How HBCU Board Members Can Support Transformative Presidents

By Marybeth Gasman December 10, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Everyone wants a transformative president until they have one. Why? Because transformative presidents are focused on making substantive change and achieving profound success. In order to succeed, they have to make brave decisions, be comfortable with people not liking them and questioning their decisions—including board members—and they must understand that delayed gratification is rewarding. Unfortunately, boards of trustees and HBCU boards, in particular, are often very traditional in their approach. Boards may be wowed by a charismatic, transformational leader during the search and transition process, but the more the leader tries to lead, many boards respond by moderating a president’s boldness, clipping the leader’s wings and holding tightly to what they know. And, if the board as a whole shows reticence to support a transformative president, then board members need to be able to identify that moment as an opportunity to lead and remind the board that its job is not to react to bold ideas with timidity.

I serve on two HBCU boards of trustees: those of Paul Quinn College and Morris Brown College. Both of these institutions have endured immense struggle since their establishment after the Civil War by African American educators associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Morris Brown’s struggles are more well-known as they were reported nationally in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Paul Quinn has also faced significant obstacles, lacking accreditation and being financially strapped for decades.

Today, Paul Quinn College, under the leadership of President Michael Sorrell, is strong and growing. It is financially viable and has earned accreditation through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). It is regularly heralded as an amazing comeback story and as one of the most innovative colleges in the nation. However, this success did not come easily. President Sorrell struggled to get anyone’s attention for years. He made decisions that angered alumni, such as disbanding the football team and turning the football field into an organic farm to be used for academic purposes and to serve the community. He converted Paul Quinn into the nation’s first HBCU urban work college, where students graduate with virtually no debt and considerable work experience. In order to be successful, he needed the support of an active board that understood that success doesn’t come overnight and that Sorrell would have to take some big risks in order to reach success. And, he might stumble, but he has the skills to stumble and get back up. Boards need to be there for the stumbles and the successes, providing guidance, support, and motivation.

Morris Brown College is on its way out of a storm. The college’s application for accreditation was just accepted by TRACS and will be decided upon in the new year. In the midst of the pandemic Morris Brown raised $500,000 from alumni during a virtual homecoming. The new president, Kevin James, is young, energized, and highly motivated to turn the college around. He has engaged the business community, the entertainment industry—offering the campus as a film location, and even local rappers who care about HBCUs and African American education. Most recently, the institution created an e-sports certification program, linking the institution to the billion dollar e-sports industry, which features battling video gamers. In order to make these kinds of moves, James had to have the support of his board, and again, he might stumble as he leads Morris Brown into the future—but there will be no future without energized transformation.

Overall, HBCU boards, and their individual members, must be comfortable with risk. They have to be willing to stop doing what doesn’t work and listen to presidents when they ask to do something brave, new, and potentially uncomfortable. Yes, the presidents must do their homework, present the various scenarios that could result from their ideas, and provide cost and revenue projections, but if they do this work and have a track record of achievement, it’s the boards’ job to support them as they move the institution forward.

Lastly, as transformative presidents achieve success, it is vital that boards compensate them for their good work through salary increases and performance goals linked to bonuses. In order to keep transformative leadership, boards must demonstrate that these individuals are valuable to the college or university and provide them with both personal financial support and the institutional support they need. If they don’t, these transformative leaders will move on to an institution that gives them the freedom and support to transform higher education. These words of caution are even more important today as the market for effective presidents will likely become incredibly tight as many stressed out “pandemic presidents” retire and higher education heads into a much tougher economic environment.

Marybeth Gasman, PhD, is a trustee of Paul Quinn College and Morris Brown College. She is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair & a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University. She is also the Executive Director of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, & Justice and the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions.  Gasman and President Michael Sorrell, JD. EdD, will join a highly accomplished group of institution and board leaders for the opening plenary session of AGB’s 2021 National Conference on Trusteeship (April 12-14), titled “Govern for Transformative Change.”


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