Morehouse's Choice

May 2, 2007

Imagine a book in which the author devotes a section to the "crisis of moral purpose" among colleges, calls for presidents to become their colleges' "chief ethical officers" and to stop focusing so much on fund raising, praises presidents of the past who devoted commencement addresses to institutional failings rather than the "pieties" and "superficial inspiration" that are heard today, and criticizes students who focus on their own advancement as opposed to giving more of themselves to their community.

Robert M. Franklin's book Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities, published this year by Fortress Press, covers that ground and much more. On Tuesday, Morehouse College announced that Franklin would become its next president. And in an interview, Franklin said he had no intention of giving up his ideas when he becomes president. In fact, he said he wants to renew the model of the president as moral leader, organizing monthly chapel discussions with students -- and not being afraid to challenge their views and values.

"I'm hoping to be something of a president and moral philosopher," said Franklin. "I think the area that needs to most critical attention right now is leadership formation -- emphasis on character development and helping students to resist the temptations of a youth culture that has emphasized materialism, hyper-individualism, violence and ethical relativism."

Franklin acknowledged with a laugh that it was unusual for boards these days to seek out presidents with such views -- especially if the would-be presidents had just put their ideas in writing. "I was a bit surprised," he said, that his opinions didn't hurt his candidacy. "Often truth-telling is not rewarded the way one would like," he said. But Franklin added that he was encouraged and thrilled with the possibilities at Morehouse, his alma mater.

Morehouse presidents -- who have included such legendary figures as John Hope and Benjamin Mays -- have been national leaders, given the college's role in the civil rights movement, as an elite institution for educating black men, and the mystique of being a "Morehouse man." Franklin will be succeeding Walter E. Massey, a former director of the National Science Foundation who has played a prominent role in national discussions about math and science education and research.

Franklin will be moving to the position from Emory University, where he is a distinguished professor of social ethics in the theology school. During his career, Franklin has been involved in both academic work and reaching a broader public, and has rarely shied away from moral issues. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, has taught at the Harvard Divinity School and the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and served as president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (which is part of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically black institutions that includes Morehouse).

He has also been a regular commentator for National Public Radio and an op-ed writer, writing columns on topics such as "Can the Church Save African American Families?" and "Now Here's a Concept: Going on a Date Without Having Sex."

In his new book, Franklin cites the example of Mays as a president whose leadership should be emulated today. Not only does he praise Mays for talking about institutional failures, but for his constant references to the moral purpose of the college and his vision of "an expansive and extended liberal arts education in a black institution as a moral enterprise infused with moral purpose."

Today, Franklin writes, he isn't sure if enough people share that vision. While working on his book, he sent a questionnaire to more than 75 presidents of black colleges, asking what their institutions do to promote character education and African-American identity. Not even one third of the institutions responded. What is missing in too many black colleges, he said, is a sense that students should be educated to be community leaders, not just to be better educated at any profession.

Franklin's book doesn't just criticize institutional leaders, but also students. He writes with dismay about the Freaknik celebrations of black college students in Atlanta, popular during the '90s -- an event that "involved cruising along the city's busiest streets and highways in amazing vehicles that no student should have been able to afford."

While Franklin's writing is explicitly making judgments, he can't be typecast as old-fashioned. He writes, for example, about the hostility of black churches to gay people and of anti-gay incidents at Morehouse and calls for black people to accept that some black people are gay and that they deserve the same respect as everyone else.

And in the interview Tuesday, he said that he realized that unlike the days of Benjamin Mays or the time when Franklin was an undergraduate, there isn't religious consensus at Morehouse today. Where once there would have been students almost entirely from black church traditions, today there are students who are Muslim, or who explore African faiths, or who don't have much faith. Franklin said it was important -- and possible -- to talk about faith in ways that don't exclude.

In his book, Franklin talks about the conflict of time over presidential duties and how this relates to what they can do.

"I believe that one of the chief reasons for this silence and absence [on moral issues] is the rapid expansion of the administrative and managerial tasks for modern presidents," he writes. "That is shorthand for saying that presidents have become full-time fund raisers who engage in the kind of calculation and institutional promotion that raises big bucks. While this may be a benefit for schools with tiny development staffs, unfortunately it robs the larger society of the public voices and minds that can serve as counterweights, even countercultural counterweights, to myopic elected officials, business leaders, and well-intentioned grassroots leaders."

And at a time that assessment is a hot issue, Franklin offers an alternative view of accreditation. He notes that many black colleges have felt that the process has been unfair, focusing too much on some measures of financial stability as opposed to their missions. But Franklin doesn't advocate abandoning accreditation, but coming up with an additional "village accreditation" in the spirit of W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1900 and 1910 evaluated black colleges and ranked them based on their educational quality.

It may be time, Franklin writes, "to retrieve and innovate on the tradition of having black scholars render critical and appreciative evaluation of our institutions." Further, he advocates asking local community members to participate, by being surveyed for their opinions on the institutions in the area. (The book is equally frank in discussing and offering suggestions for black families and black churches.)

So how will Franklin try to advance his agenda at Morehouse? He stressed in the interview that part of the reason he would be able to advance his agenda is that the college operates "in real strength" from a financial and infrastructure position, in large part because of Massey.

Franklin said he wasn't looking to overhaul the curriculum, but to talk and to encourage others to talk. He said he envisioned monthly addresses to all students about tough ethical issues they face, plus organizing other speakers from a range of views to speak to students. A debater when he was a Morehouse undergraduate, Franklin said he wants to see debate strengthened -- both by students and for student to observe others.

"I want to introduce students to a range of values, philosophies and perspectives on moral issues and then to sketch my own views for them," he said. "I want them to embrace what it means to be a Morehouse man."

Now that he's becoming a president again, Franklin is also not walking away from the idea that black colleges should undertake new ways to measure their effectiveness. He said that he planned to spend some time between now and when he becomes president "walking the neighborhood that surrounds our campus and knocking on doors and asking people how they view Morehouse, asking what they need, and talking about how we can be an asset to transform lives."

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