The graduation season of 2017 has offered some interesting comparison in leadership among HBCU presidents.
The administration at Bethune-Cookman University, under the leadership of Dr. Eddie Jackson, invited controversy when it announced that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, would not only give the commencement address but would also be awarded an honorary doctorate from the institution.
In contrast, the leadership for Florida Memorial University, an HBCU in Miami Gardens, decided to award a posthumous degree in aviation to Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin in honor of their slain son, Trayvon Martin. Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, president of the institution, courted controversy of a different sort.
These events were separated by a few days and a wide chasm of ideological difference, the latter deserving more investigation.
Why? In some regards, HBCUs are the last bastions of collective black self-determination. Aside from black churches, HBCUs are the most influential institutions created and maintained by black people, for black people. In many ways, there are the canaries in the coal mine of black cultural survival in the United States. The choices their leaders make are a significant indicator of the black power.
So what of President Jackson’s choices? For BCU, once the news leaked, hue and cry broke out around the state and nation, including alumni, students, and activists. President Jackson defended his decision, citing the need to make friends to raise money for the school. Further, he invoked the legacy of the institution’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, citing her ability to court funders of all stripes in order to support her institution. “She modeled this by interacting with and uniquely engaging those who had to be convinced of her mission to provide education to her people,” Jackson wrote in an op-ed defending his decision.
But that’s not how it works. There are many ways to cultivate strategic relationships with strange bedfellows, if one is interested in partnering with a representative from an administration that rode into office on a wave of white supremacist rhetoric. This is also an administration that, just a few days before DeVos spoke, questioned the constitutionality of funding HBCUs.
This is not the first time that Jackson has gambled with the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. In 2015 he made the decision to award Florida Governor Rick Scott with a leadership award named after the institution’s founder.
And why drag Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy into this? Bethune didn’t truck with racists, or extend undue courtesies to unproven allies. She was a master at cultivating donors and supporters, but she was able to do so without gambling with her dignity. I can’t recall Bethune giving the power of the podium to people who had not proven their worth as friends and supporters.
And it wouldn’t seem like a particularly wise choice to invite someone like DeVos, who many doubt is qualified to hold the office to which she is appointed, and who in a public statement referred to HBCUs as model of school choice. Not to mention her reversal of policies but in place by the Obama administration that would harm the very students to whom she was invited to speak.
What did President Jackson think would happen? In the age of Black Lives Matter, in an audience full of millennials, did he think they would just sit there and take the insult?
And what of President Artis? Her connection to the family of Travyon Martin nothing new. In 2014 she offered space on FMU’s campus to Sybrina Fulton, a FMU alumna, and the Trayvon Martin Foundation. She has continued to cultivate that relationship over the years, despite the political risk of being affiliated with a cause that has given birth to the Black Lives Matter Movement that has changed the face of civil rights and social justice activism in the U.S.
In the days since the announcement of FMU’s plan to honor Trayvon, the institution has been inundated with calls from people who criticized the decision to commemorate a “thug.” A scroll through the comment section of any article about the recognition bares witness to the sentiment.
Jackson and Artis highlight the difficult positions and difficult choices faced by leaders in Black America. But how do you advance the position of your community without sacrificing your dignity, and maintaining your ability to remain true to the values of that same community? The choices made by BCU and FMU offer a power contrast, and important lessons for a way forward.