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Diminishing Value: How Public Conflict Hurts the HBCU

At the 2017 Alpha Phi Alpha General Convention, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion that featured several HBCU presidents. The presidents shared their thoughts about the future of HBCUs in front of a standing-room-only crowd mostly comprised of us Alpha men decked in everything from our traditional black suits with gold tie combos to business gray or navy blue with colorful bow ties to black or gold Alpha blazers. We sat upright and alert hanging on these leaders’ words knowing who we had in front of us.

HBCU presidents panel at the 2017 Alpha Phi Alpha General Convention

Moderated by retired educator Henry Ponder, the panel featured presidents: Everett Ward of St. Augustine’s University, M. Christopher Brown II of Kentucky State University, Roderick Smothers of Philander Smith College, W. Franklin Evans of Voorhees College, and Jerry Hardee of Paine College. Another panelist was Walter Tillman Jr., special assistant to the chancellor of the Southern University Law Center.

Of all the topics the leaders covered, one rang out to my branding ears—public conflict in the HBCU community. If you’re connected to the HBCU community, you know that I’m talking about everything from boards publicly airing their grievances to students complaining on social media about that professor who “gave” them a bad grade. This is not to say no one has the right to complain or that none of this stuff happens at predominantly white institutions. What the HBCU community must consider is that the image of HBCUs is already compromised in the eyes of the American public so conflict can do more harm than folks realize. As a former HBCU public relations director, I know all too well.

My issue is that public conflict affects the leadership brands of HBCUs. This is not about individual presidents so much as it is about how the unique selling points (or value propositions) of HBCUs are compromised. Smothers, whose background is fundraising, noted that potential donors question if they should invest in HBCUs when they see constant transition in leadership. He gave the example of a series of annual meetings that he is having where a corporate donor is gauging the stability of his tenure as Philander’s president. Understanding this donor’s concern, Smothers said that he is focused on minimizing public conflicts among the Philander community. That includes maintaining a positive relationship with his board and focusing on customer service.

At HBCUs, rumors and gossip have quite the tendency to undermine HBCU leadership. The most common example is faculty or staff publicly attacking their leaders. I’ll never forget one staffer telling me he wanted to report a president because he thought the president was stealing money from the institution. He couldn’t produce one shred of proof; he just felt at the time that “something isn’t right.” These are the folks who know that one board member who doesn’t like the president anyway (not for any specific reason) and that board member will go for the president’s throat at the next board meeting. Since board meetings are public, the press gets a nice show to talk about all based on a rumor or gossip.

Now that I am in talent acquisition, I cringe about another result of public conflict—employee turnover. I wrote that the next level of HBCUs’ promoting their value is to establish solid employer brands. One thing I argued is that focusing on the employer brand could inspire serious internal human resources conversations which could lead to more sound HR practices. Quality talent in any field avoid organizations with bad PR vibes but current employees are where the hidden danger is. In the face of public conflict, people worry about their reputations so they look for the next thing smokin’ off the campus. Employee turnover costs organizations money because of training, on-boarding, interviews that incur travel costs, job advertising, recruitment assistance, etc. At this point, it looks as if HBCU leaders have no control of their campuses, compromising what Forbes calls the brand reputational value.

Public conflict is normal but the HBCU community can do their institutions a huge favor by looking at the larger picture. First, understanding the dynamics that I just discussed is over half the battle. That being said, put the identity and value of your institution above your personal feelings. Also, understand that the ultimate measure of higher education leadership effectiveness lies in: leaders’ ability to raise money and acquire resources for their campuses, compliance with accreditation standards, maintaining the integrity of academics, and how well presidents get along with boards. By understanding these factors, you can approach conflict in a way that preserves the integrity of your institution. At the end of the day, it takes a village to protect your HBCU’s brand.


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