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Experts believe HBCU leadership turnover is on the rise.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images

Last week the presidents of two historically Black institutions announced their departures: Robin Capehart at Bluefield State University and Rick Gallot at Grambling State University. Their exits mean that now at least 18 four-year HBCUs lack a permanent leader.

Some of those institutions are being led by an acting or interim president. Others have presidents who are on their way out, either retiring, as Capehart is, or taking another job, like Gallot, who was recently tapped to lead the University of Louisiana system, of which Grambling is a part.

Experts warn that a lack of permanence at the top harms a college’s long-term relationships with donors, alumni and lawmakers. It also undercuts institutional momentum when leaders leave before they have had time to fulfill their vision or drive meaningful progress on campus.

Campuses in Flux

Capehart, who started as an interim in 2019, will retire after four years in the role. He replaced Marsha Krotseng, who resigned after seven years amid pressure over enrollment declines. During Capehart’s tenure, faculty voted no confidence in his leadership, officials eliminated the Faculty Senate and he threatened to fire professors who dissented. His actions prompted complaints to Bluefield’s accreditor and condemnation from a free speech group.

Gallot’s time at Grambling State, which began in 2016, has featured far less controversy. Though the university saw fatal shootings in 2017 and 2021, most of the tension on campus has been centered on athletics. Art Briles, the disgraced former Baylor University football coach, was hired and then quickly ousted amid public backlash. The volleyball team was also caught in controversy after a new coach cut the entire squad before she was pushed out. Despite those issues, Gallot avoided getting caught in the same kind of faculty clashes that Capehart did at BSU.

Gallot also provided a period of stability at Grambling State, which before his hire had three presidents in three years; his predecessor resigned months after a no-confidence vote. (When Gallot was hired, UL system head Dan Renau noted that in fact Grambling State had had 10 presidents over the course of 25 years.) (This paragraph has been updated to clarify that Gallot's predecessor was not an interim.)

While Capehart and Gallot represent the most recent presidents to depart HBCUs, 2023 has been marked by what some experts say is higher-than-average leadership turnover in the sector.

“The evidence is clear and numbers are telling that presidential turnover at HBCUs is trending higher this year than normal,” Terrell Strayhorn, vice provost of faculty development and director of research at the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University, said by email.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer than six presidential vacancies at HBCUs, Strayhorn said. Now he puts that number at “north of 20,” noting that nearly one-fifth of the nation’s 101 HBCUs are “led by acting, interim, or otherwise temporary leaders and CEOs.” (Strayhorn’s tally, which is higher than others’, includes two-year colleges.)

Walter Kimbrough, former president of Philander Smith College and Dillard University, has been tracking the comings and goings of HBCU presidents since he took his first top job in 2004. Since then, Kimbrough has counted 200-plus presidential departures at the nation’s four-year HBCUs. On average, he told Inside Higher Ed, between 10 and 12 HBCU presidents leave each year.

Based on his research, there are presently 18 four-year HBCUs without a permanent president: Alcorn State University, Bethune-Cookman University, Bluefield State, Central State University, Grambling State, Jackson State University, Langston University, LeMoyne-Owen College, Morris College, North Carolina A&T State University, Philander Smith College, Rust College, Savannah State University, Tennessee State University, Texas Southern University, Tougaloo College, Tuskegee University and Winston-Salem State University.

Some of those campuses seem to be in a constant state of transition; Kimbrough pointed out that Bethune-Cookman, for example, is on its third acting or interim president in as many years.

William Broussard, who serves as vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, began researching HBCU leadership turnover when he worked in the sector at the Southern University and A&M College system. Based on his research, Broussard said the numbers are high—but not historically so.

“Eighteen does not seem unusually high to me. If I were to compare apples to apples and go back and look at what that number had been in recent years, I would suspect that over the past decade that number has been higher than it currently is,” he said.

For example, Broussard identified 33 leadership changes at 24 HBCUs in the 2018–19 academic year alone. Even so, Broussard still considers this year’s turnover to be at “crisis level.” Whether it’s a historic high or not, experts agree that current turnover levels pose a problem.

“Permanence is key for donors and funding opportunities, because they’re looking for stability,” Kimbrough said.

What’s Driving Turnover?

Over all, presidential tenure is on the decline regardless of the sector.

The latest American College President Study from the American Council on Education found that the average presidency lasts 5.9 years. That number has declined steadily over the previous three ACE surveys, from 8.5 years in 2006, seven years in 2011 and 6.5 years in 2016.

But Broussard suggested that the door revolves more quickly at HBCUs.

“I looked into minority-serving institutions more widely as a sector—Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges—and tried to see if this was something that was perhaps part and parcel to all minority-serving institutions, and ended up determining that the rate of turnover is more significant in Black colleges than at any of the other minority-serving institutions,” he said.

Strayhorn pointed to a “range of issues” driving HBCU turnover, including “declining or shrinking enrollments, vacancies in key positions, inadequate facilities, fiscal issues, and Board tensions.” He also noted that some turnover among college leaders is to be expected given the mix of new opportunities for presidents, the burnout that comes with the job and the need for a fresh start.

Strayhorn added that some level of turnover can be positive, “and it’s unwise, unhealthy, and unproductive to hang on to poor leadership—turnover is a means of resetting strategically and charting a new sustainable path,” he wrote.

Kimbrough believes the job of a college president has gotten harder over the years amid increased political polarization and the rise of social media, which adds to outside pressure—and can contribute to turnover.

He recalled that during his time at Dillard, the university hosted a debate in 2016 for candidates running for an open Senate seat in Louisiana. Among the qualifiers: David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Dillard had no say in who was on the stage, but the appearance by Duke and other candidates prompted protests and widespread criticism both within and outside the community, including on social media. While it didn’t prompt him to resign, it did add to the stress of the job.

Kimbrough also believes presidential fit has been a major factor driving turnover.

“I think that persons who desire to be a president have to fully review the opportunity and be willing to say, ‘No, this isn’t a good fit.’ And I’ve watched people who should have said no to a place take it when it was doomed to fail from the beginning and it wasn’t a good fit for them,” Kimbrough said.

Missteps by trustees can also contribute to the fit issue, he said.

“I think boards are not being held accountable for terrible decisions,” he said. “If you have a president that’s there for two to four years, that’s a failed presidency. No one goes back and says, ‘The board picked the wrong person’—and in many cases, the board picks the wrong person.”

Solutions Needed

Experts said there is no presidential pipeline problem and no shortage of talented candidates to lead HBCUs, but hiring and retention remain clear problems. Among the solutions are grooming inside talent who can step into HBCU leadership roles.

“Since some turnover is expected given the demands of the job, aging leaders, and looming retirements, Boards would do well to engage in succession planning,” Strayhorn advised. “Promote professional development for your CEO, offer leadership coaching, career counseling, and empower them to be part of conversations about the future of the institution.”

But some experts believe outside organizations also have a role to play. For example, Kimbrough would like accreditors to hold boards more accountable for high leadership turnover rates.

“If you have an institution that goes through two or three presidents in a decade, I think accreditors should put pressure on and say, ‘You need to switch out this board.’ Because if it’s a private institution, they don’t report to anyone. If you have a terrible Board of Trustees, who has the authority to get rid of them? Nobody. So you could just be stuck with a bad board,” he said.

Strayhorn struck a similar stance, suggesting that accreditors and major national organizations such as ACE, as well as federal agencies, can support HBCU leaders by providing “mentorship programs, executive coaching, and professional development opportunities.”

But a key part of the problem, experts believe, is the historic underfunding of many HBCUs.

In terms of public dollars, states have underfunded historically Black land-grant colleges and universities by $13 billion in the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And when it comes to private donations, a report from earlier this year found that in 2019, HBCUs received 178 times less charitable giving than the eight Ivy League universities.

Broussard noted that underfunding HBCUs has created financial pressures across the sector. Adequately funded HBCUs would be able to offer more employee retention perks, he suggested—including at the top, with more competitive salaries and benefits to reduce presidential turnover.

“Money is not going to solve every problem but I think money is at the root of a lot of problems,” he said.

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