Faculty Voice

When Leaders Fail to Lead
by Robert L Ford, PhD 
January 26, 2014

When leaders fail to lead, what can we conclude?  Might we assume they were lacking in leadership capacity?  Could they fail on purpose responding to a higher calling?  I submit that we have a case of AND not OR when we examine the state of Black Higher Education in America!  So, who are the failing leaders?  Yes, college administrations are often inept, but what about management boards, faculty members, alumni, and supporters and their roles?  It can be fatal to relegate the indispensible task as leadership to any one, or two, of these groups without the shared and appropriate participation of all of them.


Let me support my position on this matter by first focusing on the frailties of administrators.  Historically Black College and University (HBCU) CEOs have a nominal half-life of two to three years.  By the time a new CEO settles in, fires the existing administration, hires a new crew, destroys all semblance of the predecessor’s legacy, he/she is in the second half of the presidency with little time or reserve energy to do much good.  A CEO plans for a six-year tenure albeit a shortsighted but politically driven perspective, and fails to plant seeds capable of delivering long-term results.  The absence of creative and innovative talent exacerbates matters and effectively leaves an institution in no better position than its existence at the beginning of the administration, while competitors accelerate development of their respective institutions.  A given CEO may have talent, but then a micro-managing inexperienced board might hamper him/her.  Given these realities, why should one expect more from public institutions where governors readily admit to appointing candidates advanced by Black political allies or financial contributors?  Unfortunately, too little consideration of merit, fit, or institutional loyalty is given credence!


Regarding the role of faculty members, there are some unappreciated attributes, making them valuable leadership participants.  They have long term perspectives and experiences; they are on the ground and eminently well connected to the student body and day-to-day operations; they have diverse technical skills consistent with elements required for advancing a well-managed and innovative institution.  Faculty members are on the front line interfacing with the students (who are uniquely both the enterprise’s clientele and products), and are indisputably the prime development agents preparing the products for market.


Alumni and institutional supporters generally do not consider themselves to be institutional leaders.  However, they can take on tasks that could bring peril to faculty members or perceived ‘disloyal administrators’.  Having been a student of past administrations, alumni are uniquely qualified to assess the performance of the university from a client perspective.  Alumni and supporters validate the institution to the degree that they invest their financial and human resources in the mission of the institution.  These valuable resources can influence acts of advocacy unavailable to other institutional leaders.  Alumni and supporters help to elevate the reputation of the institution when they enroll their own children and/or recommend the institution to others.  Combining the resources of administration, board, faculty, alumni, and supporters, HBCUs are able to fulfill the African proverb, “when spider webs unite they can tie up a lion”. Metaphorically, our lions are state apparatuses, led by conservative governors, who, along with their southern comrades in the legislatures conspire to marginalize Black institutions.  They use such devices as performance-based funding; low-completer programs; selective funding (i.e., Tier One institution designations in Texas), among other policies leading to expanding the funding and enrollment gap between HBCUs and other institutions.  Our alumni and supporters can mobilize to moderate gap-widening policies, funding disparities, and ill-advised appointments. 


If leaders are to succeed such that our institutions achieve their missions, then there must be a call for a chorus of participants from across the institution and the community to become actively engaged.  The journey begins with the selection of a CEO with the stamina, conviction, and determination to lead the institution.  It is undergirded by a strong board dedicated to transparency and to the success of the CEO.  Appointing agencies should exercise due diligence in selecting candidates for board service and members need to be involved in constant, purposeful continuing education related to policy development and management.  Faculty members will need to do more self-regulating to ensure high quality instruction, advising, and mentoring, along with supporting institutional development.   However, the final challenge to the realization of a collective approach to leadership is the identification of champions from each of the leadership sectors to orchestrate a collaborative venture at the local, state, and national levels.  Maybe it is time to call national summits to clarify the respective roles of our “institutional leaders” and anoint champions and support teams to coordinate a shared governance process of saving and advancing our Black Colleges and Universities.


Dr. Robert L. Ford is President/CEO of DRF Industries, LLC. The former Professor of Chemistry at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, was Director of the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education and Outreach, and Faculty-in-Residence at the Urban Academic Village.  He served as Professor of Chemistry at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Dillard University, Louisiana State University, and State University of New York at Rochester.