Decision Making in Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Defining the Governance Context *

Article excerpt

Decision-making practices at historically Black colleges and universities are the subject of healthy criticism. However, many conclusions are drawn in the absence of governance research on HBCUs. To better understand and evaluate the appropriateness of decision-making in these institutions, I use case study data to define three key contextual aspects of an HBCU that influence governance: (a) faculty traditions; (b) the paradox of mission; and (c) a racialized climate. Given these findings, I consider alternative theoretical frames to more accurately assess governance structures and decision-making practices in HBCUs.

At a time when affirmative action in higher education is under attack, considering the health of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is increasingly important (Brown & Freeman, 2004).Since their inception, these institutions have collectively championed access and opportunity for African Americans (Allen & Jewell, 2002). On a larger scale HBCUs serve an important educational, economic, and social function in America by sustaining a pipeline of educated African Americans (Brown & Davis, 2001). Additionally, African Americans who attend HBCUs demonstrate greater satisfaction with their college experience, academic achievement, and developmental gains when compared to those who attend predominately White institutions (Alien, 1992; Davis, 1991; Fleming, 1984). Although HBCUs represent just 3% of all institutions of higher education, they grant roughly 25% of baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans (Nettles & Perna, 1997).

Despite the accomplishments of HBCUs they are the subjects of considerable criticism within the higher education community. Presidents of historically Black colleges and universities are often accused of being autocratic and the mission of these institutions is said to compromise academic quality while upholding segregation (Hamilton, 2002). Moreover, financial instability, accreditation challenges, and questionable governance structures are constant quandaries associated with HBCUs.

However, the mission and plight of HBCUs situates them in distinctly different contexts that potentially affect campus decision-making and leadership practices (Drewry & Doermann, 2001). Decision-making contexts can be affected by structural, cultural, or situational distinctions that leaders of these institutions must take into account. If governance is the structure by which decisions are made determining the direction of a campus, then research on what affects decision making is important. While the distinctiveness of HBCUs is widely recognized, defining what contextual aspects potentially affect decision-making practices has not been a focal point of scholarship. As a way to understand the challenges associated with governance in HBCUs, this article utilizes a case study to define the decision-making context at one historically Black university. In doing so, those concerned with the status of HBCUs may be able to appraise leadership practices and institutional effectiveness. To begin, I frame the discussion by defining governance and decision making from the research literature. In the following sections, I outline the case study, define aspects of the decision-making context, and consider the ways governance is affected.

DEFINING GOVERNANCE AND DECISION-MAKING

In higher education the phrase "shared governance" is often used to suggest collaborative management of an institution (Ramo, 1998). However, the phrase can connote multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas about how a campus should make decisions. In a recent national study, Tierney and Minor (2003) found that campus constituents define shared governance in three ways:

1. Collaborative-university constituents collectively make decisions about the direction of the campus.

2. Stratified-systems of governance where certain constituents make decisions according to decision type (e. …