Within the past few years, leadership at our nation’s HBCUs have come under a firestorm of criticism. Last year around this time, there were approximately sixteen open HBCU presidencies across the nation. This conundrum led University of Pennsylvania scholar Marybeth Gasman to ask “What’s Going On?”
My soul rejoiced this morning after stumbling across a posting by HBCU Digest honoring their top five “Greatest HBCU Presidents.” Rather than pointing out leadership’s shortcomings, constructing positive dialogue concerning the breadth of advancements and accomplishments of HBCU presidents proves to be a much more efficient and productive practice.
So, in the spirit of furthering that discussion, I have compiled a list of my top five influential HBCU presidents of all time. My criteria for this list is simple- those who demonstrated the ability to fundraise, those who proved to be academic innovators, those who resisted and pushed back against political opposition, and those who fostered an atmosphere conducive to community building, social, political, and economic advancement.
1. Booker T. Washington: Tuskegee Institute, 1881-1915 — Ok, maybe the fact that I have devoted the past three years of my life to reading and studying everything about Washington does in fact have something to do with him being rated number 1… In reality, he tops the list for his uncanny ability to fundraise, to recruit students domestically and globally, and for his influence as an academic innovator, which was and arguably remains unmatched. How many of you could turn a $2,000 appropriation into a million dollar institution while fighting Jim Crow?
2. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson: Howard University, 1926-1960 — As a proud Hamptonian it kills me to name a Howard president in the number two slot. HU pride aside, Johnson, the first African American president of Howard, moved the University from having zero nationally accredited programs, to boasting ten schools and colleges (all fully accredited), 6,000 students, and an $8 million dollar budget. Through Johnson, Howard stockpiled some of the most intelligent and accomplished faculty ever to exist in one institution, names such as: Sterling Brown, E. Franklin Frazier, Rayford Logan, Charles H. Houston, Eric Williams and Merze Tate. Under his tutelage, Johnson mentored and produced generations of successful and influential young scholars.
3. Johnnetta Cole: Spelman College, 1987-1997; Bennett College, 2002-2007 — As if being the first African American female president of Spelman was not enough, Cole took her talents to help develop and advance the mission of Bennett College. Two accomplishments help land her in the number three slot. Cole has maintained a commitment to the humanities (Maybe another self-admitted bias as a Doctoral candidate). Cole became the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies at Emory. Most recently, she successfully pushed for the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. Secondly and maybe more importantly, Cole created a model of excellence and access for countless Black women.
4. Robert Moton: Tuskegee Institute, 1915-1935 — This spot could have gone to either Frederick D. Patterson, or Moton. Anyone attempting to fill the shoes of Booker T. Washington automatically belongs on this list. Moton took over the presidency at one of the most critical moments in American history. He navigated through, maintained, and advanced the standing of Tuskegee amid a rapidly changing landscape spurred by World War I, the Great Migration, and the emergence of the New Negro Movement. Dr. Moton led Tuskegee to a multi million-dollar endowment, nearly doubled school enrollment, and transitioned Tuskegee from an Institute to a University.
5. William R. Harvey: Hampton University, 1978- present — As one of the most recognizable names in the HBCU community, president Harvey has created a “superpower” of an institution (Ok, maybe one more biased listing but whose counting?). Although he has garnered a reputation as a “business man,” Harvey’s acumen as an academic innovator is also unparalleled. Most recently, Harvey has become one of the most influential public advocates for HBCUs. In 2010, Harvey was appointed Chairman of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Earlier this month, Harvey used his influence to pressure Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to act in favor of HBCUs facing increasing financial crises.
Honorable Mention: Frederick D. Patterson, Benjamin Mays, Mary McLeod Bethune, and James E. Shepard.
Once again, this list is in no way exhaustive. It is however, a reflection of HBCU presidents I believe have significantly advanced institutional brands, and contributed to their students’ social, cultural, and economic advancement. We want to know what your list would look like!