. Regardless of my political affiliation or religious beliefs, the trust that has been instilled in me as president, guided my reasoning for making the trip.

As I reflect on my time at the White House, I see these meetings as an important step in educating our nation’s leaders on the legacy of HBCU’s as well as the value our institutions provide to our community, the nation, and the world. After our interactions, I am more confident that more White House staff members have greater insight about our institution’s contributions. With time, ferocious and unrelenting advocacy, it is my hope that our institutions will finally receive an equitable share of federal allocations, research grants, and government contracts. It is because of my commitment to the Wilberforce family, that I will continue to advocate for resources of which we are rightfully entitled to receive/obtain. After attending this meeting, I am sure that time will be the only true judge regarding the level of support we receive from The Trump Administration. I also have certainty that within this Administration we have a tireless advocate for our institutions in Omarosa Manigault, a three-time HBCU graduate.

Lastly, the coverage we received via such news outlets as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CNN is important as we continue the process of advocating for and educating about HBCUs contributions to the world, showcasing our extraordinary students, and guiding our institutions into the future. Many of us attended because of our commitment to our institutions and because we are clear that we need to voice what we believe will make our country greater, while simultaneously challenging this great nation to live up to her promise for all.

Suo Marte,
Herman J. Felton, Jr.

Reclaiming Our Time and Our Space: The Politics of Invisibility

September 18, 2017 in Leadership

As I continue to process my feelings about the unspeakable events in Charlottesville and the current climate in our country which birthed them, I was recently forwarded a link to an article which served as my tipping point. As a zealot of this sacred space called Historically Black Colleges and Universities, this article praising the creation of a program designed to create presidents of Minority Serving Institutions (including HBCUs) out of mid-level managers who are “5-7 years from becoming presidents,” reminded me of my invisibility as a leader in the HBCU community. The article highlights the efforts of a Center director and professor at an Ivy League institution, and her efforts “to shape the next generation of university presidents who will lead the country’s minority serving institutions.”

“There are 650 minority serving institutions across the country. We really don’t have leadership training programs for future presidents that are specifically focused on these minority serving institutions”, the article said. And I thought to myself, “we, the actual leaders of these institutions, and our work are invisible.”

While I applaud anyone who genuinely supports the goal of strengthening MSIs (particularly HBCUs), this assertion is not only false, it is offensive and problematic.

Most troubling is the assertion that this program is the first of its kind. This egregious statement clearly ignores the blatantly obvious: The longest sitting HBCU president, Hampton University’s Dr. William M. Harvey has himself produced 10 plus presidents and hosted the Executive Leadership Institute to introduce and nurture the next group of HBCU presidents. But this article’s assertions render his contributions to the space invisible. Also invisible is the work of Drs. Charlie Lyons, Dorothy Cowser-Yancy, Edison O. Jackson and Johnnetta B. Cole, who have mentored, guided and sponsored past and current presidents. As a new president who has benefited from HBCU leadership development and mentorship, I can attest that HBCUs are already earnestly committed to cultivating the next leaders. But again, our contributions are invisible. My inherent and genuine love and respect for the HBCU space left me feeling unsettled over this realization that those of us who are toiling in the fields each day are invisible to the broader populace.

I am also curious to learn how the center’s leaders have arrived at definitive conclusions about what HBCUs need.  When was the last time they gathered a wide-range of HBCU leaders together to determine what we need, how we could partner or how they might come to better understand the challenges we face? Has the center’s leadership interfaced with our chief advocacy agencies (UNCF, TMCF, or NAFEO) to ascertain how we address the impending leadership void? What is pervasive, is this constant assertion of an individual who is presented as “our” expert and apparently “our” savior. One must also question, did the funders who backed this latest endeavor ever ponder the question of offering these grants to a coalition of HBCUs which have already demonstrated their commitment to leadership development, as opposed to investing in an already resource-rich Ivy League institution?  Anyone truly committed to equity work can see the center’s culpability in maintaining institutional and structural racism. Although there genuinely may be good intentions, the creation of and collection of funding for such an institute that, at best, will facilitate a trickle down effect to disperse resources to the institutions it purports to help, is disconcerting.

Had there been real dialogue and real interaction with a wide range of HBCU leaders, I am sure we could have come to some honest assessment of what HBCUs need, and on our terms.  Unfortunately, this set of contradictions is a familiar trope — others believing they know what is best for us, and then telling us that we should celebrate their support.  This phenomenon bears a striking parallel to colonialism and what my students refer to as “Columbusing.”

Frankly, I have had enough of so-called HBCU advocates on the outside of the community using their privilege to develop a false narrative which demeans more than 180 years of leadership and accomplishments of HBCU leaders and alumni. HBCUs were founded in the face of racism and lack of access to traditional higher learning institutions for African Americans. And, despite continued institutional racism, HBCU leaders have matriculated thousands of America’s finest thought leaders, business executives and philanthropists, notwithstanding the absence of financial support and resources afforded to many predominantly white colleges and universities. Alas, in the eyes of many, these contributions are also invisible.

As an HBCU alumnus and as the president of Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private HBCU, I welcome anyone to advocate for our beloved HBCUs. However, I ask that you honor the literal blood, sweat, and tears that have cultivated the HBCU landscape for over 150 years.  Consider Wilberforce University founder Daniel Paine’s foresight to purchase an institution to which the opportunity to obtain an education would be present for negro men and women, though it would be denied elsewhere. Many HBCUs are distressed, but not for the lack of passion, effort or even accomplishment.  Rather, from the historical lack of equal investment, and from the continued insistence on marginalizing our value and contributions to present society.

In his earth-shattering biographical novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison said, “you often doubt if you really exist…you ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful”.

HBCU leaders will not curse, nor will we strike out for the sole purpose of your acknowledgement of our existence. Instead, we will do the work which requires you to “put some respect on our name” while we are “reclaiming our time.”

Kindness at HBCUs: Re-thinking Institutional Culture

May 9, 2017 in Leadership

It requires little. Every human being is capable of giving it and it is always welcomed, well received and appreciated. Its impact transcends racial, ethnic, religious, gender, economic and national boundaries. It is a fundamental human act that can change behavior, attitudes and elicit strong, unfiltered emotion. Some give it freely and genuinely while others lock it away behind dead eyes and a hardened, fearful spirit. Some consider it a sign of weakness and refuse to offer it. It is rarely mentioned in lessons of success and achievement. Sadly, we see its absence manifest almost daily around the world in acts of gut-wrenching violence as human beings fight, kill, maim, brutalize and bully each other.

In the moments following a horrific act of human mayhem, we lament the lack of kindness in the world. We are raw and afraid and quest to do something big and noticeable to tame the violence among us. Somehow we fail to imagine that a change might begin with our own singular commitment to being kind.

We are not accustomed to thinking of university environments in terms of kindness. We have most probably been conditioned to imagine the university as a space where kindness is not a requirement for productivity and successful outcomes. Yet, campus communities are living, learning and workplace environments where multi-generations live, learn and work. The nature of these human interactions are important and meaningful. The espousal of kindness as an institutional value and the practice of kindness as an institutional imperative can yield the most forward-thinking and innovative policies and practices. Talented students, faculty and administrators are drawn to and remain at universities where kindness is actively practiced. The institutional saga at places where kindness matters is uplifting, joyful and exciting and the narrative is passionate, convincing and genuine. The shared experience is a good one and everyone understands and embraces the challenge of being kind even in the face of daily stressors, frustration, demands, expectations and the unanticipated.

Being kind is subversive. It upends the prevailing notion that kindness is weakness and that excellence and workplace efficiency can only be assured with unyielding, rigidity and an uncompromising leadership style which relies on fear and intimidation. Unfortunately, many of us have come to expect these environments which have left us jaded, suspicious and hardened. Kindness is unrecognized and mistrusted when it is offered and some have become incapable of receiving or returning it. This is the shame of what occurs at too many institutions.

I love historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and my commitment to these institutions is unassailable. I have spent nearly 40 years at HBCUS and have been proud of every moment. While I will continue to work for and on behalf of HBCUs, I have come to know that they, like all institutions, are seriously flawed. This is admittedly not a particularly noteworthy revelation as the ills and challenges of these institutions have been thoroughly chronicled. What might surprise, however, is my opinion regarding the source of these institutional woes. I believe strongly that the dysfunction, inefficiency and malaise at too many HBCUs is rooted in the lingering vestiges of the enslavement of people of African descent. The persistent and deeply ingrained notion that we are unworthy has resulted in a collective disdain and disregard for one another. At the basic level of institutional life, this manifests as abysmal customer service and treatment of our students, staff and faculty, draconian institutional polices which disadvantage faculty and staff, operational ineffectiveness, unrestrained, mean-spirited gossip and tyrannical leadership. Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that many are unwilling to show up daily and give their best selves to their institutions, students and colleagues?

No amount of foundation money, federal legislation and support or innovative intervention will save HBCUs until all those who care about them commit to a simple but powerful imperative-being kind to one another. What is required is a radical transformation in institutional cultures which results in kindness that is genuine, heartfelt and borne of personal commitment to reimagining how one treats and expects to be treated.

If HBCUs are to overcome and re-craft the current narrative about their value, purpose and relevance, as a people, African-Americans must confront and undo the most debilitating consequence of our enslavement in the Americas, notably, the internalized self-hatred and the attendant belief that our communities and institutions are not worthy of our absolute best. As a people, we must become capable of seeing one another, genuinely liking what we see and behaving accordingly. Advocating kindness as a potential game-changer for the survival and sustainability of HBCUs will, no doubt, seem to some reductionist. More significantly, being kind to one another represents our collective willingness to admit to and undo the lingering pathology which has emotionally, psychologically and spiritually shacked us as a people since our freedom from enslavement. The prevailing images of Black people killing and disrespecting one another are so pervasive that Black people loving one another and behaving with authentic kindness toward one another is, in contemporary America, a revolutionary act!

HBCUs are at once much celebrated and much maligned as places of great promise, opportunity and challenge. The legacy of these institutions is far reaching and touches, in some way, the personal histories of every African-American. They are also an important part of the communal story of African-Americans. While these are American institutions, they are uniquely ours and their survival is uniquely our responsibility. Might we begin to imagine a generation of HBCU leaders who unapologetically embrace kindness as personal mandates which intimately informs their approach to leading? If so, might we also imagine radically transformed institutional cultures and collective behavior at many HBCUs and, in so doing, proclaim strong, vital and vibrant institutions where operational efficiency, institutional excellence and kindness effortlessly coexist.

The Possibilities Within: Re-Imagining Leadership Potential at HBCUs

September 26, 2016 in Leadership

“There is a rock poised across our path, but together we can move it.”

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 and government indifference and a press that loves a provocative story are a few of the ills that plague many HBCUs placing them at heightened risk. 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 ascendancy 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 re-imagines 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 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 poorly resourced institutions yet they willingly commit to their students and the academic enterprise. They often work unnoticed and unheralded which is the shame of their existence on many of our campuses. Often their value and significance are fully recognized as they are leaving our 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 institutional leaders 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. Indeed, their 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 underappreciated. Far too frequently, 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 administrative seeking desperately to leave an institution. The HBCU community then loses another who might have brought their special gifts to an institution.

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.