Jerald Woolfolk Will Find a Tall Order in Lincoln Presidency

Trustees at Lincoln University of Missouri last week named Jerald Woolfolk as the school’s 20th president. She brings an HBCU pedigree as a student, graduate and former administrator, and the unaminous vote for her appointment, trustees say, was a faith in her skills to grow student enrollment and to fundraise.

From the Fulton Sun:

Marvin Teer, of St. Louis, a 1986 LU graduate who currently serves as Curators president, said last week Woolfolk was the board’s unanimous choice.

“Two of our most critical areas are enrollment management and funding,” he said. “She is uniquely qualified in both of those areas.”

Dr. Woolfolk will be Lincoln’s second straight president hired with a background in student affairs, picked to lead a university which in recent years has confronted controversy in academic program management and with securing money in the face of drastic state budget cuts.

All HBCUs face challenges in enrolling students, raising money, building relationships with local and federal legislators, and designing academic profiles. At any given time, one area of administration may be more critical than another to grow or to save an institution, but presidential hires generally show what boards of trustees believe to be the most important areas for a school’s development.

But Lincoln represents a complex standard for the presdent and future of HBCU culture. Today, LU is like many HBCUs confronted by financial and cultural challenges. State legislators are starving the university financially, in the hopes that an aleady weak infrastructure will collapse under the weight of limited state appropriations and unstable enrollment.

But Lincoln’s future, or whatever can be made of it given the state’s agressive approach to shutting it down, is one for which most HBCUs are striving. It’s faculty and student body are among the most diverse in the country. At its best, they represent the potential for black colleges to attract a broad cross section of people to become invested stakeholders in our institutions. An HBCU with evenly distributed white, black, Hispanic and Asian alumni groups represents the closest any school, black or white, can get to being completely and authentically diverse.

But at its worst, this diversity can yield strong disagreements about curriculum, institutional culture and leadership.

All of these things can be a tall order for a first-time HBCU president, even one with exemplary stops at black and white universities all over the country. Dr. Woolfolk is better equipped than most to talk to different people at different levels of interest and impact on Lincoln; but she will need extraordinary support from alumni, faculty and students to keep the school from financial ruin, and out of the path of a simmering culture war.

She, and the rest of us, have been duly warned.