Higher ed president gets down to business

Tennessee State leader’s background in corporate world shapes campus instruction

NASHVILLE, Tennessee—When Glenda Baskin Glover applied to college, her decision wasn’t whether to enroll in a historically black university, she says, but which one she chose to attend.

“There were schools I couldn’t get into because of the racial climate of the day,” says Glover, who graduated from Tennessee State University in 1974 and became its president in 2013. “We’ve broken down so many barriers. Yes, there are a lot that still exist, but students now have a choice to go to selective schools, too.”

This means that Tennessee State must recruit more aggressively. Though less than 10 percent of African-American students attend HBCUs, Glover says institutions like hers remain as relevant as they ever were.

Leader at a glance

Brenda Baskin Glover, who grew up in Memphis, has been president of Tennessee State University since 2013.

Undergraduate study: B.S. with honors in mathematics, Tennessee State University

Graduate degrees:

  • MBA, Clark Atlanta University
  • doctorate in business, The George Washington University
  • J.D., Georgetown University

On the way up:

  • Higher ed: dean of the College of Business at Jackson State University (Miss.); chair of the Department of Accounting at Howard University (Washing-ton, D.C.)
  • Outside higher ed: tax manager at Pepco (Washington, D.C., utility company); accountant at Arthur Andersen

“The real question is: Why aren’t we viewed as a model for all institutions, when we take limited resources and produce such outstanding graduates?”

Over the years, the financing of HBCUs has flipped. In the past, the public sector provided about three-quarters of the funding. Today, that has dropped to about 25 percent, forcing presidents to spend a lot more time fundraising and seeking other ways to grow revenue while maintaining affordable tuition, Glover says.

To maintain her university’s appeal, Glover plans to add four new buildings to the main campus, 10 minutes from downtown Nashville, and to strengthen the institution’s ties to the city’s business community. Tennessee State also operates a campus in the center of downtown’s government and business district.

There are greater challenges than the need to maintain enrollment revenue. “The biggest problem facing HBCUs is a lack of a solid advocacy base,” says Glover, adding that the issue goes beyond just alumni. “If you have the right advocates—whether at the federal or local level—they can speak good words about HBCUs.”

Never one to shy away from a challenge—whether it be facing racial discrimination or gender bias, or attending law school while progressing in her corporate career—Glover continues to rely on the lessons she learned during a childhood in civil rights-era Memphis.

“I grew up in an era when students were watching the unrest on TV and students were marching,” she says. “I wanted a better life. I wanted to participate in this economic system.”

Inspired by Sputnik and a sanitation strike

As a schoolgirl, Glover impressed all the boys with her knowledge of football. She learned about the sport from her father, Henry Baskin, a diehard fan who rooted for the Cleveland Browns because, in the 1960s, the team had the most African-Americans.

“I made my first boyfriend in fourth grade by explaining football to him,” she says.

This drive to buck expectations began shaping her life more concretely when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The ensuing space race inspired Glover’s love of math. She began tutoring her classmates, which set the stage for a lifelong love of numbers and a professional career as a corporate accountant.

“My father was very encouraging about taking roads that were not well-travelled,” she says. “He said, ‘If you pick an area that everybody is a part of, you’re one of 50 as opposed to taking a narrow path and being one of four or five.’

“Math was not a crowded field and I actually started enjoying it,” she adds.

Her father also brought her into the civil rights movement. When black Memphis sanitation workers went on strike for safer working conditions, better pay and the right to unionize, her father—a sanitation department supervisor—lent his assistance to the employees.

The strike eventually drew in Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered a speech to the workers the night before he was assassinated.

For her part, Glover became a student civil rights leader in high school and college. She met the Rev. Jesse Jackson through her father, and worked with Maxine Smith and NAACP leader Benjamin Hooks.

At Tennessee State, she became president of her sorority. Greek organizations at the time were deeply involved in civil rights activities.

“Ironically, as many marches as my father participated in, he wasn’t that excited when I told him I was going to march—he was concerned about my safety,” she says. “We had just passed the era when people got put out of school for sit-ins. I was a little annoyed I had missed all that.”

A higher ed vision crystallizes

Glover, who aspired to become the CEO of a major corporation, has continued to break ground throughout her life in the corporate world and in higher education. As dean of the College of Business at Jackson State University in Mississippi, for example, she led the institution in getting its doctorate in business degree accredited, a first for an HBCU.

After all, her career began in business, not higher ed.

After graduating from Tennessee State, she leveraged her math degree (sought because it was one of the most difficult majors on campus) to pursue an MBA. She had college debt to pay and the potential salaries in the business world attracted her, she says.

Glover eventually went to work at accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

Her higher ed career began after a move to Washington, D.C., where she had two children, began working on her doctorate and taught night classes in accounting at Howard University. Along the way, she also picked up a law degree from Georgetown University.

She credits her mother’s spiritual guidance for helping to overcome any racial or gender discrimination that may have stood in her way.

“Everything is always a fight for African-Americans, male or female,” she says. “For the most part, I was so busy trying to be successful, I could ignore some of the things that happened. When people made comments, I had such a strong spiritual foundation that I’d just say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and keep going.”

At the same time, a vision for academia began to take shape. “My goal was to get other young African-Americans into accounting—to understand that being a CPA is open to them,” she says. “I wanted to have an influence on the lives of accounting students.”

Keeping time with Music City

Since taking the helm at Tennessee State in 2013, Glover has been adding bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs to the university’s academic offerings, and career prep has moved to the center of many student success efforts.

Glover sits on a number of corporate boards and has met with business leaders who are interested in operating in the region to better understand their workforce needs. She intends to see her university grow along with the city of Nashville.

“My goal is to have at least one TSU graduate at every major company in Tennessee,” she says.

In the works for the coming years are two new dormitories as well as a building to house food science studies, where campus researchers working with the USDA will consider solutions to global food insecurity. Glover also plans to add a College of Physical and Life Sciences and an honors college.

The students reaping the benefits of these expansions, however, have different needs than they had in the past. Because the so-called “traditional” student is becoming less typical at Tennessee State, the university recently launched an executive MBA program for workforce professionals.

Students in the program meet in person monthly and participate in other sessions remotely. Glover has even taught a business law class in the program. A new Ph.D. in higher education, currently in the works, would also combine remote and in-person instruction.

“The day is over when you finished high school and got right to college and your parents paid for it,” she says. “About 40 percent of our students are nontraditional. They’re single parents, they’re military, they’re working full time.”

This has led colleges to offer more courses online and adjust class schedules to accommodate working students. In Tennessee State’s case, that means more morning and midday sessions before students report to work.

Glover also prioritizes getting more students involved in university decision-making processes. At the moment, big concerns include sufficient housing and parking, and having the dining halls open more hours each day.

“The students want to be heard,” she says. “Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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