An Open Letter to Recently Appointed HBCU Presidents

Dear Colleagues,

I recently read about your appointment as president of your respective colleges and universities and commend you on achieving this important career milestone. Now that media coverage of your appointment has subsided, and you are confronting some of the challenges that the search committee may not have told you about, I want to take this opportunity to share a few observations about presidential leadership that I hope you will find helpful. These observations are based on a forty-year career in the academy, including chancellor at three different universities -- two PWIs and an HBCU. I reference these appointments because of the vast differences in the challenges I faced as an HBCU chancellor compared to those as a PWI chancellor.

Leading an institution of higher education is a privilege that only a handful of people ever have. Never forget this: Although you report to the board of trustees, you work for students. As such, you must make their academic success your highest priority. Without students, the university would not exist and there would be no need for a president. The internalization of this recognition will keep you humbled and focused on doing your job to the best of your ability. Am I suggesting that you should do everything students ask of you? Absolutely not! I am suggesting, however, that you respect student views and that you pay close attention to their interests and needs. If you ever lose sight of why you are president, step aside and let someone who is better suited for the presidency lead the institution.

No matter how hard you try to separate yourself from the presidency of your university, it is all but impossible to do so -- especially at an HBCU. Whether you are at church, the farmer's market, a campus athletic or cultural event, the fitness center, the mall or just out for a walk with your spouse or significant other, you are "always on". As an HBCU chancellor, I found that many university constituents weren't quite as respectful of my personal time or the chain of command as the constituents of PWIs. If HBCU constituents had a problem, idea or request, they told you about it on the spot, or sought a meeting with you. Even so, you should not be hesitant about referring constituents to the appropriate member of your leadership team. Of course, be sure to tell your team member that you made a referral and not a commitment!

Always remember that there is more to do as president than you will ever have time to do. Thus, it is essential that you prioritize your work. To drive home the point about the need to prioritize, one of my mentors once reminded me that while everything is important, not everything is of equal importance. As president you'll soon discover, if you haven't already, that time is one of your most important assets. Emphasizing the importance of time, the late, long-time president of Morehouse College, Dr. Benjamin Mays, penned a short poem to emphasize the importance of time, entitled "God's Minute." I recommend it to you.

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge you will face during your presidency relates to money -- not having enough of it. It is essential that you keep your finger on the pulse of the university's enrollment on the one hand, and how funds are expended on the other. For every student who fails to persist, stress is placed on the university's finances. When confronted with the need to cut budgets, I encourage you to resist the temptation to cut across the board. Doing so is a sure path to mediocrity. Always approach budget construction, management and reductions (whenever required), from the perspective of a set of guiding principles to facilitate your efforts. These principles can also be shared with members of the university community.

Governance, both board of trustees and faculty, is often a president's Achilles' heel. Each group warrants continuous communication and nurturing. Listen carefully to all points of view while always reserving the right to recommend or do what you believe is in the best of the university. The minute you go down the path of making decisions that you believe are popular with certain segments of the board or faculty, you are headed for disaster. When sharing information with the board, share it with everyone rather than a particular faction. The same is true for faculty and staff groups. Even if your constituents disagree with your decisions and come to a different conclusion, they will respect you for sharing information with them.

Finally, enjoy your presidential journey knowing that it will last for only a season. During your season, endeavor to make the foundation of the university stronger for your successor. And, never speak negatively about your predecessor. Like you, I suspect they did the best they could with what they had to work with.

With every good wish for success,

Charlie Nelms, Retired Chancellor