- Faith & Family
When Dr. Henry Lewis, III, 62, was chosen to serve as Florida Memorial University’s 12th president less than two years ago, there was great anticipation that he would take South Florida’s only historically-Black college and university [HBCU] to new and greater heights. Now, according to the University’s board of trustees, Lewis has been released from his position, effective Thursday, Nov. 8th. Taking over his job as acting president is Dr. Mary O’Banner — a senior academic administrator and chief of staff at FMU. She will be responsible for all day-to-day operations of the University’s students, faculty and administration.
But what happened to the gregarious and talented Lewis, particularly given the positive response that he received from alumni, students and the South Florida community after first sharing his plan for change — ”Vision 2020: Training Tomorrow’s Leaders . . . Today?”
We provided the board of trustees, led by its chairman, Charles W. George, a full list of questions
including several that addressed speculations from several anonymous sources that hinted that Lewis’s “release” had less to do with his effectiveness as an administrator and more to do with his predilection for young female students.
“Unfortunately, no specific terms of the reasons and/or rationale behind the release of Dr. Lewis can be provided at this time,” said the Board in a statement supplied by Sonshine Communications, the media consultant retained by the University for this matter. As to questions about inappropriate involvement with female students, the reply was, “The Board of Trustees has no comment on this subject matter.”
However, the response did further add that “The Board of Trustees worked with Dr. Lewis and his departure was an amenable action by both parties involved” and that a “search is now underway for the 13th president” [of FMU].
Grads speak out on future of their alma maters
“The word on the streets is that Dr. Lewis was released because of issues of character but the University still hasn’t commented on it,” said FMU alum Darren Bryant, 59. “I’m very disappointed because the alumni felt he was really good for the University. He came in with a true vision — something we had never seen before. But someone with his credentials and length of time in higher education should not have been distracted by certain issues like he apparently was. In the end, I think the problem was because the faculty didn’t totally support his aggressive plan. They just refused to do the above-and-beyond work that was going to be needed to carry out his vision.”
Larry Handfield, an alumni of B-CU and member of the board, said that “each college faces its own unique circumstances that “make it more difficult to find the best fit for president.”
“The problem our HBCUs face is not identifying good leaders,” he said. “It’s being able to be an effective fundraiser, bringing a solid vision with a game plan for its success and then being able to work with all kinds of people. Some of our HBCUs just need a person to take over the position and build on what’s already been established. Other presidents face a real clean up situation with enrollment dwindling and fewer dollars coming from tuition. In those schools you need someone that has the ability to take off their gloves and clean up some real mess. Maybe with President Obama being re-elected, we can count on financial assistance from the White House.”
Vacancies growing for Black college presidents
With FMU’s recent announcement, the total of HBCUs in the State of Florida without a president has increased to three: FMU, Florida A&M University [FAMU] and Bethune-Cookman University [B-CU]. Only Edward Waters College, located in Jacksonville, has a president — Nathaniel Glover, Jr.
Interim presidents are in place at FMU [O’Banner], FAMU [Dr. Larry Robinson] and B-CU [Dr. Edison O. Jackson]. However, as recent as April 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that there were 16 open HBCU presidencies in the U.S., including Central State University, Bennett College for Women and Fisk University. But how does the future look for our HBCUs and is there a growing trend of vacant presidents’ offices?
Edith Pearson, regional [Florida] development director for the United Negro College Fund [UNCF], says it’s not just Black universities that are feeling the impact of not having
“Even the University of Florida has an open search for a new president and there are many others facing similar challenges across the country,” she said. “So I wouldn’t say that HBCUs are in trouble any more than other state colleges and universities. What we are seeing is a job [university president] that has become increasingly complex. HBCUs are largely dependent on fundraising efforts led by the president because they are, for the most part, tuition driven. They don’t have huge endowments to fall back on. But presidents must also manage faculty, students and the curriculum.”
Are HBCUs still needed in the 21st century?
“My parents, in-laws, wife and I are all graduates of Black colleges,” said Rufus Curry, FAMU graduate. “The work they continue to do and the opportunities they provide are just as vital as when they were first founded.”
“We have a tapestry of education in the U.S. and Black colleges are part of that,” she said. “Twenty-five percent of Black students who earn their bachelor’s degree attended an HBCU. Kids who go to our schools don’t get lost in the sauce.”
There are 105 HBCUs in the U.S. — 38 private, four-year, liberal arts, residential colleges are members schools. FAMU is not a member of the UNCF because it is a state university. FMU and B-CU are both members schools.
By D. Kevin McNeir