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An Open Letter to Trustees of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) | Diverse: Issues in Higher Education

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Dear Trustees,

After a lengthy debate with myself about whether to write you this letter, I decided that my love for HBCUs and concern about their future far outweigh any criticism or recriminations I might incur. As a proud HBCU alumnus, advocate, philanthropist, and higher education administrator, and three-time chancellor with more than five decades of teaching and leadership in the academy, I hope I have earned the right to share the views that follow. If you think otherwise, please attribute all mistakes to my head, and not my heart. This past week, I received six telephone calls within a twenty-four-hour period expressing concern about one aspect or another of HBCU governance and requesting my direct assistance or referral. There is something beyond those requests that I feel compelled to address.

Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge and express my profound appreciation to those of you who understand and embrace your role as trustees of HBCUs. I know first-hand of your commitment, passion, and professionalism, because I have had the privilege of working with you as an HBCU chancellor and as a senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. I am encouraged by the way many of you fulfill your duties as trustees, and I am optimistic about the future of HBCUs because of professionals like you.

Although I have lost count of the number of HBCU presidential vacancies and recent appointments, suffice it to say I believe the number of vacancies is far too high in proportion to the number of HBCUs as a percent of the total number of colleges and universities. The situation is so dire that some presidents are not in office long enough to be officially inaugurated. This is unacceptable, and alumni and other institutional constituents become part of the problem when they refuse to speak out in a constructive manner. Come on y’all: the value of your degree is at stake, and so is the credibility of your alma mater!

Based on my personal observations of HBCU governance, combined with the recent calls I’ve received requesting assistance, I respectfully offer the following suggestions for your consideration:

August 2021 is a pivotal period in the life of the academy and other institutions held in high regard by the public. If there was ever a new normal facing humankind, that time is now. How the higher education community responds, especially HBCUs and other historically disenfranchised institutions, will determine their relevance and responsiveness for the future. There’s one thing for sure: dysfunctional governance is not one of the factors that HBCU presidents should have to contend with going forward.

Yours in service,

Charlie Nelms

HBCU Advocate and Retired Chancellor

Dr. Charlie Nelms is chancellor emeritus at North Carolina Central University.

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