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Jackson State alums are being the change they want to see in HBCU leadership

(JACKSON, Miss.) – Quality leadership at HBCUs is essential to the viability of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in today’s post-segregated society.

A trio of Jackson State University alums are committed to that belief. In 2014, they founded the Higher Education Leadership Foundation, or H.E.L.F for short, to reframe the narrative that questions the relevancy, impact and oversight of HBCUs by giving young professionals the necessary tools and mentorship to excel in higher education.

“We wanted to create something different from everything else out there,” says Wiley College President Dr. Herman Felton, referring to co-founders Dr. Melva Williams, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment of Southern University-Shreveport, and Dr. George French, president of Miles College and president-designee of Clark Atlanta University.

The three met in 2006 while enrolled in the Executive Ph.D. Program at JSU.

“We wanted to find people who would be committed to their vocation, their institutions and HBCUs holistically,” Felton said.

So, twice a year – in June and December – 25-30 mid- to senior-level HBCU administrators are selected as fellows from a pool of applicants. Over four days, the cohort goes through a series of activities and sessions that expose them to the inner workings associated with leading in higher education – from how student affairs, institutional advancement and academic affairs all work together with business and finance, fundraising, crisis management and legalities. 

One of the key ingredients to sustaining our institutions is leadership,” said Williams, who earned a bachelor’s in mass communications and master’s in public administration from Grambling State University. “We not only wanted to include leadership at the top, but the consensus was that we needed leadership through and through. We need excellence at every level.” 

To help facilitate that excellence, H.E.L.F. also introduces their fellows to HBCU presidents, ranging from newly appointed to seasoned and retired, or “sages” as they like to call them. 

“That gives you a full picture of every type of leader that you want. They get to hear from them and their journey and challenges,” Felton said. 

French explained that H.E.L.F. attempts to fill any shortcomings that may be found at HBCUs such as an unwillingness to be open with colleagues and dish advice. “The issues that we face – enrollment, finances, physical plant and accreditation – are universal. We can help one another so much.” 

Today, the organization has graduated 231 fellows – 118 men and 113 women. Additionally, their fellows serve 53 HBCUs, 19 government agencies, 17 predominately white institutions, seven higher education systems and two K-12 systems.

It all began in 2010 when Felton, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, was vice president of institutional advancement at Livingstone College in North Carolina.

Felton says he desired a space for HBCU professionals to coalesce with the hopes of supporting and uplifting each other in a culture that could often be fast-paced and aggressive.

However, when a highly respected colleague questioned why Felton would form a group of his competitors, he was floored. “I valued that input so much that it crushed me and stopped me in my tracks,” he shared. His plans stalled for several years, but he was unwilling to let his idea flounder and decided to try again in 2014.

“We all need help. We’re all in a place where, in many ways, we’re serving people and not being served ourselves,” he says. “That’s the type of work that we do. It’s service to mankind and service to a mission. If you’re not careful, you can lose yourself in it.”

Felton sent emails to his counterparts vetting their interest then set a date and location in November for them to gather and toss around ideas. Five people, including Williams, attended the first brainstorming session. At a second session the following January, Williams explained that she, Felton and two others invited several HBCU leaders to meet in New Orleans for another convening of the minds.

French was one of the invitees. After all, he has worked at Miles College for 23 years with 14 years at the helm, making him the longest-serving HBCU president in Alabama and one of the longest-serving in the nation.  Interestingly enough, he became the go-to for college board chairs when they wanted someone to encourage new presidents, and they would visit and shadow him at Miles. He was also formerly on the Board of Trustees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

“So, George was already doing the work. He was working with other presidents and mentoring other presidents,” Williams pointed out. “He was a breadth of knowledge.”

From there, H.E.L.F. was born, and Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, president of Wilberforce University, and Gregory D. Deas, associate director of special projects at Wiley College, joined the leadership team soon after. In June 2015, H.E.L.F hosted its first group – the Alpha cohort, each one is named for a Greek alphabet. 

Dr. Hakim J. Lucas, president of Virginia Union University, graduated from H.E.L.F.’s Gamma cohort in December 2016.

Then a vice president of fundraising for Bethune-Cookman University, Lucas calls H.E.L.F. a one-of-a-kind full-contact organization. 

“Full contact in a sense that it puts fellows in touch with current and emerging HBCU leaders and practitioners, but it also puts participants in touch with themselves,” he shares. “Rarely does a conference cause introspection and force you to deal with yourself.” 

During the stay, Lucas says the organization makes “you see how your vulnerabilities need to be challenged to increase your leadership ability.” 

According to the native New Yorker, H.E.L.F. came at a time when he was losing his focus on the importance of HBCUs and reminded him why he was doing the work. 

While the goal of H.E.L.F. is not to train future college presidents, 11 percent of their fellows have ascended to the presidency or a cabinet-level position. 

“We don’t know how to make presidents. I’m a two-time president, and I still don’t know how to make a president,” says Felton, before adding that what H.E.L.F. does do is stimulate certain qualities, characteristics and traits that can prepare others to lead. 

Still, the group appears to address the HBCU leadership crisis echoed in various media outlets like the HuffPost. In a 2012 article, Jarrett L. Carter lays partial blame for the “crisis” on the HBCU presidency or chancellorship search process, which he describes as “fraught with laziness, a vague understanding of HBCU missions and the political climate that affects them and a painful urgency to make black colleges competitive with predominantly white counterparts within predominantly white metrics of success and failure.” 

Perhaps, board search committees could turn to H.E.L.F. for assistance.

In fact, H.E.L.F. also preps presidential hopefuls as part of their extended mentoring process. For example, if a fellow applied for a presidency and made it to the interview phase, French says they were invited to Miles College where he and his entire cabinet staged mock interviews. In one instance, they were prepping two fellows for the same position.

“To have that opportunity to shape leadership and shape leaders is a real high point,” said French, a University of Louisville and Miles Law School graduate, French also served as director of institutional planning and development at Miles College. “If we’re going to sustain and thrive at HBCUs, we have to view each other not as adversaries but as collaborators.”

French also emphasizes that H.E.L. F. focuses on the transformational leadership style versus transactional  “It has to be because we have to change in order to operate for a competitive advantage (among other institutions),” he says. “We have to be in constant change, and sometimes we haven’t been, and because of that we’ve fallen behind in some areas.”

Some areas that could be improved not only at HBCUs but at post-secondary institutions everywhere is the number of women in leadership roles.

“If you just look at the data, how many women presidents do you see at the top?” Williams asks. “You look at the state of Louisiana alone. How many women presidents are here? They are few and far between.” 

Williams has 15 years in higher education with numerous accolades such as being named Top Professional of the Year by the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce and receiving the 2018 ATHENA award.

However, studies show that women in authoritative positions face more bias and challenges than their male counterparts, and for women of color, opportunities for upward mobility are even more elusive. These conditions can pit women against one another, leaving them with little support and making their path more difficult. 

However, Williams has a different story. “I might be a purple unicorn. Women in leadership have absolutely embraced me. My hero – my shero – is Dr. Kassie Freeman,” she says with passion. 

Freeman served as the interim president of the Southern University System, the country’s only historically black college system, and is highly regarded for her research on African-Americans and college choice. 

“Once she became the system president, she tapped me to be her chief of staff.  I became the first chief of staff of the system. That role had never existed before. That role had become important for me in my trajectory in leadership but to have her respect and receive her confidence in my abilities really catapulted my confidence in focusing on what we’ve done at Southern,” says Williams. 

The type of “reaching back,” self-assurance and coalition that Williams details are what H.E.L.F. seems to instill in others. 

“My greatest takeaway was having access to an everlasting camaraderie of leaders and aspiring leaders across the nation who are interested in the HBCU space,” says Dr. Mitchell Shears, associate vice president for student success at JSU. He completed the Iota Cohort in June 2019. 

“Since our initial gathering, we are still sharing accomplishments, strategies and opportunities for leadership growth and development,” he says. 

An awakening is how Dr. Erin Lynch defines her time in the December 2018 Theta Cohort. “It was rejuvenating and inspiring,” says the associate provost of scholarship, research and innovation at Winston-Salem State University. 

Lynch says it is the only leadership program for HBCU professionals that removes silos between agencies (e.g. academic affairs, students affairs) and brings everyone in a room together. 

“The beauty of H.E.L.F.” Lynch continues, “is that it is a personalized experience for each cohort member. Each of us has the opportunity to take away from it something specific to our own development, and for me, it was the professional relationship building and the expansion of my network.” 

And H.E.L.F. employs a variety of methods (podcast, blog, and Di-Khan, an impending journal publication) to help communication lines stay intact. 

Although the founders strive to generate a fundamental, therapeutic and integrated learning experience for others, they, too, benefit from the process. 

“It’s helped me to develop relationships with new and aspiring presidents. It has allowed me to gain renewed energy from engaging them. I’ve heard some of their cutting-edge ideas for the presidency. It’s really helped me in that way because they have fresh thoughts regarding the evolution of higher education,” says French. 

One of the best parts of Williams’ involvement, she says, is working with people she views as family. “Doing this work with people you admire; you care about their success. We root harder for each other than we do for ourselves. We’re really each other’s biggest cheerleaders.” 

As for Felton, he takes a moment to acknowledge Dr. Joseph Martin Stevenson, the founding director of the Executive Ph.D. Program at Jackson State. “He talked about being a catalyst for change. That resonates with me still to this day. It resonates with all of us. I believe the seed was planted by his constant iteration of what being a catalyst for change meant, and that’s what we’re all trying to do.”

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