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James W. Crawford III nears presidency of Texas Southern University

The Black Catholic former Navy JAG and president emeritus of Felician University was named the sole finalist for the position in April.

(Texas Southern University/X)

Retired vice admiral James W. Crawford III has been named the sole finalist for the presidency of Texas Southern University (TSU), the 97-year-old historically Black institution in Houston.

The TSU Board of Regents announced the news on April 26, following a yearlong search after the sudden retirement of Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young last year. Board chair Brandon L. Simmons called Crawford “an extraordinary leader.’

“Jim Crawford has served students as a university president and board member. He has served as one of our country’s top lawyers as Vice Admiral and Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy, where he advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama… Texas Southern is proud to deliver leadership focused on preparing graduates to flourish in a thriving Texas economy.”

Crawford, a Black Catholic and 34-year Navy vet, comes to TSU from New Jersey, where he most recently served as the first Black and first male president of Felician University in Rutherford. He held the role from 2020 to April 2023, when he announced he would step down, effective immediately. No cause was given for his departure.

He led the small, majority-minority Catholic university through various fundraising and improvement projects on the suburban campus and also increased enrollment at Felician during the 2020-21 academic year, a notable feat during the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an April statement, Crawford spoke of his impending role at TSU as a privilege.

“Throughout this process, I have learned so much about Texas Southern University, and I am honored to join this esteemed institution with such a rich history,” he said. 

“I look forward to working collaboratively with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the community to uphold and elevate our commitment to academic excellence, innovation, and economic empowerment as we advance our mission of transforming lives and creating leaders.”

Crawford’s shift from the private to public education sector comes during a spike of interest in HBCUs following the national racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. TSU has experienced marked jumps in applications, enrollments, and transfers in recent years—attributed in part to the national narrative surrounding Black higher education and, more uniquely, to the media interest fomented at TSU following the graduation of Grammy Award-winning hip hop artist Megan Thee Stallion from the school in 2021.

Rising enrollment has also been a source of controversy at TSU, with Crawford’s predecessor arriving at the school in the wake of an admissions scandal. Between 2017 and 2019, the university “tried to increase enrollment by encouraging staff to admit all candidates, regardless of whether the candidate met the university’s academic admissions criteria,” according to a complaint filed with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2018.

The investigation led to the resignation of then-president Dr. Austin A. Lane, who was succeeded in 2021 by Crumpton-Young, TSU’s first female president since 2006. Her resignation makes Crawford potentially the fourth president at the school in eight years.

“Given the current challenges and opportunities that exist across higher education, we knew that leading Texas Southern University forward at this time would require a candidate with very specific credentials,” said TSU board Vice Chair James Benham. 

“If you look at James Crawford’s accomplishments, leadership, and track record for success both from serving his country and in higher education, we are confident he embodies the ideal set of qualities we all strived to fulfill with this search.”

According to Texas law, public universities must name finalists for a school presidency opening at least three weeks before making an official appointment. As such, Crawford could be officially named president as soon as Friday. TSU says they expect Crawford to begin his duties in late May.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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