An open letter to administrators of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU)


Dear Trustees,

After a long debate with myself on whether to write this letter to you, I have decided that my love for the HBCUs and my concern for their future far outweighs any criticism or grievance I may incur. As a proud HBCU alumnus, advocate, philanthropist and administrator of higher education, and triple chancellor with more than five decades of teaching and leadership in the academy, I hope I have earned the right to share the points of view that follow. If you think otherwise, please blame all the errors on my head and not my heart. Last week I received six phone calls over a twenty-four hour period expressing concerns about one aspect or another of HBCU governance and asking for my direct help or guidance. There is something beyond these requests that I feel compelled to respond to.

Dr Charlie Nelms

Before continuing, I would like to acknowledge and express my deep gratitude to those of you who understand and embrace your role as Trustees of HBCUs. I know firsthand your commitment, passion and professionalism, as I have had the privilege of working with you as Chancellor of HBCU and as Senior Consultant to the Association of University Boards of Trustees and colleges. I am encouraged by the way many of you are fulfilling your role as Trustees and I am optimistic about the future of HBCU through professionals like you.

Although I have lost count of the number of HBCU presidential positions and recent appointments, suffice it to say that I think the number of vacant positions is far too high compared to the number of HBCUs as a percentage of the total number of colleges and universities. The situation is so serious that some presidents are not in office long enough to be officially invested. This is unacceptable, and alumni and other institutional actors become part of the problem when they refuse express themselves constructively. Come on, the value of your degree is at stake, as is the credibility of your alma mater!

Based on my personal observations on the governance of HBCU, combined with recent appeals I have received for assistance, I respectfully submit the following suggestions to you:

  • Avoid rushing to replace your chair and instead consider using the The register, an internationally renowned company that specializes in placing interim presidents, rectors and other high-level administrators in higher education. Founded in 1992 by two college presidents, the Registry has served more than 1,000 colleges and universities. Whether you use the Registry or not, there are other ways to identify and obtain the services of experienced administrators who can do more than act as backups until a permanent chair is identified and retained.
  • Refrain from appointing another member of the board of directors as interim president. Despite the potentially negative outlook on doing so, a good administrator with the best intentions doesn’t necessarily translate into an effective university president.
  • Establish and Realistic performance goals for the president, empower that person to do the job and get out of the way. College presidents are not miracle workers, and I implore you to be fully transparent in sharing the status of the university with them, especially when it comes to accreditation, budget, and auditing challenges. , and the issues surrounding student success.
  • Do not confuse being a university administrator with being the president’s boss; the trustees are trustees of the University. As trustees, you have the duty of loyalty, the duty of care and the duty of obedience; you must serve a public interest and act diligently in those interests. If you ever forget these basic responsibilities, or choose to forgo fulfilling them, then please resign, without being asked!
  • What you don’t know can hurt you and the institution. Continuing education and board development are essential to becoming a meaningful board member. Know and practice effective governance practices in everything you do. Trustees should never end a board meeting without considering this fundamental question: “What did we do during the meeting to further the mission of the university, for which we agreed to serve as trustee?” “
  • Practice the art of sharing your expertise, without imposing your preference or will on the president.

August 2021 is a pivotal time in the life of the academy and other institutions held in high regard by the public. If there had ever been a new normal in the face of humanity, that time is now. How the higher education community responds, especially the HBCUs and other historically disenfranchised institutions, will determine their relevance and responsiveness going forward. One thing is certain: Dysfunctional governance is not one of the factors HBCU presidents are expected to face in the future.

Yours in service,

Charlie nelms

Retired HBCU lawyer and chancellor

Dr. Charlie Nelms is Chancellor Emeritus of North Carolina Central University.


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