"You can kill a man but you can't kill an idea." -- Medgar Evers (the NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963).
Medgar Evers must be tossing and turning in his grave at Arlington National Cemetery this very moment. For how terrible is it that a college named in his honor is in the midst of the ugliest chapter of its long history, a history born of the sweat, and the blood, of the Civil Rights Movement?
The problem, to put it mildly, are the president and the provost of Medgar Evers College, two Black men who, by virtue of one baffling action after another, demonstrate no respect for the mission of a school built in the heart of Black Brooklyn, and who ostensibly have little to no respect for faculty and staff, nor the community that surrounds that institution. That their behavior and mindset are akin to the Southern White segregationists of the Civil Rights era who went out of their way to block, literally and symbolically, the doors of their schools rather than allow Black students in, must be something the president and provost have conveniently forgotten. That the leadership of the City University of New York, which governs all 23 of the four- and two-year schools in its system, has allowed this now very public spectacle to fester and rot begs this question: Who really cares about the mission and future of Medgar Evers College?
I mean, seriously, would this blog and the protests and pending lawsuits be necessary if we were discussing, say, John Jay College, Lehman College, or Medgar's borough cousin, Brooklyn College? No. But we are talking about Medgar Evers College, which, while not technically an historically Black college in fact, is certainly one in its creation, sense of purpose, and the overwhelming numbers in terms of faculty, staff, and students. Indeed, for those who do not know, Medgar Evers College is a four-year commuter school of 7,000 students nestled in what we call Central Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not only the largest of New York City's five boroughs (with 2.5-3 million residents it would be America's 4th most populated "city"), but Brooklyn also contains the biggest Black population in our nation (nearly 1 million people of African descent from across America, and the globe).
And the original mission of Medgar Evers College, as stated on its website, was "a result of collaborative efforts by community leaders, elected officials, the Chancellor, and the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York. The College, named for the late civil rights leader, Medgar Wiley Evers (1925-1963), was established in 1969 and named in 1970, with a mandate to meet the educational and social needs of the Central Brooklyn community. The College is committed to the fulfillment of this mandate."
Obviously someone didn't mention this bit of history and purpose to President William Pollard or Provost Howard Johnson. Or perhaps the duo has simply not bothered to read the website during their tenure. Because in my 20 years of living in Brooklyn, and in my extensive association with that school -- as a community and political leader; as a writer and artist; as someone who has given numerous lectures there, and participated in more panels, conferences, and seminars than I can count there; and as an ally and supporter with my own critiques of Medgar Evers College -- never could I have imagined, when these two took over the leadership in August of 2009, such a swift and abrupt deterioration of the way the school is administered.
Immediate past president Dr. Edison O. Jackson definitely was no perfect leader, either, but you at least got the sense he genuinely loved the school and the community about the school. Conversely, at a chance encounter with President Pollard the summer of 2010, I came away thinking the man not only did not like Brooklyn (it took everything in me not to suggest he should leave if he despised it, and us Brooklynites, so much), but that Mr. Pollard was eager to do whatever he could to dismantle the inner mechanisms of Medgar Evers College, even the parts that were working just fine. It is one thing, as a leader, to put your own stamp on an enterprise you are now running, as every leader should have her or his vision on how things should be. It is quite another to give the appearance of destroying that enterprise entirely, with reckless abandon, just because you can.
Yet I am not even sure if "incompetent" is the right word to describe what is happening here. But it is abundantly clear to me, when one reviews the backgrounds of President Pollard and Provost Johnson prior to their coming to Medgar Evers College, that whoever thought these two gentlemen deserved to run a major institution for higher learning must not have seen any of the numerous articles critical of their prior escapades.
In Mr. Pollard's case, we are talking allegations of the gross mismanagement of millions of dollars at his previous job as president of the University of the District of Columbia.
In Mr. Johnson's case, we are talking allegations of the plagiarizing of an academic plan from Syracuse University, where he formerly worked, and which he gave to his new employer, the University of North Texas.
So is it little wonder that since the arrival of Mr. Pollard and Mr. Johnson in August 2009 we have the present mess at Medgar Evers College, including:
- Some very curious faculty dismissals
- Threats of shutting down academic centers on campus
- Faculty concerns about the administration's lack of respect for shared governance (in the past month 89% of those who voted, mostly tenured, cast a vote of "no confidence" in the president and the provost)
- No strategic plan by the president or the provost, after one year on their jobs, on the future of Medgar Evers College
- The Provost eliminated the Writing Center and the Center for Teaching and Learning (what college does not have a writing center?)
- The Administration removed Carver Bank ATMs (Carver is the largest Black-owned bank in America) and replaced them with Citibank ATMs
- The Administration issued an eviction notice for The Center for NuLeadership; and although the proposal for formal approval of the Center under CUNY guidelines was approved before the current administration came into power, the President and Provost have refused to forward the proposal to CUNY
For a full accounting of faculty, staff, and community concerns, please check this excellent blog.
And there are many more issues, but the one that sticks out to me is the apparent attack by the Medgar Evers College administration on the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. As was stated in a recent press release, the Center for NuLeadership "is the first and only public policy, research, training, advocacy and academic center housed in the largest urban university system in the United States, conceived, designed, and developed by formerly incarcerated professionals."
In other words, these are not just "ex-cons" running wild at Medgar Evers College. These are individuals like Dr. Divine Pryor, a formerly incarcerated person who has turned his life around and become a valuable asset to his community and academia. And I can honestly say, in my travels throughout America to literally hundreds upon hundreds of colleges and universities, community centers and religious institutions, and jails and prisons of every kind, that I have never encountered someone who is as articulate, dynamic, and passionate in identifying ways to stop the school-to-prison pipeline so real for American ghettos as Dr. Pryor.
And if Medgar Evers College was founded with the expressed purpose of meeting "the educational and social needs of the Central Brooklyn community," then does it not make sense to house a center that deals directly with the record numbers of Black (and Latino) males being shipped off to jail each and every year, in Brooklyn, and all the Brooklyns in America?
Not by the logic of President Pollard and Provost Johnson. Perhaps that is why these two Black males, along with CUNY central administration officials, saw nothing wrong with a December 17 late-night "raid" of NuLeadership's offices, and the seizure of computers personally owned by Dr. Pryor and his colleague Kate Kyung Ji Rhee.
Or why the Center for NuLeadership was asked to vacate its offices by December 30 (the center had to go to court to block the eviction, temporarily).
Or why the president and the provost have refused to forward the recommendation by the college's governing body to establish, officially, the center at Medgar Evers College.
Or why the president and the provost have blocked the Center for NuLeadership's funds, and refused to approve a $2.4 million grant that would have given first-time non-violent offenders a second chance by sentencing them to college rather than prison.
The great sadness and irony of these two Black male administrators doing this at a college born to better the most underserved parts of Brooklyn is not lost on me. Doubly sad and ironic that we have a president of the United States (Barack Obama) and a Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) who have consistently called for innovative solutions to prepare and propel the most marginalized populations in America.
And sad and ironic, furthermore, because the City University of New York actually has a system-wide Black male initiative. But how can we seriously discuss any initiatives for Black males and not include in that conversation ideas and best practices to cease the rapid flow of Black (and Latino) men in and out of the criminal justice system?
So as we approach the annual Dr. King holiday in less than two weeks, the president and provost of Medgar Evers College and the City University of New York hierarchy find themselves with a major dilemma, bad publicity, and unnecessary and very preventable beefs, in and out of court, with Medgar Evers faculty and staff, and Brooklyn community members. As one tenured professor at Medgar Evers College said to me in an email, what is happening at the school "should be a national outrage."
For sure, the mess at Medgar Evers College is a national outrage, and a deeply moral failing, too, especially at a time in our history when America's inner cities require, need, demand, nonstop and pro-active solutions and remedies, and as many opportunities as possible for our communities, particularly for the young and the poor.
And wasn't that the point of Medgar Evers College in the first place, to serve the people?
Kevin Powell, a long-time Brooklyn resident, is a nationally acclaimed activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (Soft Skull). You can contact him at www.kevinpowell.net.
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