The Soul of Leadership

Capturing HBCU Voices in Leadership Frameworks

Authors: Ariel Stolz, Angelicque Tucker Blackmon, Teresa Hamilton
Keywords:  Soul of Leadership, HBCU-specific leadership, HBCU-specific leadership framework, HBCU STEM leaders, STEM leadership, Academic leadership, Broadening Participation in STEM


Format: Chicago Manual of Style

Stolz, A., Hamilton, T., & Tucker Blackmon, A. (2023, December 14). The Soul of Leadership: Capturing HBCU voices in leadership frameworks.




Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) play a crucial role in educating the nation’s scientists, mathematicians and engineers through their success in broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The leaders of HBCUs are transformative in facilitating an environment for STEM success in their students. In order to incorporate the context of HBCUs into leadership frameworks it is important to center the voices of HBCU leaders. The Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership (CASL) derived a framework that is asset-based, rooted in African American cultural aspirations, and HBCU STEM leader-centered by illuminating the voices of HBCU STEM leaders who were recognized on their campuses for their success in broadening the participation of students of color in STEM.

Transforming the lives of her students

Yvonne Y. Clark, known lovingly as the first lady of engineering, spent over five decades teaching and inspiring students at Tennessee State University (TSU), an HBCU in Nashville. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University in 1951, she advocated for more STEM jobs for women and people of color. While she repeatedly made strides as the first black female engineer in the spaces she occupied, she spent her life ensuring she was not the last by leading the way for the hundreds of students she mentored to follow in her footsteps. 

Fast Facts

According to the podcast Lost Women of Science Initiative, Clark had complete confidence in her students. In fact, she would start the Introduction to Engineering course by telling each student that they had an A in her class. This contagious energy followed the students throughout their time in school and beyond, letting them know that with hard work, accountability for their actions, the support of nurturing and supportive leaders, and role models, they could achieve anything. When Yvonne arrived at TSU’s engineering department in 1956, she was the first and only woman. Subsequently, as the chair of the Engineering department, a role she held for just shy of 20 years, she increased the percentage of women studying mechanical engineering to 25%. Yvonne Clark transformed the Engineering department at TSU and the world around her by blazing her path forward in mechanical engineering and reaching her hand back so that others could be pulled up. She embodied the phrase, coined by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, ‘Lift as we Climb.” Clark’s advocacy and advancement of others 67 years ago is likely unknown across the entirety of higher education. However, at HBCUs, Yvonne Clark’s unprecedented leadership style is often the norm.  For over 150 years, HBCU leaders have continued to reach out their hands to advance and broaden the participation of underrepresented groups, including women, minorities, and students from lower socioeconomic statuses in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Not enough people of color are being put into prominent positions so that younger individuals following them can see them at every stage.” ~HBCU Professor

Their legacy continues

HBCU leaders’ legacies continue in the lives of the students they mentored. While Yvonne Clark passed away a few years ago in 2019, her legacy continues on in the lives of the students she mentored who were encouraged and supported to pursue engineering. Many of the students she mentored are leaders at HBCUs today. The work of HBCU leaders like Yvonne Clark, who inspired students to pursue and be successful in STEM fields, was and still is monumental in a time when STEM professionals do not represent the diversity of the United States. Furthermore, it is of utmost importance to understand the leadership styles applied by HBCU leaders who are able to produce stories of success where others did not. Ironically, although there has been ubiquitous research and writings on leadership, academic leadership, and leadership in higher education, there has been limited inclusion of the voices of HBCU leaders in the sample population or findings on academic leadership. With the exception of perspectives from HBCU Presidents on the challenges they experience in their roles, until CASL’s research, other leaders at HBCUs, like Provost, Vice-Presidents, and Deans, were not acknowledged in the research literature as leaders in higher education. Research at the Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership (CASL) aims to change and include the voices of varying types of HBCUs in the narratives of higher education leadership, especially the Soul of Leadership that advances the engagement of historically marginalized groups in STEM. CASL highlights the voices of HBCU leaders to advance the nation forward in its goals for broadening participation in STEM and higher education learning through evidence-based research about the type of leadership that facilitates the advancement of underrepresented students in STEM.

Framing HBCU Leadership

Leadership manifests itself in many ways. At a higher education institution, leadership may be initiated by senior roles like the president or provost, but their vision is demonstrated/exemplified by all the facets of the institution, including the deans, chairs, directors, supervisors, professors, and faculty (Hendrickson et al. 2021). Leadership is complex because those leading are multifaceted people. Yvonne Clark was a professor, an administrator, an HBCU alum, a licensed professional engineer, a NASA scientist, and an inspiring role model to Black women and girls everywhere. It is difficult to fathom understanding the intricacies of how she led within her many roles throughout her life.  The complexities of leadership cannot be fully captured with overarching frameworks or broad categories of leadership styles. However, these helpful tools allow us to derive similarities and use these findings to help develop the next generation of leaders.

 I am a product of HBCUs. So, I’m shaped and molded by those experiences. My leadership style reflects that I am a product of an HBCU.” ~Quote from CASL Interview Archives.

One well-utilized framework for characterizing academic leadership qualities is the four-frame model developed by Bolman and Gallos in 2011 and updated in 2021. This framework encompasses the structural, political, human resource, and symbolic aspects of decision-making that high-level academic leaders embrace during their tenure. While these four frames are presented separately, it is evident that leaders must utilize multi-framed thinking when overseeing an institution such as a college or university. In the research conducted by CASL on HBCU presidents (McGee et al. 2021, Boncana et al. 2021, Clavier et al. 2021), many of the frames overlapped and coexisted as these leaders worked at their institutions to encourage STEM success.

While the Bolman and Gallos framework gives structure to the methods that academic leaders use to make decisions as part of their role, it is often the unrecognized work of those in middle-management that also has a meaningful impact on the students and the overall STEM program. While some of what these individuals do can be described in terms of structural, political, human resources, and symbolic, what is significant is how they lead, or to be specific, their leadership style. Some examples of leadership styles that were examined by CASL in the context of HBCU leaders included responsible, transformational, ethical, authentic, value-based, participatory, transactional, situational, and servant.

One noteworthy question explored in the CASL research is, do available theories of leadership, such as the leadership frameworks and styles mentioned above, adequately reflect HBCU leadership contexts? The leadership frameworks and leadership styles prominent in literature are general frameworks. While these frameworks adequately represent leaders at HBCUs at the surface level, without the identification of culturally specific leadership descriptors, they cannot paint a more nuanced picture of the full HBCU context. These general frameworks are supposed to represent all academic leaders, albeit they were created without the input of leaders from specific contexts, like HBCUs.

The leadership styles illustrated by HBCU leaders are rooted in the mission and origins of HBCUs, to create a safe haven for Black Americans facing exclusion, segregation, and racism throughout America. This mission, of creating a safe place where students can focus on education and success, is still relevant today and is upheld firmly by HBCU faculty members. At HBCUs, the STEM curriculum is only part of the story, the other piece is the undeniable support from leaders towards the students and faculty to ensure that students are able to learn and grow to their fullest potential. HBCUs create an environment where leaders thrive at successfully educating minoritized students in STEM. This leadership style employed by HBCUs is passed down to its students. An intriguing study which analyzed North Carolina public schools showed that for Black students, improvements in math scores were correlated with whether or not their teacher was trained at an HBCU, regardless of that teacher’s race. This emphasizes the impact that the HBCU context has on all its students. Therefore, the unique nuances of leadership at HBCUs cannot fully be captured without utilizing a culturally relevant framework that highlights and highlights the voices of HBCU leaders in its creation.

Capturing the Soul of HBCU leadership

It is critical to note that the available leadership theories for higher education were created based on research that overlooked the voices and experiences of HBCU leaders. Because of this, it is likely that the context of HBCUs is not wholly represented by the existing theories. While many of the actions performed by HBCU leaders are represented in the frameworks developed, there are also many contexts and actions that are not, and without the intentional centering of HBCU voices, these invaluable leadership qualities that have so successfully contributed to the nation’s diverse STEM talent might be lost and forgotten. 

HBCU leaders exercise a multi-framed approach and utilize multiple leadership styles by default due to challenges facing their institutions, such as lack of funding and existing partnerships (political). Yet, despite financial challenges, HBCU leaders held deeply rooted core values (value-based, ethical) which encourage a nurturing and servant leadership style (Blackmon, et al., 2021, Hendrickson et al., 2021) and commitment to the mission of their institutions (symbolic, transformational). Also, due to the need to serve the students and a lack of external resources, many HBCUs focus on quality student-faculty relationships (human resources), prioritize the value of leadership occurring from multiple levels (participatory), and are also committed to bettering their surrounding community. Due to the lack of research on HBCU leaders and on a range of leaders from all levels, including mid-level administrators, directors of programs, professors, and “champion” leaders (those with influence but do not necessarily hold positions of power), CASL’s research is unique, and novel and has revealed fascinating results about potential new frameworks which were developed to appropriately categorize leadership which encourages broadened participation in STEM.

One of these frameworks is currently being developed by CASL researchers and is titled the Soul of Leadership Framework. The Soul of Leadership (SOL) Framework is “asset-based, rooted in African American cultural aspirations, and HBCU STEM centered” (CASL, 2021). This framework, which centers around broadening participation in STEM, includes six dimensions: advocacy, evolving leaders and leadership, identification of resources, creativity, cultural intentionality, and conscious leadership.

While the intricacies of the work of YY Clark can easily become lost in the broad and generalized frameworks and leadership styles exemplified in the literature, this STEM and HBCU centered framework really allows leaders like YY who were transformational in terms of encouraging more minorities into graduating in STEM fields, to shine. Yvonne Clark was an advocate for STEM by elevating her program, encouraging her students to attain internships, participate in research and achieve professional licenses to advance their careers. YY played a role in evolving leadership at her institution by creating environments that were supportive and affirmative. She was a mentor not just for the classes she was teaching but students felt comfortable coming to her with questions and concerns about other classes as well. YY was creative in her work and in her teaching, encouraging her students to see themselves in roles where the nation couldn’t see women or Blacks. YY made sure to teach and lead with cultural intentionality. One quote from her interview, “Back at Howard, I had a professor at Howard and he said, whatever you do, when you get where you’re going and drop anchor, give back to the community.” Through her years of service at an HBCU she definitely embodied this phase of giving back. Finally YY was a conscious leader, meaning that she was ambitious, committed, consistent, focused, productive, structural and transformational. 

The Soul of Leadership Framework allows leaders like Yvonne Y. Clark and others to be recognized for their unique leadership styles which are in part forged by their experience at HBCU institutions.

Back at Howard, I had a professor and he said, whatever you do, when you get where you’re going and drop anchor, give back to the community.” ~Yvonne Clark

Developing Leaders for STEM Success

The Soul of Leadership is revolutionary as it brings the voices of HBCU STEM leaders to the forefront of academic knowledge of leadership. Though HBCUs have been influential in broadening participation in STEM by producing 25% of Black STEM graduates even while only comprising 3% of colleges and universities, the approaches used by HBCU leaders had not been studied in depth with the intent of increasing the diversity of STEM graduates in the US higher education system until CASL began its research. The Soul of Leadership Framework is one of the outcomes of this extensive project to highlight and emphasize HBCU leaders through over 140 interviews of leaders from various roles within HBCUs across the country. Another outcome was the creation of a culturally responsive leadership development fellowship program which enhanced self-efficacy and the cognitive, affective and behavioral capabilities that are intrinsic to the “soul” of HBCU leaders who excel at broadening participation in STEM fields (McClintock, 2021). The program’s learning outcomes were based on three main objectives: framing academic leadership in the HBCU context, transforming HBCU campus and faculty culture, and evaluation of change.

In the pilot study on culturally responsive leadership development, CASL researchers gained an increased awareness of how to intentionally analyze, identify, describe, assess, and apply leadership attributes within their context of leadership. The sample included 16 Fellows all with faculty ranks of Assistant, Associate and Full professor at HBCUs. Many also held administrative titles of program director, department chairs, assistant or associate deans, vice president or provosts. Like Yvonne Clark, many Fellows held two job titles–a faculty rank and an administrative title. Unlike programs where Clark participated, the leaders in the CASL Fellowship program were 62% women and 39% men. Fellows in the leadership development program demonstrated significant improvement in nine categories. The results revealed significant improvements with effect sizes ranging from 1.4 to 2.6. CASL Fellows indicated an increased ability to identify factors that influence the transformation of campus culture in relation to diversity and inclusion in STEM programs, executing strategies to assess emotional aspects of leadership styles in relation to the HBCU legacy, future and STEM change project, an ability to apply personal history to leadership challenges in relation to diversity and inclusion in STEM programs, and knowledge to lead STEM mentoring teams for students with faculty and external scientists, among others. The nine leadership learning outcomes are significant in relation to transformational change at HBCUs because they provide a framework for developing leadership skills specifically tailored to the needs of HBCUs in the STEM disciplines.

One well-received aspect of the CASL Fellowship program was the coaching component.  Participants found coaching to be an integral part of leadership development that proved to be valuable, inspirational and allowed for intentional reflection and growth (Okpala et al. 2021).

The fellowship was an eye-opening, inspirational, and life-changing experience. For many years, the fellowship has greatly shaped my focus, direction, and professional goals.” ~CASL Fellow (McClintock et al., 2021)

Using Data to Share the HBCU Story of Success

CASL is working to create an informational hub to help make these valuable findings accessible to leaders in education in order to promote broadening participation in STEM in a way that is culturally responsive and effective for all students.


The story of Yvonne Clark and her leadership in guiding students at HBCUs has been happening at HBCUs for a while but has not, until recently, been studied in advancing research on academic leadership. With the research conducted by CASL to classify specific leadership characteristics of HBCU STEM leaders, these important findings can be shared and taught to current leaders so that still today, HBCUs and all universities can continue to raise up their students so that they can be successful in STEM roles during and following their time at university. CASLs  The work by Yvonne Clark and other leaders like her should not be forgotten as it has forged the path forward for HBCU leaders today (some even taught by Clark herself). By shining a light on these leaders, we allow others to follow in their footsteps.

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