Every year on December 13th I post this picture. It is my first day as president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock. I was 37 years old, well below the average age of college presidents (which was 60). On my first day I was welcomed by Dr. Julius Scott, who served as the interim president until my arrival.
In Memoriam: Dr. Julius S. Scott, Jr.
On August 1, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) said goodbye to another longtime member of its…
This is the first time I posted this picture that Dr. Scott was not alive. He died on August 1st at the age of 94. A remarkable man, well versed in the classics, quick sense of humor, he adopted my wife and I from the very beginning. Dr. Scott served as president of Paine College twice as well as Wiley College, and in addition to Philander Smith he served as interim president of Albany State, Savannah State, and the Medical College of Georgia. Presidents would tease him saying he was going to hold the record for the most presidencies.
15 years as a president. I have completed 7 1/2 years as president at two schools. The average presidency is only 6 1/2 years, which is down from 8 1/2 ten years ago.
Lots has happened in those 15 years. As I looked through photos I was reminded of the people I’ve worked with along the way who have died, especially from Philander. Bishop Felton May, Dr. James Rush, Dr. Freddye Davy, Dr. William Woods to name a few.
The students at Philander have always been special to me. I got a message from one of my students last night who recently completed her Ph.D. She said a group of them would be coming to New Orleans soon, and she knew I would like to catch up. Little Rock will always be special because that is where Lydia and Benjamin were born.
In 2011, I began to wonder if it was time to pass the torch. I spent that summer in deep contemplation, (trying to) grow a beard as a symbol of my reflective state. I kept it until the first day of the faculty-staff institute and then went back to normal. I had been in the news earlier that year as a finalist for the president of Southern University, but I didn’t think it was a good fit at the time and dropped out.
But I wanted to make sure I was still effective. Some scholars, like former ODU President James Koch, argues presidents can only be effective 7–10 years. I am also a lifelong United Methodist, which employs an itinerancy. Methodist founder John Wesley said:
We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.
This idea was simplified like this- “After seven years, if the person’s any good, it’s time someone else had them; and if they aren’t any good, it’s time someone else had them!”
As it turned out, seven was pretty accurate. That fall I was announced as the new president of Dillard University. Dillard was always on my short list of schools for which if I had a chance to become president I would definitely try.
2012 then was a year of transition. We left Little Rock…
… and moved to New Orleans! Going through the interview process I felt this was going to be a great fit, and I was right. This has been a wonderful experience.
There have been so many memorable experiences at Dillard. I always start with the talent of the students, particularly the actors and musicians. Whew! One of my favorites was performing with Brittanye Linton ‘15 who wrote this song. We honored Dr. Norman Francis at our spring concert and gave him an Honorary degree.
(Yeah- I played in church…)
I was fortunate to come at a time where we could reintroduce Dillard in a post-Katrina context. So having high profile events, identifying signature programs in physics and film, and more recently completing a first class sesquicentennial all have repositioned Dillard not only in New Orleans but nationally.
So here I am. Finishing seven and a half years. Earlier this year I began the process of rethinking how I do my job here. I actually believe Jim Koch was on to something (as well as Wesley) in thinking that there is an optimal period of effectiveness for a president. For a small campus I think this is especially true as the high level of access leads to greater familiarity, and unfortunately, familiarity often breeds contempt.
So after 7 years it was time to refresh my approach, and I made some major changes. I ended the Brain Food lecture program. We had some major wins in terms of people we could get to speak (Issa Rae drew 1,100 people!), but regular attendance wasn’t strong enough to continue (unless you had a celebrity). I changed from freshman lunches to what I call “Fifteen minutes of Name,” 15 minute one on one meetings. The BEST thing I’ve ever done. I am learning a lot about students, where they are from, their experiences. I met with over 80 students this fall!
I ended the PODUS program, presidential ambassadors that worked the Brain Food lectures. That was a mistake so I brought it back. But I also added Presidential Fellows, a group of 13 upperclass students who self identified as not fully maximizing their Dillard experience and wanted someone to push them (me). This has given me a chance to know students I probably never would know.
I started a #PopUpPrez activity. My office is tucked away, so spending a couple of hours a week in random campus buildings where I would not normally expect to be seen worked well.
On Wednesday, I saw a news story about Rev. Howard-John Wesley. Ironically, he was our Martin Luther King, Jr. preacher in 2018, which for him was a big deal as our chapel is named for his great grandfather. The story indicated that he was taking a sabbatical from January 1 until Easter 2020.
'I feel so distant from God': Popular D.C.-area pastor confesses he's tired, announces sabbatical
After 30 years of preaching more than 5,000 sermons, the Rev. Howard-John Wesley stood in front of his congregation on…
I stayed up late to watch the entire sermon, taking notes. You should watch it too- there is a message for all of us.
This holiday season, as I enter my 16th year, I am using this Christmas break to think deeply about what SELAH might mean for me. Pastor Wesley talked about the job of a pastor being on call 24–7. I live this life too. It is draining, people pulling on you all the time. The vast majority of the time it is rewarding. Watching people grow and mature, or a community rally around an institution, is an awesome feeling. An unexpected thank you note often means more than any public accolade. A parent crying on you when their child graduates never gets old (but don’t get snot on my robe- LOL!)
At time though it is a very thankless job. It hurts the most when some students are ungrateful when you know that you are providing opportunities and experiences they won’t get most places, making sacrifices for them, but they blame you and the institution for their failures and unhappiness. Add in social media and you have a toxic stew of negativity that causes you to ask if it is even worth it anymore. But I am reminded of the words of Dr. Bill Coplin, a Syracuse professor and author of the new book, “The Happy Professor: How to Teach Undergraduates and Feel Good About It”
“If you see your students as adults, you accept the fact that you have little or no control over what they choose to do or become. The stress and anxiety disappear, and you embrace the profound truth that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”
Megachurch Pastor and Mental Health Advocate Jarrid Wilson Dies by Suicide
Wilson, a megachurch pastor in California who frequently spoke out on mental health issues, died by suicide on Monday…
24–7 for a preacher, or a president, is draining. Pastor Wesley referenced the suicide of a megachurch pastor recently, emphasizing the need for all of us to rest, to take a break. To pause. To detox our bodies of things and people.
Wesley said you can’t pour out of an empty cup. I work hard to make sure I keep my cup filled because I am constantly pouring out of it. The struggle sometimes is wondering if folks are spilling out and wasting what you try to pour into them.
As I begin year sixteen I want to remain mindful to take care of myself, because I can’t help anyone else if I am not sound (body, mind and spirit). And I know I will need reminders to do that as well, so feel free to intrusively say to me. Selah.
I received a Christmas card on Thursday from the family of Dr. Scott. In it was this note. This note was right on time, reminding me of a man who met me at the door as I began my journey as a president.
Thank you, Dr. Scott.