Rethinking leadership in HBCUs transcript

Helen Beddow: This week, I'm speaking to Johnny D Jones, founder and CEO of the Delta project, Professor of education at Mississippi Valley State University. Johnny is a democratic education activist and has worked in higher education for over 20 years, working at historically black colleges – HBCUs, predominantly white institutions – sometimes known as PWIs – and tribal colleges. He is the author of Leadership of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A what not to do Guide for HBCU Leaders. We're here today to talk about HBCUs, their place in higher education, and effective leadership. Welcome to the podcast Johnny.

Johnny D Jones:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Helen Beddow: So let's start by telling me a little bit about the history of HBCUs? what is their place in the US higher education system?

Johnny D Jones:

The history of HBCUs has been around in the United States for a very long time. They were formed to help educate the citizens of this country of the United States. But particularly they educate, former slaves, American Negro students, to make sure they can attend an institution of higher learning. They were not welcome to attend other institutions of higher learning in the United States at that time. So HBCUs have played a very very vital part of the educational foundation of this country. Educating citizens to become leaders in their profession. Most, most of HBCUs were grounded in education. Also just creating a strong atmosphere for students to matriculate to go to a college or university that has a culture that's similar to where they are from, a culture that they can really, you know, be part of and also feel like they are accepted, and also continue to work with different students to help educate themselves, educate their community, and most importantly to be part of the fabric of a team to build this nation With over 100 HBCUs in the United States that have students from all countries from around the world, have different academic programme and different academic niches, and each HBCU that makes them very very unique. So HBCUs will continue to continue to be a driving force of educating citizens in this country and throughout the world but most importantly maintaining their historical niche as well as their culture and what their mission and visions were when they were established.

Helen Beddow: And what have been some of the biggest challenges facing HBCUs in recent years?

Johnny D Jones:

Well in my opinion as someone who has – who went to a HBCUs at the undergraduate level and at the graduate level, who has worked with multiple HBCUs around the country, in a variety of different capacities, so have really really really been part of HBCU landscape throughout my entire professional – higher education professional career over the last 20 plus years. With that being said, a lot of the challenges that face us in recent years are always attired to accreditation, funding, external funding, unique academic programmes, external resources and most importantly poor leadership. So, I feel that you know for HBCUs, particularly during these trying times to turn their institutions around, or to address some of the challenges that are facing the institution, they really need to look at the leadership of those institution, making sure that those leaders are able to address some of those major issues of accreditation funding, unique academic programme, resources, and understanding what type of leader should be selected.

Helen Beddow: And are these particularly unique challenges for HBCU schools?

Johnny D Jones:

Yes they are unique challenges. We have a lot of leaders in HBCUs, who are just not ready to serve In those leadership capacities. One of my colleagues who has worked HBCUs over 40 plus years, he makes the statement all the time dr Darnell Williams he makes the statement all the time that to work in HBCU, knowing that there are challenges, particularly tied to funding accreditation. You know, it's your opportunity to serve. I have seen too many times, many HBCUs fail because the leaders are self serving, they care more about their title, than the opportunity to serve, and that is not the foundation and the mission of vision of HBCUs. HBCUs have always been an institution that is there to serve not for and also leaders who have served in these institutions who have helped these institutions become great institutions, those leaders serve the students, serve the community as services. They were not self serving leaders.

Helen Beddow: I really like the subtitle of your book, A what not to do guide.

Johnny D Jones:


Helen Beddow: Mistakes are powerful learning opportunities. So what are some of the biggest pitfalls and common mistakes you've seen in HBCU leadership?

A lot of the issues I have seen with HBCUs across the country and multiple regions of the United States is the fact that is always tied to funding. Then also HBCUs, they continue to recycle, some of the leaders in a variety of different areas of Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and also presidents, that were not successful at other HBCUs, which can be tied to season leadership or seasoned people wanting the same people around them so that they will not be held accountable. So accountability is a piece that really hinders HBCUs from being successful. When they're hiring someone to raise money institutional development, but the person in institutional development, cannot even raise the operation cost of their unit. We talk about innovative academic programmes, yes HBCUs around the country have most - a lot of them have been underfunded, know, by the state. If they receive moneys from the state, but also there's a level of responsibility of the graduates and also of the people who went to HBCU to give back to the HBCU. And then also just on ethical practices by a lot of presidents from improper hiring practices, practices in regards to mismanagement of funds, criminal issues. Know, a lot of different things that that as a leader, particularly the as the president of the HBCU you should be cognizant of because you represent the HBCU, and also the citizenship of the students. They're coming there to try to ascertain the degree at the institution. I truly believe, that if you are a leader of an institution particularly like HBCU or any institution of higher learning, regardless of where you're located anywhere in the world but you're taking on a leadership position. Let's just say a president or Chancellor. If you take it for granted that people come to this institution, pay they hard earned money, a lot of them take out loans, they still will be paying money to pay the loans back, but they come to this institution and they are entrusting you with their life, to say hey, I am paying for this education, I'm paying for this experience. If you take that for granted, or you really do not provide a high quality level of education and operation and also educational experience to that person I feel that's criminal.

Helen Beddow: And these problems around leadership, I mean in your book you mentioned seasoned administrators and seasoned friends. What do you mean by these?

Johnny D Jones:

Yes seasoned administrators - what happens that - what I have witnessed that a lot of HBCU leaders, they consider themselves seasoned when you become when you have been higher learning for over 20, let's say 20 plus years I can say that I am a season administrator. But the difference with being a seasoned administrator is that a lot of these leaders have only experienced leadership at HBCUs, some of them have experience leadership only at one HBCU. And there's a difference between being experienced and having multiple experiences. Yes, there are some administrators out there who have multiple experiences and that can maintain a level of excitement, a level of excellence, right leadership to move to HBCU forward but also there's a lot of administrators out there who proclaim themselves as seasoned administrators who continue to do the same things that are hindering HBCUs and cannot move the HBCU forward. if they are if they are real leaders or real administrators, they will help create the next wave of new administrators to come in to pass down that knowledge, to continue to push the HBCU forward because it's about the institution, it's not about them.

Helen Beddow: And what does good leadership look like?

We have some HBCUs, some presidents that are doing some phenomenal things at their university that can be seen as a model for future HBCU presidents or future leaders of HBCUs as well such as Ruth Simmons Prairie View A&M university, phenomenal, outstanding and very smart, intelligent I consider her leadership as a model for future HBCU leaders, Michael Sorrell at Paul Quinn college of Texas, Beverly Tatum did an excellent, excellent job at Spelman college, then also we have Quentin Rose, down at Alabama state university, he’s doing some great things with his leadership at Alabama State University. So there are HBCU leaders across the country that we can utilize as a blueprint of success, who have worked in different leadership capacities in and around higher education, at multiple institutions of higher learning but most importantly they put their institutions first and they lead by example.

Helen Beddow: Something I've noticed in UK institutions, one of the issues that I see is that as people kind of move up to leadership positions, they've not really received the training - they've kind of not really received the project management training or the leadership development you know they're kind of appointed on their academic ability or their ability, you know, to bring in funding, and in HBCUs use, is that missing as well that like, project management training piece, that leadership development training piece?

Johnny D Jones:

It is you have a lot of HBCU leaders who – their training comes from their academic programme, or they may have experiences at other HBCUs but but you really don't have that project management or business mindset training. You have a lot of different leadership training programmes around the country, you know, things you can do online – international training programme, but it goes back to your – the person's track record, a level of success. We have presidents take on position at HBCUs and say that they are enrollment management experts. However, their track records show that they are not enrollment management experts they really can't articulate, you know how they increase the enrollment of the institution, how those enrollment management compare to other institutions of higher learning, they don't utilise data. Enrollment management's a science, same thing as student affairs and academic affairs. What did you do at your previous institution that really enhanced the academic enterprise of the institution but most importantly, put that institution in a position where they can be a competitive institution in this global marketplace. As we deal with COVID-19 and we are becoming a more global society for technology people have a choice. HBCUs are very important in terms of the culture in terms of in the midst of all these different things going on with black lives matter but still we still have a choice to receive a proper education. Students will enrol at HBCU but most importantly they will leave them as fast as possible and you're going create this cycle of struggling HBCUs because they're not operating at the highest level capacity in this competitive global education marketplace and then you got to look at the leader – does HBCU has the right leader in place?

Helen Beddow: I mean, it seems really important then to be able to bring in fresh eyes to leadership positions, you know where should these institutions be looking at to hire, who should they be looking to bring in into leadership?

Johnny D Jones:

A lot of HBCUs they really need to figure out what type of leader they want first. Bolman and Deals frame theory to decide what type of leader is best fit for the institution – structural, symbolic, human resource, political type leader – what's best for the institution, and it takes doing the research and slowing things down. I believe a lot of HBCU leaders, a lot of HBCUs, particularly in this trying time, they should use organisations like, different organisation that does interim hiring for leadership, instead of bringing someone in you spend six to eight months, particularly when your institution isn't stable, of going through a process and hoping that you got the right person then come to find out you don't have the right person. But you reach out to organisations such as the registry. And they are organisations that hire, know, work with HBCUs, work with institutions around the country to hire people on an interim basis, so that the board or whatever the governing body wants from their leader in an interim time he makes sure the HBCU is back on track. Then not only say, financial resources but you have a strategic plan of getting, of going where you want to go, based on the institution needs. I feel also the HBCUs need to work with different, other different leadership programmes out there and look at how can you train a leader that can be tailored to the HBCU because they are very unique. I think HBCU should take more of a business model in terms of holding leaders accountable, you know, yes they have contracts. But most importantly, there should be certain things they need to accomplish to enhance the HBCU. So, the leadership, the training starts with the institution expectations. people can go to leadership training around the country they can enter enrol in different doctorate programmes around the country. However, what are the expectations of the HBCU – if HBCU has high expectations, then only people you will attract to come lead in those different positions are people who agree with those expectations, and also know they have the capability of fulfilling those expectations.

Helen Beddow: Its sounds like also, you know, as well as strong leadership, you need a strong strategy and you need to understand, I guess, the core value and the core character of the institution.

Johnny D Jones:


Helen Beddow: So how can leaders kind of keep these core values in mind while creating a strategic plan for the institution? you know what kind of mission and clear vision?

Johnny D Jones:

And that starts with working with a clear shared governance structure at the institution working with the students, staff, faculty board, community stakeholders understanding what those core values are from the beginning. We have a lot of leader that go into institutions and can't write a strategic plan, can't put a strategic plan together they come in those institutions. And the first thing they will say well how are things done prior to now we just gonna keep moving this forward. I have seen HBCU leaders they take a strategic plan that has no substance, that's not measurable, but they just changed the name add tagline to them, and move on say this is the strategic plan but when you look into strategic planning you measure strategic planning, then you will see that nothing was accomplished. I mean understanding the core value of HBCU and accomplishing the things that need to be a accomplished. Accountability also plays on the students, faculty, staff, and internal and external stakeholders. We need to be held accountable, a lot HBCUs are very very spiritually grounded, educating former slaves, you know, a lot of HBCUs are tied to different religious affiliation, so they are very spiritually grounded and just because you hear some people have a strong, what I call, spiritual rhetoric that they talk from a spirituality point of view but they don't live, the things that they are discussing from the spirituality point of view, then you know – you can't be fooled by someone who really doesn't have the institution best interests at heart.

Helen Beddow: That also kind of links back to this project management piece, you know, not having that kind of wider project management business mindset around accountability, how to develop a strategic plan, how to put it in action and how to check that you're delivering on all the things that you've promised to deliver.

Johnny D Jones:

Exactly. And that's where that's where I feel that HBCUs - a lot of institutions of higher learning they are, they are shifting to more project management, more project management terms in leading institutes of higher learning. You know, the traditional route used to be an HBCU or any institution of higher learning was you a faculty member, you know you want to go to administrator regularly become a chair from a chair you go become a dean from a dean to Provost and Dean you president because through all those different steps you should have been able to ascertain some level of project management - understanding budgeting understanding accountability, numbers, resources, all the different things that should make you a successful institution, but most importantly understand how to initiate, planning and execution, in terms of performance monitoring for the project you tried to accomplish at the HBCU. HBCUs need to think about how can we be more innovative, how can we look at a project management style leader, to make sure we hold that person accountable to accomplish what we want to accomplish? If we're trying to increase enrollment how are we going to initiate it, what's the plan how it's gonna be executed, and how it's going to be measured. And then who's responsible for that. If you're the president, you are responsible. If you hire someone to be open enrollment management, if they fail then did you make sure they have all the necessary tools in place for them to succeed. So, again, there's some level of accountability across the board and having that project management more business mindset.

Helen Beddow: I mean perhaps the biggest responsibility HBCU leadership has is to their student body. Are there additional challenges in supporting HBCU student bodies and how can HBCU strategy deliver here for students?

Johnny D Jones:

HBCUs their primary focus should be their student body because 90- honestly I'm going to throw a figure out there but I think I'm very very close to be right - 96% of HBCUs are enrollment driven institutions. So, if you are an enrollment driven institution, and then it's your responsibility to make sure that these students maximise their learning experience and also they have been able to ascertain the degree where they can go out and get a job with that degree they have worked hard for that will allow them to successfully take care of themselves and also pay back any expenses they will owe, trying to complete their degree at the institution. If it's money owed to the institution or if it's money owed to student loans or if it's money owed to private loans or from family members. They need to understand how to best maximise the student's success is through dynamic resource planning, accurate budget, forecasting, interactive resources, scheduling, you know, thinking outside the box in terms of cross team collaboration, and also you know just things that can help the student be successful at all times to student success, but again it starts with leadership,

Helen Beddow: In your book you kind of focus in on a particular type of event that HBCUs can take a more business-minded approach to, which is the sporting events. I know sporting events, especially the football games, are a major part of HBCU kind of culture and a key event in the calendar. Tell us a bit about this history of sporting events at HBCUs and how these sporting events are key in helping the schools connect to the local communities.

Johnny D Jones:

The sporting events at HBCUs are huge, due to the fact a lot of HBCUs if they have a football team, they have what you call homecoming. Homecoming is the largest football event each year, and also different football classes, such as Tennessee State vs Jackson State of Memphis. Jackson State vs Mississippi Valley State, different classes in different places like Chicago, Indianapolis – or HBCUs travel out west to play predominantly white schools. HBCU alums that love to see HBCUs – HBCUs are very famous because of their band. The most famous HBCU classic is in the world is the versus Grambling State vs Southern University, the Bayou classics down in New Orleans. So, homecoming and these classics are very very vital to and very popular to people who graduated from HBCUs and people who did not graduate from HBCUs and also people who want to attend HBCUs. And other major sporting event like the CIAA basketball tournament that happens every year that's a great event. So these HBCU homecomings – they usually carry a lot of HBCU sports outside football in terms of revenue generated at homecoming. That’s something that needs to be changed at these different HBCUs - that's a good revenue stream for the different colleges and universities. It will help in terms of recruitment and retention of students, but most importantly you can utilise the resources to enhance academic programmes also put the different athletic teams in a better place to be more competitive to secure other financial resources from other sports teams, or from other conferences - such as like this year Southern University schedule to play Louisiana State University in 2025 – that's like a billion dollar game. So, use this resource correctly, invest back into the different academic programme.

Helen Beddow: So Duam J Womack president of Claufin University said recently when other institutions catch a cold HBCUs catch a flu. And well, they're currently facing quite a crisis with COVID-19 at the moment, have HBCUs been hit harder? Has COVID-19 exacerbated some of the challenges HBCUs have?

Johnny D Jones:

HBCUs have been underfunded for many years. You can see where COVID-19 has really taken a hard hit into the American black community, and that a lot of these students, lack of education of COVID-19 in the different communities where these students come from, need to commute to attend these HBCUs. HBCUs have to do more with less. It's our responsibility at HBCUs to work hard and to what we have done for over a century. Like they say HBCUs use - they make brick out of straw. They turn stones into diamonds. HBCUs are here to continue to serve, and to serve citizenship around the world. However, you know we have to be more stewards with the resources that we have. We have to cut back and also help build and also got to hold our leadership accountable for managing the resources, as well as reach out to different alums to support these HBCUs because they are needed in a lot different communities where these schools are set up for these students to help these student be successful, make brick out out of straw, turn stone into diamonds. And that's why they are needed. So thats what you mean by other institutions catch a cold HBCUs catch the flu that's a powerful statement.

Helen Beddow: How can people at the management level, how can people at leadership level, be leaders, real leaders during COVID-19? How can they lead an organisation working from home online in these different circumstances?

Johnny D Jones:

Well, the first thing they need to do, they need to do a real thorough assessment of where they are, as an institution I think they should definitely look at how to transform their curriculum to fully online delivery, a lot of HBCUs are struggling there because they don't have the technology infrastructure in place and they have not built the technology infrastructure, because they continue to operate in a very antiquated society and antiquated operation and don't want to change. The faculty need to be trained in virtual teaching the students need to be trained in virtual learning. A lot of HBCUs have said we got to go virtual and online teaching but a lot of these students are not capable, or you have not assessed to see are these students ready to shift immediately. And then you talk about the level of student learning assessment and also retention - and look at different meets modalities of teaching and learning. Don't just wait and see what one school is doing you need to figure out what you do to best serve the students of the HBCU. And also, you're looking at how you can change. You know the academic year should be short, residency should go to mobile quarter system and a more hybrid learning model, you know, you have to know who your students are and what's best for your students to maintain viability as HBCU in your region.

Helen Beddow: Absolutely, and to talk about the other kind of major events that we're seeing at the moment you know the Black Lives Matter movement began in, in 2013 and was founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti and Patrice Cullors after Trayvon Martin's murderer was acquitted. And it really took hold within and was driven forward in higher education by students within HBCUs. And we did see that you know kind of lead to the removal of leadership in some cases and see significant changes in policy. Black lives have always mattered at HBCUs. What role have HBCUs played in black activism and in social injustice?

Johnny D Jones:

Oh Lord, HBCUs have played a vital role throughout their creation. And what I call the American Negro civil rights movement and particularly with the modern Black Lives Matter and others. You can look at historical movements at Southern University and Van Royden Alabama State University down the street from where Emmet Till was murdered, Jackson university, just celebrated the 50th anniversary of students being killed on they campus being social activists as well as the home of Medgar Everts as well as Howard University, Langston University, just to name a few. HBCUs will forever bear witness to the changing political landscape of America historically built and continued to enhance this country, but most importantly that HBCU was also a meeting place for a lot of these different social injustice gatherings, you know, a lot of people don't talk about South Carolina State University, the Orangeburg massacre. You know, these students went to HBCUs they took a stand to continue to try to better this country, HBCUs played a vital role in terms of hosting different meetings. A lot of HBCUs didn't play a vital role because they they were insecure where they were and they want to make sure they maintain the HBCUs as an institution but students stepped up and went against the institution to try to move no in the Civil Rights programme and activism forward HBCU had a responsibility there, and they even more got a responsibility now in these leaders as these HBCUs got even more of a responsibility. Putting on the T shirts saying Black Lives Matter is fine but what are you going to do about it. How are you gonna use your academic programmes in terms of, you have a bachelor's and a master's degree programme in criminal justice. What are you going - what are your faculty and students and staff are doing to help change the horrible criminal justice system in your state or in your country or in your region, but you have a social work programme, or public policy programme, what are you doing to work with changing policy around inhumane living conditions. What are you doing – you have an economic programme – what are your faculty and staff doing to help change policy to create more effective economic wage wages in the United States or in your region or in your state. What are you doing, if you have a health fitness education programme and also a volunteer programme you want to tackle, you know, childhood obesity or health disparities in your state and we - so what are you doing? As institutions of higher learning they are in different places we supposed to be the think tank, professors, people look they call you Dr this and Dr that, what are you doing to help change and make America better? So yeah, HBCUs played a vital role in civil rights, American American Negro civil rights movement also they, they can play a vital role in black lives matter but also I think they can do more. They can do more. You can't sit idly by - you have professors and you have academic programmes where you supposed to do research you supposed to bring something to the table, but you don't bring anything to the table, you can't sit idly by. And when you see the education of different places in the Mississippi Delta, or the different places where they have poor education systems but you have a Department of Education or you have a college education and multiple HBCUs in the state and the education landscape is not changing, you're not helping change policy. So what are you doing? That goes back to leadership.

Helen Beddow: After the Black lives matter movement was founded in, around 2013, there was also around the same time an increase in student submissions to HBCUs and with a renewed attention on the #blacklivesmatter protests, particularly in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to name just two people who have been killed by the police raises an awareness of structural racism and driving change at institutions. There's been some suggestions that Black Lives Matter could lead to an increase in support of HBCUs. What are your thoughts on this?

Johnny D Jones:

Yes it can lead to support of HBCUs. You know, it goes back to the roots identified in the historical context of HBCUs you know same thing in early civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s - the 50s 60s and 70s there was a lot of increased enrolment HBCUs at because the HBCUs played a vital role in these different movements. The HBCU is where you can find a lot of answers and have some real, real heart to heart conversations without feeling, being threatened. It's a proud moment for HBCUs again, we tend to - this is where our beloved HBCUs must be on point with their operations and contribution to the Academy. You know this is a time for change and HBCUs must lead that change however it starts with changing yourself as an institution. If students that come to your institution want to enhance their education or want to enhance their lives you have a level of responsibility, and don't take advantage of those students who are feeling proud. A lot of people are feeling proud. And they are saying hey I want to go to HBCU, I will see a lot of major athletes who are saying hey, I want to go to an HBCU. So they come to HBCU because they feel safer or they are they want to choose HBCU because of the pride that's going on in the Black Lives Matter movement and other great movements that are out there so don't take advantage of these students - make sure these students receive the highest level of educational experiences possible that we owe them because they have chosen your institution to make themselves a better citizen.

Helen Beddow: People in leadership at HBCUs really hold a huge responsibility.

Johnny D Jones:

You are correct.

Helen Beddow: Do you think that they are cognizant enough of that?

Johnny D Jones:

No, I really don't. I really don't. There are a lot of great leaders at HBCUs that are cognizant of it but some of them they are not - some HBCUs they drive an economic impact of a region and anywhere between 30 to $50 million. So leaders - so decisions that are made and can hinder the economic impact, hinder different jobs, and hinder a lot of different other things that help move that region forward. Not only are they not cognizant of it, but they don't want the responsibility.

Helen Beddow: In the wake of the pandemic we've seen high profile billionaires gift, give large amounts of money to HBCUs, so I know that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has gifted 120 million, Robert F Smith launched the student freedom initiative to help pay off HBCU student debts. What do you think about these large public donations, could this have a long term impact for HBCUs?

Johnny D Jones:

I think they are great. You know that this movement is driving more attention to HBCUs that, that will warrant great gifts, like this from from Robert Smith, as well as Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings. I appreciate these large donations and pray that these gifts might bring change, and a plan for HBCU alumni to start and go above and beyond for the institutions. However, we need to hire real and strategic people in institutional development. If you're working in institutional development again and you can't raise the operating costs of your unit you are incapable of doing your job. We should build relationships, and also when we receive gifts from major donors like Robert Smith, and Netflix, be held accountable for those resources - do not waste those resources, have a strategic way of utilizing those resources to gain more resources, you know create strategic partnerships for sustainable giving.

Helen Beddow: If HBCUs were able to change one thing, right now, in order to operate better now what would that one thing be?

Johnny D Jones:

HBCUs are very beautiful institutions, but we have to get out of our way. HBCUs should understand exactly what type of leader they want - I really believe in using the frame theory - but most importantly, I feel that each person that comes to HBCU they must believe and understand the term called pride investment. That’s a term that I created about ten years ago, but pride investment is something that is invested through the act of devoting or giving up time, talent and emotional energy for the purpose of achieving something great. If you don't understand pride investment, and you're not able to invest in your institution, then you should not be serving an institution. Everything starts with the leader, and the leader has to be able to participate in a true participatory shared governance process to be the uplift, lead by example, through Ethical Leadership, fiscal responsibility, as well as participatory shared governance and also being competent, and hiring competent people. If you're not here to serve students – John D O'Brien he used to say 'if you're not here to serve the students, you are in the wrong place'.

Helen Beddow: Thank you very much, Johnny, that was a fascinating discussion and I really enjoyed that conversation.

Johnny D jones:

Thank you, thank you very much.

Helen Beddow: Next week I am speaking to Karen Carberry, consultant Family Therapist at Orri and Theodore Ransaw, from Michigan State University. They are two of the three co-editors of The International Handbook of Black Community Mental Health, along with Patrick Vernon, and we’ll be talking about inequalities in mental healthcare for black communities.