Leading Successful HBCUs: Part II

Here is part II of my interview with President Bynum, during which he continues to dispense expert advice on how to lead successful HBCUs.

Q: What do you think is the most important strategy for HBCU’s who are experiencing difficulties, but are looking to right the ship?

A: If we’re true about who we’re serving, first and foremost, we’ve got to find a way to become more affordable for the students we are serving. HBCUs still serve a majority of the black population. The income levels of the families the students are coming from are not at the point of Caucasian-Americans. We’ve got to make sure, if we’re serious about serving that base as well as, of course, reaching out to other races, we’ve got to make sure we’re affordable. That’s first and foremost.

We’ve got to do some different things in order to make the institution more affordable. Let me give a quick “for instance.” In terms of coming in the door as a new president and speaking with the commissioner of the Mississippi Institutes of Higher Learning, Dr. Hank Bounds, the decision was “What is your number one problem? Do I sink money into the budget or to build buildings or do I sink money into making the education more affordable?” The immediate and the easy decision was we’ve got to make the education more affordable. We’ve got to make sure they have access. I can have nice, pretty buildings, but if the price tag is a detriment and it’s keeping students away, then I’ve defeated the purpose.

What we’re trying to do is maintain affordability. We’re looking to keep the tuition rate at Valley flat for the next couple of years. That’s so that, knowing the region we’re in and knowing the student population that is most likely to attend, we’ve got to make sure that affordability is first and foremost.

The other thing, as I mentioned before, is we’ve got to learn to shift with the times. There are a myriad of different things going on in higher ed. We’ve got to provide access to higher education, maintain relevant programs students can immediately use to join the workforce, and of course, we’ve got to make some information technology enhancements in terms of what students are able to do while they’re on the campus and in terms of wireless access and other Internet access, as well as online education, which I mentioned earlier.

And we’ve got to figure out a way to grow our enrollments because, again, the competition is quite steep.

Q: What financial insights can you offer to HBCU administrators? Are there particular strategies that you have found to be effective in raising funds, for instance, growing grass roots support, boosting enrollments or growing endowments?

A: I’m just getting started, so I won’t say a whole lot about fund raising, but there are some key points. The first is we’ve got to be very good stewards of what we do currently have.

Unfortunately, HBCUs, because of our lack of infrastructure in some of the key areas, specifically development and advancement, we haven’t done as good a job in terms of tracking gifts and thanking people for the gifts that they do already give. You would be surprised, of course, what a letter will do in terms of encouraging a person to continue to give; whereas, if a person doesn’t receive acknowledgement, they’re likely to be a one-time donor only. That’s the first thing. We’ve got to be very good stewards of the resources that we currently have.

The second is we’ve got to produce happy students. We’ve got to make sure we’re getting back to our foundation – our roots – and really nurturing students. I know we’re no longer in loco parentis like we used to be. But HBCUs have a history and we’ve got to get back to that nurturing environment where we’re producing happy students. There are too many students who are leaving HBCUs who are mad. They’re mad because processes and procedures were not in place or people did not treat them with the respect they thought they deserved based on the investment they were giving.

That’s why that student-centered approach I’m talking about bringing to Valley is so important. We’ve got to produce happy graduates. When student are happy, they recruit for you in terms of bringing other students to the institution. They talk very positively about their own institution. That shows when they’re on the job in their specified work career. And then, of course, they’re in a position to give back. They’re more apt to give back if they’re happy. We’ve got to make sure of that.

In terms of endowment, that’s got to be a major focus of HBCUs because of state funding, we’re simply not going to get more. As you know, state institutions are pulling back on the amount of funding they’re giving to higher institutions. As a result, we’ve got to make sure that our endowments are growing, as well as our enrollments are growing. What the state systems are saying is, “As a state, we’re suffering for lack of income. We can’t continue to give more.” Therefore, we’ve got to come up with different revenue streams. For institutes of higher education, enrollment is the primary revenue stream, but again we’ve got to continue to try and build our endowments so that there is some longevity for the institution as well as some monies that are continuing to repeat themselves each and every year.

Finally, we’ve just got to think about producing, as I said, those happy graduates. We’ve got to get HBCU graduates to pound their chest more and be proud of the institution that they graduated from when they’re on the job, when they’re in the workforce doing some great things. We need them putting those Valley license plates on their cars, or whatever institution they graduated from. Really showing off their degrees in their offices and homes and workplaces, showing the kind of pride that we need in our own institutions.

We see plenty of that, but we need even more. I need Valley grads who are putting Valley flags on their cars and not Mississippi State or Ole Miss flags on their cars. I know that doesn’t happen very often, but we need to pound our chests and be very proud about the institutions that we’re graduating from.

Q: What do you think is the future potential of HBCU’s? What trends might they capitalize on in order to continue to bring value to the higher education community?

A: I truly believe HBCUs will be around for a long time. The trend HBCUs can build on are maintaining the public square, the quality educational programs and to become more self-sustainable. What we’ll probably see, realistically, because of what is happening in the government with Pell and PLUS Loans, the competition, what you’ll probably see is a series of mergers and closures. You’re going to see the survival of the strong, and HBCUs are going to be around for a long time. I just think we’re probably going to see, over the course of the next 25 to 50 years, either some consolidations or some closures of those who simply aren’t able to compete with some of the large institutions. HBCUs as a whole, there will be a group of HBCUs around for a very, very, very, very long time.

Q: What advice would you give someone who has recently been appointed to their first college/university presidency?

A: Actually, I’m going to do two things. I’m not sure if you’ve seen Dr. Charlie Nelms, who recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post. If you would, when you get an opportunity, pull up that article. It was November 18 when they published it. The title of the article is “An Open Letter to Recently Appointed HBCU Presidents.” He did a good job. A lot of what I would offer in terms of advice, Dr. Nelms very succinctly offered in that particular article.

But what I would say in addition to what Dr. Nelms has in that article is, first and foremost, respect the institution that you’re coming into. When you are coming into an institution, you need to be as clear as you possibly can get in terms of what you’re coming in to — the history, the tradition, the region, the area, the finances. Learn as much about that institution as you can.

What happens, unfortunately, is too many folks just want to be a president. One of the things I’ve always prided myself on is trying to only apply to those institutions for which I think there is a good fit. I’ve actually only applied to a very few. That’s the main thing. You have to respect the institution that you’re going to lead and because many of us simply want to be a college president simply to say they were a college president, it wasn’t the best fit. They didn’t have the respect for the institution that really should have been there from day one.

That’s what I would say. Make sure the institution you’re going into is the right, correct fit, and that you have a great deal of respect for that institution and the history and tradition of that institution. One of the first things you can do, of course, is turn people off when you come in with a bunch of ideas that shows disrespect for that history and tradition and culture. I’m always very mindful as I’m doing things early on.

As I mentioned earlier, the One Goal, One Team, One Valley, that came internally. I didn’t need to ask people to learn something new. What I chose to do was elevate something that already existed within the culture. That’s important to respect.
The second thing is to be approachable and to be accessible. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously the work in the day of a president is too busy to entertain anybody and everybody who wants to talk. But what happens, as I’ve mentioned to other folks before, the job of the president is to get out and about and to become the number one cheerleader for that institution.

What I’ve found and what you will find, if you are out and about and the number one cheerleader for the institution, is some of those conversations that people want to have with you in the office, they can have with you while you’re out and about, when you’re at a ball game, when you’re at an event in the community. If that person needs to talk to you, they’ve got you. When you’re accessible and visible, they’re able to do those things.

The other thing I think, of course, is really bearing good fruit early on here at Valley is to be transparent. There’s a lot of information, and HBCUs have been historically bad about this. We hoard in the top levels all kinds of information that people need to know. People need to know the financial situation of an institution. They need to know the enrollment situation. They need to know what you’re facing so that decisions that they make and the additional work they do is in line with what’s happening, the vision for the institution. Transparency is something that HBCUs are notoriously bad about.

I’m very proud to say that I learned from one of my mentors and it’s already bearing all kinds of fruit here at Valley. People are being presented with information that was before inaccessible to them or they didn’t know about. We’re saying, “This is the real story. This is the real deal. This is what we’re facing. This is what we’re up against. We need everybody to put a paddle in the river and we need everybody be paddling as fast as they can and as hard as they can in the same, unified direction, so that we can move the institution forward.” It’s hard to do that when you don’t have the information. Transparency is one of those things I would definitely encourage new presidents to be and to do.

Q: How about an individual who aspires to become a college/university president one day?

A: One of the main things is to find a mentor. Find someone who is already in the role, who has been in the role or who aspires and has a realistic opportunity.
I wasn’t in a hurry to be a college president. I wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that I had the skill set that I would need once the opportunity came, and then of course, as I mentioned earlier that it was the right fit. Again, don’t be in a hurry. The fit and being prepared for all that the role is going to throw at you is important.

I mentioned finding a mentor. I had very good mentors throughout my career, from Dr. Doris Walker Weathers at Clark Atlanta University, to the best mentor I had, Dr. Ivory Nelson, who was president of Lincoln University. Find someone that you are able to share that future desire with and then ask that person. Ask that person if they would be willing to share insights that you are not going to gain unless you’re actually sitting in the chair.

Before I took the job at Lincoln, I asked Dr. Nelson point blank, “Sir, I want to be a college president. I have other offers, but I’m going to the college or university whose president says they are willing to mentor me and prepare me to do exactly what they’re doing.” Dr. Nelson accepted that and did it for nine years, really sharing the business of higher education with me and explaining, “When you made that decision, what went into making that decisions? What did you consider? What did you take into account? What did you have to look at?” Those things you will never know until you’re sitting in the chair, he actually helped explain those to me during those nine years.

Now, when I make decisions, I know what to take into account, who to take into account, all of those things – who to call, who to give an advance notice to before I actually make that decision. That tutelage of being able to sit at his feet those nine years was huge.

The last thing I would say is any time you get an opportunity to take advantage of one of these programs for presidential hopefuls, whether that’s the Harvard program or the ACE program, or numerous others offered by different associations. Make sure that you take full advantage of those.

In my case, I looked at two slices of the pie: student affairs and enrollment management. Of course, being a president, you’ve got to look at the entire pie. The one I had the opportunity to go in was the NAFEO Kellogg Leadership Fellowship Program modeled after the year-long ACE program. They give you an exposure to people who sat in the chair and had been in the job and could provide you some insights that will help you to avoid some of the pitfalls early on during your office tenure. That’s extremely important, as well.

This concludes our interview. Thank you President Bynum, for your insight and for taking the time to do this interview.

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