Recently, Robert Michael Franklin, president of Morehouse College, lectured on my campus. As I introduced Dr. Franklin, I remarked that it was strange that I did not attend Morehouse. I grew up 15 minutes from the college, and having been salutatorian and student body president, I fit the Morehouse man image. In fact, I am often asked if I attended Morehouse.
The link between my life and the legendary president of Morehouse, Benjamin Elijah Mays, further suggests that I probably should have matriculated there. Mays became president the year my father was born, and left the year I was born. I drove down Benjamin Mays Drive on my way to the Benjamin Mays High School and Academy of Math and Science. My son is named Benjamin after Mays, suggested by my wife as she ran across his autobiography on a shelf.
Mays provided the model for my five years as a college president. In fact, he is one of the few truly great presidents, regardless of institutional type. By reading many of his thoughts through his speeches and texts, I find three major components of a college presidency using the Mays model, a model that is desperately needed in higher education today.
First, we need advocacy from presidents. In today’s tough political climate, many presidents dare not risk their jobs or potential donations by taking a stand on an issue. In the wonderful text, Crisis in the Village, Franklin suggests presidents like Mays were “public intellectuals and, in some cases, public theologians ... they were thinkers who brought research-based, analytic, historical, comparative, critical and constructive cognitive powers to practical problems facing their people.” Today, it is rare to read a passionate argument by a president.
In Mays’s autobiography, aptly titled Born to Rebel, he writes “I never ceased to raise my voice and pen against the injustices of a society that segregated and discriminated against people because God made them black.” Mays, through a number of editorials, often challenged the notions that historically black colleges should be abolished, and suggested reparations were in order. In my own way, I have sought to speak out as well, dismissing the U.S. News ranking system, one that rewards colleges for enrolling low numbers of poor, working, and students of color, to the ridiculous celebrations of “philanthropy” when the wealthy give to already wealthy colleges whose assets rival those of many countries.
Second, the Mays model means that the president is what Franklin would call “chief ethical officer.” The values of a college community should be reinforced by the president. At many small colleges, including most private black colleges, the tradition of chapel continues to exist in part because it is that opportunity to reinforce the values of the institution. Many other colleges have reduced or eliminated chapel, and often the president is not a major presence, some believing that more important duties require their time.
Mays’s take on chapel was different. He writes, “Though like some classes- occasionally dull- [chapel] was nevertheless as much a part of the educational process as the classroom lectures and discussions… It was here that students and faculty assembled as a family. It was here that students could hear firsthand from the president about the state of the college.” Mays took chapel seriously, being personally responsible for the Tuesday chapels either by speaking or by organizing them, but he took it as seriously as any other speaking engagement so the students could learn, and even question, his thinking or philosophy.
My campus has weekly chapel programs, with the first Thursday being a worship service, and the others ranging from informational to educational. I generally have the first chapel each semester, and then insert myself on other programs as needed. For my chapel this fall, I told the students that in order to Do the Right Thing (the 1989 Spike Lee movie), they would have to “Fight The Power" (the 1989 Public Enemy song from the movie).
The powers I indicted were purposelessness, promiscuity, and pain (inflicted on both self and others). In plain (sometimes colorful) language, I chastised those who aren’t taking college seriously. I decried this golden age of sexual irresponsibility and asked for maturity. And I essentially threatened any more young men who physically abuse women, especially after a student shared that she was choked by a recent graduate. She said she still had “feelings” for him -- I told her she needed new feelings. Mays would have been more diplomatic, but he would have challenged the behavior.
Finally, a Mays presidency develops real relationships with students. I was humored by an article I read about presidents with "monthly" office hours as a way to engage students. Many presidents find themselves on wild goose chases trying to raise funds, when the simplest way is to create an environment that supports and nurtures students, and those students will become giving alumni. No current president wants to do that because they are under pressure to raise money now. But for the long term viability of an institution, the only guaranteed sources of support (as our current economic crisis has shown) are not foundations or corporations, but alumni.
One of the reasons we have not seen the next Martin Luther King Jr. type figure is because we aren’t nurturing them. In reflecting on their relationship, Mays indicated "I am convinced that it was my contact with Martin Luther King, Jr. in chapel at Morehouse that brought us close together. There we began a real friendship which was strengthened by visits in his home and by fairly frequent informal chats on the campus and in my office." Mays shared that King would hang out after his Tuesday chapel speeches to discuss some point, both agreeing AND disagreeing.
It is my sense that this occurs too infrequently on campuses today. The idea of a president calling a student "friend," visiting the student’s home, and frequent informal chats seems unbelievable. However, this is exactly my experience. I often take students to lunch at local restaurants. Students are in and out of my office, and if they don’t mind my multitasking, they can sit until I tell them lovingly to get out. I’ve loaded up a van of students to hear a lecture on another campus.
I think this is extremely important in an age when students are in psychological distress. The president needs to be a friend, mentor, sibling, parent, and even pastor to students with so much hurt. Recently, I had a chance to go to lunch with a student who in less than 30 minutes shared about being raped, a lunch scheduled after she told me she was a cutter, showing me the thin scars from a razor. Another sat in my office to tell me about having two abortions in one summer. One came to ask for $5 to wash his clothes -- he had no money.
This is what the Mays model means. It means the president removes his or her title, and becomes a real person sensitive to young people trying to improve themselves but facing many obstacles. The Mays model means setting the tone for the campus -- that the elders also make themselves available for the students, and not simply talk about being a family, but doing it. The Mays model means challenging injustices, injustices that help to create the misery and despair that students bring with them. At some point, we need to fix the problem and not simply treat the symptoms.
I’m still learning how to be a president, but the more I interact with students the stronger my belief is that we need a new model of presidential leadership to support them. For me, I have found no better role model than Benjamin Elijah Mays.
Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith College.
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