Skip to main content

AGB Blog

Setting HBCU Presidents Up for Success

Setting HBCU Presidents Up for Success

Extensive newspaper and television coverage, along with social media chatter about recent leadership changes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), led me to reach out to former administrative colleagues to get a sense of what can be done to increase the probability of presidential success regardless of the length of a president’s tenure. Acknowledging that university cultures vary significantly across the diverse and expansive HBCU sector, we came up with 10 things that can stem the tide of presidential turnover and create a foundation for success.

1. Increase support for the leadership transition by involving key stakeholders in the presidential search process, especially alumni, students, faculty, and staff.

2. In developing the Position Profile to be shared with prospective candidates, the board must be just as forthcoming in identifying challenges and threats as in extolling the institution’s virtues. A new president should not be left to “discover” the dire financial, enrollment, or accreditation issues facing the institution once he or she arrives on campus.

3. Recognizing that not all institutional challenges and opportunities merit equal attention, the board should convey to the president a manageable list of priorities without resorting to telling the president how to do his or her job.

4. Prior to commencing his or her duties, the newly appointed president should embark upon an intensive and comprehensive review of the history, values, culture, and traditions of the university. Such a review should continue throughout a president’s tenure, reinforced through conversations with alumni, employees, retirees, and donors.

5. The president should receive funding to attend the New President’s Academy sponsored by one of several national higher education associations and to retain the services of an executive coach for 12 to 18 months—typically the time when many presidents begin to experience difficulties.

6. Once the board appoints a president, the person should be embraced, encouraged, and supported regardless of whether he or she is the choice of all stakeholders.

7. The new appointee must be empowered to lead, beginning with the assembly of a team of colleagues who will assist him or her without micromanagement by the board.

8. Board members should make a commitment to evaluate their individual and collective performance, and to participate in ongoing professional development activities.

9. Newly appointed presidents must resist the temptation of trying to be all things to all constituents by making more commitments than they can keep.

10. Newly appointed—and continuing—presidents must assume a posture of humility and gratitude while considering leadership as an opportunity for service rather than personal aggrandizement.

The necessary conditions for presidential success at all types of colleges and universities are complex and defy a simple list of things to do and not to do. My suggestions are financially neutral acts that HBCUs can undertake to halt high rates of presidential turnover. The price of failure is too high for these turnover patterns to go unchecked.

Learn more about assistance with leadership advisory services, presidential assessment, and board assessment, available from AGB Consulting.

Charlie Nelms is a senior scholar at the American Association of State Colleges & Universities and a consultant with AGB Consulting. This blog post was adapted from “Failure Is Not an Option: Setting HBCU Presidents Up for Success,” published on (Aug. 2). To read the full post, visit



Click here to chat with the member concierge