Emerging Paradigms for HBCU Leadership: Reflections of a New Provost

by S. Keith Hargrove

Just as higher education has been transformed due to COVID-19 regarding pedagogies and how students learn, so have the roles and responsibilities of instructors, faculty, and administrators. The last two years have required all colleges and universities to really examine how we deliver information and challenged those who possess the knowledge content with nontraditional tools in technology for dissemination. I would also conclude that those in leadership positions have been confronted with even more complex decision-making in roles that seem to expand with greater responsibilities and widespread institutional impact.

The provost essentially sets the academic direction of the institution, through the collaboration and buy-in of the faculty, department chairs, and deans. There’s the real challenge. In addition, many of the articles and publications about being a provost conclude that the role expands beyond the responsibilities of just academic programs and faculty affairs. This seems to make sense because it is common that the subsequent career move can lead to the presidency. As a new provost, I have witnessed, contemplated, and reflected on three emerging paradigms. These hindsight paradigms result from decades of my HBCU experience, a different perspective for tomorrow’s higher education institution, and a developed leadership style that has suited me well over the last 30 years.

Over the last few years, HBCUs have also had to transition. Though only 3 percent of the nation’s colleges, they produce more than a quarter of African American college graduates. And of all African Americans to receive a Ph.D. in a STEM discipline, more than a third received their undergraduate degree from an HBCU. These amazing statistics reflect their value and impact on society, the workforce, and the overall economy. Of recent, many HBCUs have received some philanthropic donations. Whether recognition of their impact, social consciousness, visibility of alumni, or other reasons, the investments may not represent equitable donations compared to other institutions. HBCUs have always been leading advocates for diversity. But with the decline of all high school graduates within the next few years, these institutions must continue to expand their student diversity, become more outcome-driven, and create educational value beyond the cultural experience of a predominate population. To become more competitive, the value proposition for HBCUs will and must extend beyond the obvious cultural immersion, and implement more novel outcomes-focused strategies through the delivery of optimized services and processes to serve students and employees.

The next generation of higher education leaders must be prepared to address the enrollment, cost, degree completion, and operational challenges for universities. Managing tomorrow’s university will require a transformation of the traditional mandate of the purpose of colleges and universities. Most have a mission and purpose of “Teaching – Research – Service”. In my judgment, to respond to the ever-changing environment and meet the needs of students and society, HBCUs must emerge and undergo a metamorphosis to a new paradigm of “Learning – Innovation – Engagement”.

Teaching implies a one-directional process of obtaining knowledge. Amid the current environment and over the last two decades, we have discovered that through the development and usage of information technology tools, “Learning” can take place anywhere, anytime, and through a variety of delivery methods or pedagogies. This differs from a mindset of Teaching, and implies the activities of acquiring knowledge are amongst all participants and the process is reciprocal.

Most see “Research” as the discovery of new knowledge. However, “Innovation” may be a more appropriate term because “creativity” is also demonstrated in the many disciplines of sciences, humanities, and the arts. When most institutions promote research, rarely is it seen to cut across all the academic programs of the institution. Innovation implies creativity no matter the discipline, expertise, talent, knowledge, curricula, or body of origination.

Service is also recognized as an agenda for higher education. This commitment is demonstrated within the institution through committees or supporting university functions. It is also exercised throughout the local community in university outreach efforts. Yet, the current environment of social consciousness and culture of acceptable woke-ness, has led to more “Engagement” of industry, corporations, nonprofits, higher education, government, and faith-driven organizations to impact and change our quality of life, and create a more civil society. Universities and especially HBCUs, must expand their mission of “service” to become broader, multiple collaborators, and outcome-driven to change the livelihood of their communities and enhance the experience of students, faculty, and staff.

Leadership styles may vary in higher education. At the highest level, the president may display one of the two most common leadership styles by being either transformational or transactional. Transformational leadership is led by a vision and inspires others to pursue this utopian goal with passion and resilience. Transactional leadership is focused on performance and a reward-based structure to motivate for the completion of tasks. Effective leaders used both, and often at the same time.

In my role as provost, I have learned to use a leadership style often labeled as Trans-relational. This concept was published by the authors Branson, Marra, Franken, and Penney in 2018. However, I personally define it as – “the ability to establish, recognize, and manage relationships that benefit the entire organization with regard to communication, strategic goals, and empathy amongst employees”. This approach is also integrated with a “Servant Leadership” style.

During my first term as provost, I carried out a visit to all the academic and functional units of the university. As I continue to complete my LOL (Listen, Observe, Learn) Tour of the different colleges and units throughout the campus community, I discovered the importance of building my awareness of how faculty and staff “feel” about their roles and the institution. Thus, familiarity with the concepts of emotional intelligence is a foundation of understanding the behavior and culture of the environment and is critical to instigate change. As a new provost, my incoming skills and competence in communication and negotiation were to be tested by interacting with employees. In addition, surely my success in the role requires knowledge of the direction of the institution with its strategic plan, which would be measured in real-time, each semester, and annually.

Therefore, in my judgment, these paradigms may be advocated and deployed by ALL leaders of higher education to impact student success and institutional change. It may be even more pronounced for an HBCU. This viewpoint is an alternative perspective for the mission of higher education, but also to potentially shape the future of learning and institutional structures of operations and missions. In any event, the purpose is the same. That is, leaders must provide flexible-innovative curricula and engagement to prepare students for careers and entrepreneurship, and as instigators of change. As students gain experiences in intellectual (academic) development, social and personal development, and professional development during their matriculation, all students and HBCU graduates can lead change for the better and pursue career goals. This past semester has left me more optimistic to be a leader for change and to impact the lives of those that come through these halls of academia and our HBCUs.

Dr. Hargrove became provost at Tuskegee University in Alabama earlier this year. He had been serving as dean of the College of Engineering at Tennessee State University. Earlier, he was chair of the department of industrial, manufacturing & information engineering in the Clarence Mitchell, Jr. School of Engineering at Morgan State University in Baltimore and assistant to the dean and associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, Architecture & Physical Sciences at Tuskegee University. Dr. Hargrove holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee State University. He received a master’s degree from the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

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  1. An outstanding article and a road map of ensuring the relevance of HBCU’s and the importance of expanding the outlook for teaching in the present and for future generations. The University is blessed to have you as their Provost!

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