Economic, political pressures up at historic black colleges

0 Morehouse College president John S. Wilson was at an event last month alongside his three Atlanta University Center counterparts when he made a telling observation. With four years of experience at his soon-to-end job, he had the longest tenure of the group. Other flagship historic black colleges and universities across the U.S. have also recently parted ways with presidents after short stints, raising concerns about continuity and stability. It didn’t used to be that way. Presidents at HBCUs often stayed decades, carving out stable positions as important local or national leaders. Today, the average tenure is six years. Length of service is eight years for presidents at predominantly white institutions, according to HBCU expert Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. About one in six of the nation’s HBCUs don’t have a permanent president, she noted. The shorter tenures and controversies surrounding some departures have raised fresh discussion about new difficulties of leading an HBCU — concerns that the problems will make it tougher to hire presidents, and worries about the deleterious effects on the schools whose key roles in the black community are shifting with economics and society. Wilson’s dismissal came “at a very pivotal time in our history,” said Derrick Bryan, an associate Morehouse professor who is chair of Morehouse College’s faculty council. There are few places held in greater esteem among African-Americans than HBCUs. They’re where many learn about black historical figures, literature and culture they never learned about in grade and high school. It’s where they make lifelong connections through fraternities and sororities. Many graduates followed their parents in attending the same HBCU. Some HBCUs, with their lower tuition and a mission to lift up less academically accomplished students, are often a ladder to better lives for poorer families. There are about 20,000 students in Georgia’s 10 HBCUs, both private and state colleges. The Atlanta region’s businesses, governments and culture are populated with graduates, from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to Tony-winning director Kenny Leon. The schools’ roles are shifting as HBCUs face an array of issues and challenges that are making the jobs of presidents more difficult. Money is the most important factor. There’s less of it at HBCUs and greater pressure for its presidents to raise more cash and manage finances, or lose their jobs. The financial squeeze has multiple causes, from less state money to pinched students. Some students drop out because they can’t afford the tuition, affecting enrollments. A recent United Negro College Fund study found HBCU students carry about twice as much debt as other students. Endowments — money from friends and graduates — to pay for scholarships, professorships and new buildings is smaller on average at HBCUs than most other colleges. The endowment gap between them and other colleges is greater than 100 to 1, according to some accounts. Then there’s questions about the commitment to HBCUs from the federal government, with the switch in the White House from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump. Another challenge for HBCU presidents comes from other, larger colleges where black students can get a good education, more scholarships, use cool technology and feel a kinship with other African-American students. Enrollment of black students at Georgia State University, for example, ballooned since 2005 from 28 percent to 40, state data shows. Morehouse Student Government Association president Demarius Brinkley has seen classmates leave because of financial burdens....

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