How 6 top HBCUs are reacting to exodus of presidents

Some of higher education's most respected leaders are exiting their positions later this month.
By: | June 3, 2022
Hampton President William Harvey (Photo courtesy of Hampton University)

Later this month, William Harvey will step down from his position as president after 44 years at Hampton University, a place he helped shape and grow into one of the nation’s most respected Historically Black Colleges and Universities and much more. Darrell Williams, a former Hampton grad, retired Army general and business leader, will step in to carry on the momentum.

Harvey’s legacy cannot be understated, and it will be recognized with a celebration on June 11. Since his start in 1978, Hampton has tripled enrollment, added nearly 100 new academic programs, grown its endowment from $29 million to $400 million and spent more than $50 million on campus infrastructure and improvements. “The growth and development that I have witnessed under Dr. Harvey’s successful leadership have been, in a word, triumphant,” said Wesley Coleman, a member of the Board of Trustees. “The significance of this president’s legendary contributions to Hampton will be celebrated for generations.”

His departure, while not unexpected, is part of the unprecedented wave of higher education leaders stepping down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of this year and through June, at least six other major HBCU leaders have left or will be exiting their positions in the future.

Among the most prominent are those who have been champions of civil rights and education for Black students, including Howard University’s Wayne Frederick, Spelman College’s Mary Schmidt Campbell and Prairie View A&M’s Ruth Simmons.

Two others, Jimmy Jenkins at Livingstone College and Colette Pierce Burnette at Huston-Tillotson College are also among the transformational leaders stepping away from their posts on June 30. While Pierce Burnette is retiring, she is not done working and has taken a new position as the president and CEO of Newfields art museum in Indianapolis. The university is hosting a celebration Saturday to honor her work, which includes robustly boosting its endowment and driving the university’s embrace of new technology, including its acclaimed African American Male Teacher initiative with Apple.

“I look forward to seeing Huston-Tillotson University continue to prosper,” Burnette said in a statement. “I will be everlastingly proud to have played a role in the University’s transformation, evolution to excellence and growth.”


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Huston-Tillotson is among several universities still looking for its next leader. The group includes Prairie View A&M, which hopes to have its next president in place by next summer. Simmons, instrumental in her university’s growth and gifting windfalls—aided by a $50 million donation from MacKenzie Scott a year and a half ago—will remain as a professor and continue helping drive fundraising campaigns.

After Spelman surpassed its goal of raising $250 million in just four years and attained academic benchmarks and increased faculty hiring, Schmidt Campbell decided to retire. She is exiting her post on June 30, turning the reins to someone who also understands the power of fundraising: Helene Gayle, the president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust.

“I have loved every minute of serving as the president of this phenomenal institution and am proud to retire having made meaningful impacts on our academic strength, financial future and physical campus,” Schmidt Campbell said. “While the decision to retire was not easy, I feel confident that Spelman is well-equipped to continue the work of building this community of purpose and preparing Black women to become global leaders who will choose to change the world.”

Frederick announced his retirement from Howard University in April, though he plans to stay on until 2024. He has been a member of the Howard community for more than 30 years, including eight as president. His tenure has been marred the past two years by protests over adjunct faculty pay (which was formally resolved with a three-year agreement on Friday), student housing conditions and a nursing strike. There have been calls from alumnus Fred Outten for Howard to hire a female Black president.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose president Freeman Hrabowski III also is existing, already has found its next leader, a Black female president, in Valerie Sheares Ashby, the former Dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. “To follow President Freeman Hrabowski is a distinct privilege, as he has been a role model for so many in higher education over the last 30 years, including myself,” Sheares Ashby said. “His extraordinary leadership and dedication to UMBC ensure that I am arriving at a university that is already performing at a very high level. There is no ceiling on what we can achieve from here.”