By Mel and Pearl Shaw

Running an institution of higher education is like running a multimillion dollar business. There are negotiations for property, talent, capital, innovation, partnerships, and, oh – student recruitment, retention, graduation and curriculum specialization. Both business and education have to focus on ethics, equity, brand, competition, financing, changes in the marketplace, the customer experience, etc.

The responsibilities and expectations can seem overwhelming to those who don’t sit in such executive roles. These responsibilities, challenges and opportunities are magnified when the institution is a historically black college or university. These presidents are often asked to do the impossible; to resolve the results of historical inequities and underinvestment with the snap of a finger.

Yes, college presidents and university chancellors represent the top tier of educational leadership. They should be up to the task. But the task that most have prepared for has been changing at an accelerated pace, traditional funding streams are disappearing, and attracting top talent is next to impossible when institutions are dealing with budget cuts, enrollment decrease, and noncompetitive compensation packages.

The following, gained over decades working with HBCUs, are our observations on challenges facing leaders of HBCUs.

Lack of resources. This is the number one challenge facing HBCUs and no one person can change this – and the implications – overnight. This includes little or no endowment, encumbered endowment, or endowment “pay outs” that are already pledged to meet prior financial commitments. Today’s current lack of resources is also tied to historical lack of investment and/or disinvestment combined with lack of unrestricted annual funds and major debt. A leader who takes the reins of an institution with these challenges needs to require board and community engagement and investment to address these, especially if the leader is new to the community.

Changing leadership requirements. Today’s top leaders need c-suite business experience in addition to educational leadership. They need to know business modeling, finance and fundraising. They also need to be politically informed, connected and astute. They need to navigate, negotiate, build and sustain mutually beneficial relationships across campus and across the city, region and state. They need to be attuned to the congressional agenda and funding opportunities or threats, and they need lobbyists to advocate for the individual and collective HBCU agenda.

Board of trustees. While business, nonprofit and educational leaders are known to complain about “my board,” the challenges at an HBCU can be dire. It is the board of trustees that selects and evaluates the president, and that is the make-it-or-break-it decision for the college. First, the institution has to attract a pool of qualified applicants. The composition of the board could impact whether top candidates will accept the post. Our experience has shown that challenges arise when the board lacks diversity, a healthy gender balance, and people of power, wealth and influence.

Niche. Each institution needs to define its vision, mission and uniqueness. Top leadership has to know and communicate the institution’s niche internally across campus constituencies, and externally amongst stakeholders, funders, donors and partners. Ideally the niche builds on current or historical strengths, addresses current and future needs at the local, national and global levels, and meets a need in the educational marketplace/ecosystem. The institution’s uniqueness should be embraced by all stakeholders and should inform its business, strategic and fundraising plans.

Leadership churn. The turnover of top leadership at historically black colleges is often blamed on the president. “They didn’t deliver” is what we are asked to understand as the reason for early termination of a contract or unwillingness to renew a contract. The core of the issue, however, often is that the institution faces challenges and trustees don’t believe the president can solve them. The challenges facing HBCUs are many and they require the engagement of many to resolve.

We close this column with questions for those who seek a presidential role and for those who are charged with recruiting and hiring a president.

Questions to ask yourself if you are considering a presidential position:

  • Are the expectations of the hiring board clear and achievable?
  • Will I have access to the resources I need to meet those expectations?
  • Do I have – and I am willing to recruit or expand – a circle of advisors with the skill sets, experience and relationships required to support my presidency?
  • Is my knowledge of fund development and fundraising deep enough and to secure the funds my institution will need?
  • Do I know how to set and manage fundraising goals?
  • Do I know and understand the full meaning of current and anticipated fundraising priorities?
  • What do I know of the community surrounding the college or university as it relates to stakeholders, influencers, power brokers and door openers in the community?
  • With all the demands that will be placed on me, can I make fundraising – and fund development – a priority?
  • Am I really willing to allocate 50 to 80 percent of my time to fundraising?
  • Am I prepared to negotiate with the board for the resources I need to be successful?

Questions to ask yourself if you are a member of the board hiring a president:

  • How realistic is the job description for the president?
  • Have we allocated adequate compensation and a highly qualified cabinet?
  • How am I – and how are we – prepared to support the new president?
  • Do we know the institution’s priorities and can we communicate, define and measure these?
  • What is the current status of alumni relations, engagement and giving?
  • Do we meet frequently enough as a board and are our meetings productive or ceremonial?
  • How much do I give annually and how much do we as a board give collectively on an annual basis?
  • Does the board makeup appropriate to advance the college?
  • Do we have active and engaged committees?
  • How politically astute are we and how are we engaged in the community?