I am 53 years old and have been a college president for 16 years. That’s crazy, right? 16 years! Every December 13th I pause to remember my first day as president of Philander Smith College.
This year, I thought I would thank 16 people/groups that were important on my journey to becoming a president at 37. I could have easily listed 32. But I wanted to start with these 16.
During this COVID season I am more aware that we don’t express enough gratitude. Social media is often the devil, a place that author Charles Blow says “idolizes indignation.” People seem like they would rather curse someone rather than uplift them. We don’t say thank you enough, and often take what people do for them for granted.
So here are some people I want to thank. Some of them are not with us physically, but their spirit definitely is.
David Nunnally. My undergraduate chapter advisor at UGA. Bro. Nunnally was so very supportive. Both he and is wife cared so much about all of the guys in the chapter, and they were an entertaining couple to say the least. When he died in 2016 I had a chance to write about him for the AJC.
Ron Binder. Ron was the advisor to fraternities at the University of Georgia. I learned that I could make a career working with students on college campuses. Ron gave me an opportunity for my first professional presentation as an undergraduate in 1989.
Dr. Walter Washington. Past president of Alcorn State University and past general president of Alpha Phi Alpha. When I was on our board of directors as southern region assistant vice president, I asked Bro. Washington what I should do if I wanted to be a college president. I was 21 at the time. He told me to get a degree in college student personnel services. I didn’t know what that was but anyone who at that time had been a president for 20 years had to know what to do. Washington died in 1999.
Miami University College Student Personnel faculty, Dr. Marcia Baxter-Magolda and Dr. Judy Rogers. Marcia and Judy opened up a world to me when I enrolled in the CSP program. I grew up thinking I wanted to be a veterinarian, and even got into vet school after 3 years. But when I got to Miami, and I found my calling. Marcia and Judy have been great sounding boards my entire career. Best advice they gave once I was finishing my masters was counterintuitive. They said don’t take the first job I was offered. I was offered the coordinator of Greek Life position at Iowa State and turned it down. I ended up at Emory. That was where I was supposed to be.
Dr. Michael V. W. Gordon. Michael was my NPHC mentor. The first black dean of students of a Big Ten school, he was the inaugural executive director of the NPHC. He was my Kappa big brother, a great example of what interfraternalism looked like. He could be a confidant not only about my career but life. He wanted me to present once at a conference and NPHC funds were low, so he shared his room with me. Gordon died in 2019.
Dr. Alfred McWilliams. My doctoral advisor at Georgia State University. He was only the second Black male professor I had in my life (and I only had two). A great role model for me as a doctoral student.
Dr. Todd Schill. Todd was the big boss for residential services at Emory (literally- at least 6'6"). He helped us build community on campus, and was always super thoughtful as we met the challenges on campus. Plus he would host pick up basketball games at his house with some of the young professionals on campus.
Camellia Flanigan. Director of custodial services at Emory University. She was my Emory mom, always telling me to put on my suit jacket so we could go to lunch. Ms. Flanigan made sure I learned that everyone on campus mattered, and that the relationships you can build with the facilities team may be the most important ones. At Philander, Mr. Jemison, our facilities director, was one of the key people I relied on. At Dillard, my real boss is Ms. Cat in facilities. This house I live in is hers, and she routinely gives me orders.
Dr. Maggi Curry-Williams. Maggi was the associate dean for student affairs at Old Dominion where I served as director of student activities. She was the backbone of the division, and always had great wisdom for me. When I was frustrated I could vent to her and she could help me process. She has been supportive for my entire career.
Dr. Portia Holmes Shields. Madame President. When she offered me the job as vice president for student affairs at Albany State University, she said if I came to work for her I would be a president in 5 years. I was 32 at the time. Dr. Shields abused me LOL! Whenever she gave me a new assignment that I didn’t want to do, she would say “Do you want to be a president?” She provided great experiences that prepared me for the presidency.
Dr. Freddye Davy. Dr. Davy was the director of the honors program at Hampton University, but an alumna of Philander Smith College and on the search committee. Dr. Davy was one of my favorite people from my time at Philander. She brought a strong higher ed perspective to our board and wasn’t afraid to challenge board members who wanted to steer off course. It was great having someone who was willing to say the things I couldn’t as president to the board. At our May 2012 board meeting, she pulled me to the side to say she had leukemia and there was nothing that could be done. But you wouldn’t have known it. She died in 2012, two weeks before we were to move to New Orleans. The honors college at Hampton is named in her honor.
Dr. Julius Scott. Legendary college president. Probably did more interims than anyone in history! Dr. Scott was the interim when I arrived at Philander, and became a great mentor and sounding board. He was such a first class man, with one of his catch words being “Marvelous!” This is one of my favorite pictures because it was taken on December 13, 2004, my first day at PSC. Dr. Scott died in 2019.
Rev. Larry Ross. Board chair at Philander Smith College for 4 of my 7 1/2 years there. Ours was a story of learning how to work together. The college was in trouble when I arrived. He had one idea about how to fix it; I had another. So we butted heads. That changed due to a road trip in 2007 when we flew to Chicago and drove to Gary for the funeral of Clifford and Alma Minton, two Philander alums in their 90s who died when their car veered off into a lake. It was a day trip but we shared all kinds of stories and ultimately ended up on the same page. Incidentally, it was the day of the Virginia Tech shooting. I think perspective was the word of the day.
Dr. Norman C. Francis. One of the greatest ever to do it. Dr. Francis was someone I studied on the way to the presidency, especially since we had several things in common. Both had a student affairs background. Both Alphas. And both became president at age 37. I’m not going to make almost 50 years as a president though! When I got to Dillard he made sure all of his senior team was available to help me transition to the city, and he spent literally hours sharing both Xavier and Dillard history which gave me critical insights for what we should do. Excited a main thoroughfare will be named for him in 2021.
Dr. Charlie Nelms. I really got to know Charlie when he was president of North Carolina Central University. I had a couple of times to speak there during his tenure, including their centennial. Just sitting with him and listening to his insights proved to be very informative. Today he is one of my key mentors. If I need to bounce an idea off of a neutral person, Charlie is who I call. He plays this role for a number of younger presidents. I want to be able to do that at some point as well.
The DNA of Dillard. Past chair Dr. Joyce Roche, past president Dr. Michael Lomax, past interim president and trustee Dr. James Lyons, and current board chair Michael Jones. I always said I knew Dillard was a good fit based on the board. During my interviews I knew that they really got it, and that they had built a board culture that could be successful. All of these people have played a role in my over 8 years as president here. I’ve known Dr. Lomax the longest; he actually offered me a job at Dillard in 1999 (I finally got here). Dr. Lyons provided a smooth transition and is a great sounding board today, always offering great advice. It helps that he too was a young president with a student affairs background. Dr. Roche was the chair that led the search, bringing lots of experience from involvement with AGB, and Mike Jones is our current chair, also serving as lead attorney for the Maryland HBCU case. This is a dynamic group of people that have been important during my time here.
I can think of many others, but I at least wanted to celebrate today by celebrating some of the folks who have helped me get to where I am, and continue to support me. 2020 is the constant reminder that life is short, so we need to show our gratitude much more often.