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N.C. Central is the latest HBCU to enter leadership transition

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Nationally, presidential turnover at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) “surged in 2023,” according to a Higher Ed Dive report from July. As a result, nearly one-quarter of HBCUs across the country were being led at the time by interim, acting, or departing presidents, according to Terrell Strayhorn, director of Virginia Union University’s Center for the Study of HBCUs.

“The issue is not necessarily unique among HBCUs, as tenures of college presidencies across higher education have been shortened in recent years,” the report says. “Nonetheless, the numbers at HBCUs have been staggering.”

In the NC10, North Carolina A&T University Chancellor Dr. Harold L. Martin Sr. is the only top leader with more than 10 years of experience in the role. He became the university’s 12th chancellor in 2009 and will be retiring at the conclusion of the 2023-24 academic year. The next longest-serving president — excluding those set to retire — is Shaw University President Dr. Paulette R. Dillard, who began serving as interim president in July 2017.

On Jan. 12, 2024, North Carolina Central University Chancellor Dr. Johnson Akinleye announced he will retire at the end of the academic year. He assumed the role permanently in June 2017.

In Nov. 2023, Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail was dismissed as president of Saint Augustine’s University. Other media have reported that Dr. McPhail’s attorney said she had filed an internal complaint on Oct. 9, 2023. In December, the university named Dr. Marcus H. Burgess as interim president, effective immediately.  

In addition to N.C Central and Saint Augustine’s, several other HBCUs in North Carolina have seen recent leadership transitions.

The Higher Ed Dive report found that “departures at HBCUs are uniquely different yet have important commonalities, such as women leaving many of those posts and leaders having fraught relationships with their governing boards.”

Strayhorn noted that the transitions “also present opportunities for an exciting future, in which new entrepreneurial, diverse, and student-centered leaders ‘will create new possibilities for the future of America’s Black colleges.'”

Livingstone College

In Sept. 2022, Livingstone College named Dr. Anthony J. Davis as the school’s 13th president.

A Livingstone graduate, Davis previously served as the college’s chief operating officer and senior vice president of institutional advancement.

“Twenty-one years ago, I started on this journey to become president,” Davis said at the time. “It is true what poet Langston Hughes said, ‘Dreams don’t die, they are deferred.’”

He succeeded Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr., who announced his retirement seven months earlier. Jenkins served as Livingston’s president for 16 years, officially stepping down in July 2022.

Before joining Livingstone in 2006, Dr. Jenkins was president of Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, and chancellor of Elizabeth City State University.

“Without question, Livingstone College is in a much better place because of his presidency,” said Bishop George W.C. Walker, a former chairman on Livingstone’s board.

Lafayette Thompson, a student from Livingstone College, speaks at an HBCU advocacy day at the legislature on Feb. 15, 2023. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU)

In Jan. 2023, former Johnson C. Smith University President Clarence D. Armbrister announced his planned retirement at the end of June.

Armbrister joined the university in 2018 and was the 14th president.

“It is a bittersweet moment for me and my family because we love this university and the unparalleled opportunities HBCUs like ours provide for thousands of students across the country each year,” he said at the time.

In June, JCSU announced Dr. Valerie Kinloch as the university’s 15th president, effective Aug. 1. Kinloch is a graduate of JCSU and served as a member of its Board of Trustees.

“It’s a dream come true to be invited to lead one of the finest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in America — and at the same time come home,” Kinloch said. “My years at JCSU were some of the best of my life. This university set me on course to grow beyond anything I could imagine, so it is incredibly gratifying to return and give back to the institution that helped make me who I am.”

During her first welcome address to students, Kinloch said she was excited to be “back home at JCSU” to uplift students, faculty, and staff.

“It was the faculty members who cultivated me during my time as a student at JCSU,” she said. “But I am a staff advocate as much as I am a faculty advocate. We need to have a same-vision mindset so we can work together to bring JCSU into a new era of excellence.”

Johnson C. Smith University. Shutterstock

North Carolina A&T University

Dr. Martin announced he will retire as chancellor at the end of the 2023-24 school year.

He is currently in his 15th year as leader of the university, making him the longest serving chancellor in the 17-campus UNC System and among the nation’s 107 HBCUs, according to a release.

“Harold Martin is the very model of a devoted, effective public servant. He’s a brilliant thinker, a disciplined leader and a great man,” said UNC System President Peter Hans. “For more than three decades, he’s been a friend, a mentor and an inspiration to students and colleagues across the UNC System.”  

A national search is being conducted for a successor.

OLCE Director of Leadership and Engagement Tiffany Seawright talks to NC A&T students about voter registration and early voting. Victoria Griffin/EducationNC

N.C. Central University (NCCU)

Dr. Akinleye was appointed the 12th chancellor of NCCU in June 2017, after serving as acting and interim chancellor for nearly a year. On Jan. 12, he announced his retirement from the role, effective June 30.

“I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to lead this esteemed university through a period of growth and innovation, a period when the institution was primed for transformative change,” he said in the statement. “Since leading this stellar academic enterprise, we have made tremendous progress and accumulated many accolades. Enrollment is healthy and growing. We have added two new colleges as an outgrowth of an academic realignment, the College of Health and Sciences and the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, to better address the needs of our students and the emerging marketplace.”

A national search will be conducted for a successor, a college press release said, with details to be released soon.

“Chancellor Akinleye has served North Carolina Central University tirelessly since 2014, taking on the role of chancellor in 2016 and working to uphold the proud history of one of our nation’s finest HBCUs,” said Hans. “During his nearly eight years as chancellor, Dr. Akinleye has helped the university increase its academic offerings, enrollment, research funding and capital infrastructure. The chancellor also helped to elevate the university’s national presence, prioritizing access, affordability and student success. We are grateful for Dr. Akinleye’s service and leadership.”

N.C. Central University’s mascot. Courtesy of Cornell Watson

Saint Augustine’s University

Dr. McPhail, the former president of Saint Augustine’s University, was dismissed from the role in November after less than two years on the job. She was appointed as the university’s 13th president in 2021.

This transition comes as SAU works to keep its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). During the SACSCOC annual meeting in early December, the organization voted to remove SAU’s membership from their accrediting body. 

The college was set to receive an official letter regarding SACSCOC’s decision on Jan. 11, per a previous statement from the college. The university previously said it would respond with a request to appeal the decision by Jan. 21.

“According to the SACSCOC policy, the university will remain an accredited institution on probation during the appeal process,” that release said. 

You can learn more about SAU’s accreditation status on their website

“The work has already begun to appeal SACSCOC’s decision, and we will remain steadfast during this process,” said then-acting president Leslie Rodriguez-McClellon. “While we are disappointed by SACSCOC’s decision, we are confident and unified in our commitment to fulfill and complete our mission.” 

On Dec. 12, SAU named Dr. Marcus H. Burgess as interim president, effective immediately. 

“We, the SAU Board of Trustees, have selected Dr. Marcus H. Burgess as Interim President of SAU,” said James E.C. Perry, chairman of the SAU Board of Trustees. “At this critical juncture, we believe Dr. Burgess has many resources he brings to SAU. Namely, resources that will assist SAU in its appeal to the recent Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) decision.”  

On Jan. 11, the university also named Dr. Lynda Batiste as senior vice president of finance and chief operating officer, taking “a step toward financial stability and accreditation excellence.”

Saint Augustine’s Student Success Center. Courtesy of Bridgette Cyr

Winston-Salem State University (WSSU)

Last January, former Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Dr. Elwood L. Robinson announced his retirement, effective June 30, 2023.

Dr. Anthony Graham, who previously served as the university’s provost, was named interim chancellor.

“I am dedicated to ensuring he will be successful, and I am confident the trajectory of Winston-Salem State University will continue to be realized under his leadership,” Robinson said at the time.

Dr. Graham is still serving as WSSU’s interim chancellor. 

“I am honored to serve as the Chancellor during the 2023-24 academic year,” he said in a July statement. “I realize the responsibility before us to execute the audacious vision of our founder, Dr. Simon Green Atkins, who created an institution where every student would meet the challenges of the day equipped with an education designed to prepare the ‘head, hand, and heart.’”

Winston-Salem State University. Courtesy of Katy Clune
Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.