Prerequisites for HBCU Governance

By Charlie Nelms and Alvin J. Schexnider April 17, 2020 May 13th, 2021 Blog Post

We are two 1960s-era graduates of public black colleges who share a deep and abiding commitment to ensuring the sustainability of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Except for military service in the U.S. Army and U. S. Marine Corps, including duty in Vietnam for one of us, we have spent our entire professional careers in the academy as faculty members and administrators. Together, we have nearly 100 years of experience, most of it in senior leadership roles at two-year, comprehensive, and doctoral-granting research universities, including predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and HBCUs in six states.

As unswervingly supportive HBCU alums and keen observers, we have an obligation to express what we believe must be done to stabilize and create a sustainable path for these venerable institutions of higher education. We have conducted scores of engagements as AGB consultants to HBCU governing boards, presidents, and chancellors. Our professional backgrounds, including these engagements, inform what we offer as both a clarion call for action, along with a set of recommendations designed to strengthen these iconic institutions.

Most HBCUs, whether public or private, are under-resourced, due to inadequate funding dating back to their founding. Recently, the state of Maryland committed $577 million dollars over a 10-year period to its four HBCUs. This will surely help, although we do not believe that money alone will solve the challenges that imperil HBCUs. Consequently, our following six recommendations pertaining to effective board governance are:

  1. Effective governance begins with who is appointed to HBCU governing boards, whether they are called trustees, regents, governors, visitors, or any other descriptor. Ultimately, those who appoint board members must understand and respect the history, culture, traditions, and mission of HBCUs. Absent this understanding, many of those appointed to HBCU boards lack both the commitment and the capacity to serve these institutions well.
  2. Just as the appointing officer must understand the historic and contemporary relevance of HBCUs, so too must those who agree to serve as members of the governing board. Absent this understanding, many trustees find themselves fixated on the past. They may resort to micromanaging the president rather than focusing on current competitiveness and future sustainability.
  3. Upon accepting an appointment to a university’s governing board, individual agendas must give way to what is in the best and long-term interest of the institution. It is not enough for alignment to exist between the vision and the values of individual trustees; it is essential that trustee values align with the institution’s mission. In many of our HBCU consulting engagements we’ve found that much of the trustee-presidential discord can be traced back to this lack of alignment.
  4. The orientation and onboarding of trustees must be a priority. New trustees must have an orientation session to explore and understand their duties and responsibilities. Higher education governance is different from serving on most boards. It helps to understand the unique traditions and norms such as academic freedom, promotion, and tenure.
    Serving as a college or university trustee is no longer considered an honorific. In addition to specific skills—for example in finance, technology, and risk management—AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever stresses the importance of six principles of strategic board leadership: accountability, presidential leadership, strategy, composition, risk oversight, and commitment.
  5. Boards must also commit to a process of continual learning through annual development workshops or retreats. The AGB publication An Anatomy of Good Board Governance in Higher Education identifies three critical success factors: the right composition, the right focus, and the right relationships. Goal attainment must be intentional and based on full board engagement.
  6. It is critical to appoint and empower presidents who possess the experience and commitment to lead. Let’s first acknowledge the dearth of leadership talent, particularly given the unique challenges of HBCUs. Since the single most important decision a board makes is selecting a president, it is imperative that: a) there is consensus among key stakeholders (i.e., board, faculty, staff, and alumni) about the type of leader required; b) that the search process is thorough and transparent; and c) that the search committee performs its due diligence. For most HBCUs, the margin for error is near zero, so the board must get it right.

Whether or not we’ve identified the right six prerequisites for HBCU governance is open to debate. But what is not debatable is the fact that long-term HBCU sustainability is inextricably linked to effective governance. Good governance is the sine qua non for accreditation; for attracting and retaining excellent faculty, students, staff, and administrators; and for securing the necessary fiscal resources to help the institution thrive rather than simply survive. Good governance is the cornerstone of institutional excellence and effectiveness. The question is, do we have the will to ensure that it exists?


Charlie Nelms, EdD, is a former chancellor of North Carolina Central University, an AGB senior consultant, and the author of From Cotton Fields to University Leadership: All Eyes on Charlie, A Memoir. Alvin J. Schexnider, PhD, is a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, an AGB senior consultant, and the author of Saving Black Colleges: Leading Change in a Complex Organization.

The authors also contributed to AGB’s recent report, The Urgency of Now: HBCUs at a Crossroads.

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