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.