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HBCU education

Female presidents are playing critical roles in the survival of HBCUs

Leaders at Stillman College, Bluefield State, Central State and Le Moyne-Owen are at forefront of dynamic change

When I was a student at Howard University, I couldn’t be bothered with Founders Day. It seemed more like a way to deprive me of sleep than a way to honor Gen. Otis Howard and the school’s legacy.

Twelve years later, as many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Howard, struggle to secure funding, student enrollment and relevance, I realize Founders Day is so much more than just a way to get class credit.

It’s a celebration of survival and a salute to blacks who were determined to be educated and free.

More than 100 HBCUs have or will have a Founders Day this year. On Nov. 9, Stillman College will celebrate its 141st. Faculty, staff and students at the private college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will acknowledge the day in Birthright Alumni Hall, named after freed slaves who helped invest in the school. This is a big deal for three reasons:

  1. Only 19 women currently lead HBCUs, and four were fired in November 2016.
  2. Stillman was in danger of closing its doors.
  3. Stillman’s first female president, Cynthia Warrick, helped to ensure that didn’t happen.

Earlier this year, then-interim president Warrick sent a letter to Stillman’s alumni community. It was an appeal for financial support to keep the school afloat through the summer. The school’s payroll and operating expenses needed to be covered. Most immediately, a $275,000 fee on a $40 million federal loan needed to be paid off. Warrick feared the school would close without it.

Stillman College President Cynthia Warrick

In a high, sweet voice that some students enjoy trying to imitate, Warrick recalled her conversations with faculty and students over the phone.

“I was the bearer of bad news, but I provided the vision and strategy to move forward,” said Warrick. “Some people even thanked me for being so transparent.”

Student Government Association president Quinvarlio Kelly remembered the letter as being controversial. He said the severity of Stillman’s financial standing came as a surprise to some students, faculty and community members. But it wasn’t hyperbole. In 2016, the Tuscaloosa City Council voted to guarantee 65 percent of a $1 million loan for Stillman. If the school defaulted, the city would have to pay a maximum amount of $665,000 on the loan and acquire nearly half of its 85-acre campus.

I caught up with Kelly, a 21-year-old history major from Tuscaloosa, over the phone in between classes.

“It [the letter] basically said that debt had not been managed correctly and the faculty were not being used to their full potential.”

Warrick sent it just a few months after replacing former president Peter Millet in December 2016. In this time, Kelly found Warrick’s leadership style to be progressive, meaning she wants to fix issues and plan ahead. He agreed with her vision of change and eventually sent a letter to Warrick petitioning her to stay on at the school permanently.

“I used to joke that we needed a woman to come in and run things. Women get things done. She [Warrick] is a hands-on leader, and very direct. She will outline what she needs and wants from you.”

The changes both Warrick and Kelly desired were primarily focused on raising money, improving customer service for students and changing the image of the school from fragile to stable.

“She cut salaries, put people on furlough and moved people around. She had to stop the bleeding in order for the school to survive,” said Kelly.

Professor Norman Golar, 37, also supported Warrick’s push for high quality on the inside and outside of the college. He joined Stillman two presidents ago, in 2010, and is now chairman of the English department. During a phone conversation, he shared that the faculty were not sure what to expect when Warrick came on board.

“We wanted a president who was open and communicative, revered God and didn’t just make decisions on impulse. We wanted her to stay,” he said, fresh from teaching an advanced rhetorical grammar class. (I asked him to explain what exactly that is, and now I feel I need to take the class!)

Golar also praised Warrick’s networking skills.

“She’s reconnecting with the community and resurfacing it with a positive edge. When I go to the store, people tell me, ‘Hey, I met your president.’ The community is watching.”

Indeed, Warrick’s work to strengthen the school’s relationship with its community and her appeal for financial help have been successful. After meeting with alumni, City Council members, state legislators, the president of the University of Alabama and Tuscaloosa’s mayor, she said, a variety of people contributed. Stillman College Women’s Council, an organization focused on fundraising for the school, supported Warrick and solicited donations for the school over the summer. Around the same time, a group of local pastors also came together to corral donations for the school during an event called Stillman College Sunday.

By April 25, Warrick had successfully raised $2 million. Stillman’s board of trustees was so pleased that it decided to put a ring on it, offering Warrick a permanent position as president. This made her the school’s seventh president and its first female leader.

After serving as interim president at South Carolina State University in 2012 and Grambling State University in 2014, Warrick felt ready for a permanent leadership position. Perhaps most important to Warrick was that she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and she believed she could do that at Stillman.

“Stillman is a beautiful campus; Tuscaloosa is a very nice community. The school really fulfills a role in the community and the state. We provide higher education to students who aren’t as competitive or well prepared for college, and transform their lives and their family’s lives. Many are first-generation.”

Three months later, on the eve of Founders Day, fundraising is still a priority. For Warrick, boosting enrollment numbers is a major part of that. More students means more funding.

Kelly is a fan of this strategy.

“When enrollment rises, we’ll be able to have more and do more. It won’t take away the culture of Stillman. Students aren’t left out and left behind,” he said.

According to Stillman’s dean of enrollment, Tamara Marshall, nearly 700 students attend the school; fewer than 600 are full-time. This number has dropped 53 percent since 2000, when student enrollment was at its peak. Warrick has set a goal of tripling or quadrupling the current student population by 2022.

In a phone interview, Marshall said reaching this goal is largely tied to new recruitment strategies.

“Stillman needed multiple enrollment management strategies, like creating online communities for applicants and sending mass emails and texts targeted to prospective student interests.”

Declining student numbers is not unique to Stillman. A variety of universities and colleges, historically black and otherwise, are also losing students.

President of Le Moyne Owen College Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller, president of Le Moyne-Owen College, said her school has similar issues to Stillman. She agreed to lead the private Memphis, Tennessee-based school in 2015. She was its first female president and immediately had to address a shrinking student population. She said the number of students has dropped from 1,000 to 872. Miller’s solution is centered on reaching out to surrounding counties and building a strong enrollment management team.

“You need people who really know what they are doing. They have to identify how many students are college-ready, honor-ready or not quite ready. It’s OK to take some students that are not quite college-ready — they account for 60 to 70 percent of our student body,” she shared over the phone.

The drop in Central State University’s student population is connected to state funding policies, according to president Cynthia Jackson Hammond. Central State is in Wilberforce, Ohio, and is the only public HBCU in the state. Hammond is its first female president. Like Tennessee State University, Prairie View A&M University and several other historically black schools, Central State is a public land grant institution. This means it is eligible for federal funding and beholden to state policies that private schools like Stillman don’t have to adhere to. Hammond said its student population of 1,784 students has declined, in part, because Ohio grants money based on performance, not enrollment. Consequently, Hammond said, a higher caliber of student now graduates from Central.

Bluefield State College in Bluefield, West Virginia, is actually experiencing an upswing in its student population. After several years of decline, student enrollment is now at 1,379 — up 1.25 percent since 2010. President Marsha Krotseng, the college’s first female president, is pleased but wants that number to keep rising to at least 2,500.

Bluefield State University President Marsha Krotseng

Bluefield is one of a few HBCUs with a majority of white students. Krosteng said she is working to recruit more black students by partnering with organizations that work with HBCUs and becoming more active in HBCU-related events. Her larger recruitment strategy involves appealing to students outside of West Virginia and those who are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), allied health and robotics. She credited the increased enrollment to offering programs that appeal to students and employers, as well as affordable tuition.

All four women are confident they can meet their recruitment goals because they believe that HBCUs will remain relevant and viable institutions of higher education.

“What would America look like without HBCUs? We’re responsible for the black middle class, and we produce the most black graduates,” Warrick remarked over the phone. She’s not wrong. Graduation rates of black students at HBCUs are almost 38 percent, compared with 32 percent at predominantly white schools.

Warrick added, “HBCUs are refuges from racism, where students are not judged by the color of their skin. This helps them develop other things.”

For Miller at Le Moyne-Owen College, it’s a matter of investment.

“We have students who have so many life issues, who are dealing with adverse childhood experiences. If we don’t invest in these students in college, we might end up investing in their incarceration.” She went on, “If we [Le Moyne-Owen] weren’t around, our students probably wouldn’t do well.”

The family vibe of HBCUs is the selling point for Krotseng.

“There’s a strong family culture at HBCUs,” she commented in a phone interview. “Faculty and staff really care about their students and help develop confidence in them.”

Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of Central State University

Hammond, Miller and Warrick all shared this sentiment. Hammond said, “We do more than educate the mind. We give spirit to the soul about how to navigate this world, economic mobility, social and political norms. We teach students how to thrive if you’re not seen as equal. We do that for everyone.”

I attended an HBCU because I grew up in New Mexico, where black people constitute less than 3 percent of the total state population. I went to Howard to better understand blackness and where I fit in. Although I earned a degree with honors, my most prized possessions from college are my self-confidence and my memories of the love, friendship and acceptance I experienced there.

Founders Day is undoubtedly a time to honor roots. But praising the past does not give license to ignore or avoid change. The plan for Founders Day at Stillman is actually a three-day affair held to honor the school’s history and raise funds for its future. The event will honor female veterans, the school’s first female president and other “female firsts” in Alabama, such as the first congresswoman from the state, the first black female chief justice on its state Supreme Court and the first black cheerleader at the University of Alabama.

Historically black institutions of higher education, like most businesses, have to make changes to stay competitive. New technology, recruitment strategies and fundraising techniques are paramount. Putting more women in leadership roles should also be considered as a tool for advancement.