An Off-Brand Hire

Can a white woman from outside higher ed lead marketing and recruitment at an all-male historically Black college? Morehouse College leaders decided she could. Some alumni strongly disagree.

May 23, 2022
Paula Resley, a white woman with light brown hair and light eyes.
(Morehouse College)

A newly hired administrator at Morehouse College has sparked divisions and debate among alumni about who can represent the institution. Some alumni and students worry the new administrator, who will oversee marketing and recruitment at the Atlanta institution, is underqualified and question whether a white woman should have been chosen as the face of an all-male, majority Black college over Black male candidates. Others have argued she needs to be given a chance.

Paula Resley started working as Morehouse’s chief brand officer and vice president of strategic communications, marketing and admissions earlier this month. Her job is to direct “brand and messaging strategy as well as targeted recruitment and digital engagement,” according to a news release from the college. Her résumé is replete with marketing experience, mostly in the health-care industry; she’s never held a position in higher ed. Her most recent role was as senior director of marketing for the U.S., Latin America and Canada at Carestream Dental, a dental imaging and software company based in Atlanta.

“Paula’s experience and expertise, particularly in digital engagement, will help Morehouse continue to expand its international visibility and amplify its crucial voice,” Morehouse’s president, David A. Thomas, said in the release.

The announcement was followed by an outpouring of reaction on social media—and calls and emails to the college—from alumni questioning the decision. Resley replied to some of the negative comments on LinkedIn, defending herself and asserting her commitment to stay in the job, but she later deleted her responses. Campus leaders, including Resley, declined to comment through a spokesperson on the controversy surrounding the hire.

One alumnus called the hiring decision an “INSULT to the legacy of Morehouse and a blow to the Brand” in a thread on LinkedIn.

“The HEAVY emphasis on women is an attack on male leadership and not appropriate for Morehouse,” he wrote. “Just wondering how long before Morehouse ceases to recognize itself. Six months? Let’s take bets on how long before it’s not about Black Men at all. If there are any Morehouse Men who see what I see they should speak up and stop pretending this is ok.”

Another Morehouse graduate wrote in the same thread that he had “yet to see a reasonable explanation of this anywhere.”

Resley, in the news release announcing her position, said she felt “honored to join the leadership team” and “thrilled to work alongside this inspiring staff, faculty, students and alumni.”

And in a nod to the college’s storied history of educating Black men, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., she added, “The Morehouse College mission of developing young Black men to lead lives of leadership and service is something that I believe in and standards I aspire to uphold,” she said. “With Morehouse College’s decades-long leadership position on social justice, I am motivated by where we will take the College in the decades to come.”

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Much of the debate among alumni about Resley’s role focuses on who could have been hired instead. An employee who asked to remain anonymous said two other candidates who interviewed for the position were Black men, and one would have been an internal hire.

The main complaint from alumni “comes down to her position … one of a person who would be in some cases the outward recruiting and marketing face of the college, but she doesn’t represent the population in any way,” the employee said. And “some have looked at her résumé and have seen that she doesn’t have any higher ed experience.”

The employee questioned Resley’s original move to respond to criticism online but agreed with her that alumni haven’t given her a chance to prove herself.

“I think if she does a good job, then I’m happy to have her,” the employee said. “I think they have yet to give this young woman a chance to do her job. But I’d like to see them do that. And if they still have an issue, if she can’t bring in the students we believe should be at Morehouse, if she can’t communicate with partners and friends in a satisfying way, then they’ll have something to stand on. But right now, they just seem to not like her for superficial reasons.”

The discussion about hiring a white person as the public face of a predominantly Black college is occurring a time when white students, faculty members and administrators are increasingly attending or going to work at HBCUs. Non-Black students made up 24 percent of enrollment at HBCUs in 2020, compared to 15 percent in 1976, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The book A Primer on Minority-Serving Institutions (Routledge, 2019) also notes that about a quarter of HBCU faculty members are white.

Some HBCU leaders celebrate that institutions are attracting non-Black students and professionals. Jarrett Carter Sr., founder of HBCU Digest, a blog focused on HBCU news, said the country’s racial reckoning in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd put these institutions on the radar of non-Black applicants who might not have considered applying before. (Carter also directs operations, strategy and communications at Howard University but noted he was not speaking on behalf of the institution.)

HBCUs “are starting to broaden their talent pool and consider a lot of different people from a lot of different places,” he said. “And a lot of people are interested in working at HBCUs. I think that that’s a good thing, because it shows you the expansion of the HBCU as a mainstream higher education brand.”

He noted that despite the stir over the hiring of Resley, HBCUs have had white professionals in public-facing leadership positions for a long time. He noted, for example, that the executive vice president at Fisk University and the associate vice chancellor of university relations at North Carolina A&T State University are both white.

“I don’t think we can have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘We’re willing to take a white person’s money’ from a philanthropy standpoint, and ‘We’re willing to take a white person’s money’ from a student standpoint. But an administrative position is a bridge too far.”

Carter believes there’s a “cultural advantage in having someone at an HBCU who understands the language of HBCUs and cultural touchstones of HBCUs. But for as much as I wouldn’t want anyone to judge a Black person in a white space—to say how capable or incapable are you because of your race—I wouldn’t do that in our spaces, either.”

An alumnus who did not want to be identified in order to preserve his relationships at the college said he has “nothing against” Resley, but he found her qualifications “questionable.” He believes a Black professional with more relevant experience would have been a better fit to spearhead the branding of a college where the majority of alumni, prospective students and donors are Black men.

He fears the hire may put a damper on the donations flowing into the college since the racial reckoning in 2020. Many HBCUs have experienced enrollment surges and new levels of philanthropic largess in the period since. He said he has received calls not only from other Morehouse alumni but business leaders and diversity, equity and inclusion professionals he knows from outside the institution asking about the hiring decision.

“I personally am questioning my own involvement with the school,” he said. “My time is valuable. All of our resources are valuable. Am I putting my resources and time in the right place, given I now question the agenda of the school I’ve given a lot of my life and time to—and money?”

He also worries the hiring of Resley may send a discouraging message to current and future students about their own job prospects.

“What does it say about a school that is about Black male leaders when you have made the bold decision to go counter to that in a role that is about the face of the brand and the voice of Morehouse?” he said. “I’m concerned about the message that it sends not just to students, but I’m concerned about the message that it sends to potential future students. I’m concerned about the message it sends about what this brand and what this school has represented for almost 200 years about how Black men can thrive and lead in a world where they’re not seen as able to do that.”

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