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Copyright İ 1999 by The Washingtonian.
Reprinted with permission of Washingtonian magazine.
Photo: Paul Hartmann
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What I've Learned

 

Reaching High
The Competition for
Bright African-American Students
Is Stiff--and Not Just Among
Black Colleges

 

swygerWMag.jpg (52768 bytes)

When Patrick Swygert applied to Howard University in 1960, his academic options were limited.
Today the school has to recruit top black students
.

Four years after becoming president of Howard University, Patrick Swygert is still excited. "The sound you hear is my foot tapping," he says.

When he arrived in Washington after five years as president of the State University of New York at Albany, Howard was dispirited. Since then, Swygert has revived the nation's only comprehensive black research university, which awards professional degrees in law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacology, and divinity.

Howard now has more than 11,000 students and 1,700 faculty. Its distinguished alumni include a number of "firsts" among African-Americans: first black Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall), governor (Douglas Wilder of Virginia), US senator (Edward Brooke of Massachusetts), United Nations ambassador (Andrew Young), New York City mayor (David Dinkins), Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner in literature (Toni Morrison). Former DC Mayor Walter Washington, opera soprano Jessye Norman, and presidential adviser Vernon Jordan are also alums.

Reared in Philadelphia, Swygert attended Howard as an undergraduate and as a law student. He served as an assistant to US Representative Charles Rangel of New York, clerked for an appellate-court judge in Philadelphia, and taught law and held a series of administrative positions at Temple University. During the Carter administration he was general counsel to the US Civil Service Commission.

Married for nearly 30 years to Sonja Elizabeth Branson Swygert, a full-time volunteer for Howard University Hospital and the university's Moorland-Spingarn Collection, he has two sons--Pat Jr., 24, who works for a Washington-based entertainment management company, and Mike, 22, a college student in Philadelphia. A District resident, Swygert loves music, American paintings, and histories and biographies.

It was in his office at Howard, filled with antique American furniture and paintings, that we discussed what he's learned.

A university president's powers are quite limited.

You're right. As president, I don't control much of anything. What happens on campus happens because of consensus. Absent that, it's tough to bring about much change.

The only two absolutes at any university are the faculty and students. When university presidents forget that, faculty and students are quick to remind us.

As president, I'm a major advocate for the institution‹to further the research and service of our faculty and to affect the lives of these outstanding young people. For the past 132 years, Howard has been the main national‹indeed, international‹institution providing African-American leadership. Howard was founded as a national institution for a powerful reason‹to offer higher education for newly freed persons.

When I applied here in 1960 to seek undergraduate studies, Howard didn't recruit; Howard selected. Other opportunities open to students like me were severely limited.

You couldn't get into white institutions?

Generally not. So Howard got to select the best and brightest of blacks. And the best and the brightest blacks all sought Howard. Now that's changed. Today we have to recruit. This is a consequence of Howard's success in helping to open up American society.

Do the brightest black kids now attend Ivy League schools?

No, the brightest black students go everywhere--to Bennett College, Morehouse, Hampton, Vanderbilt, Duke, and certainly to Howard.

One indicator of excellence is the number of National Achievement Scholars. This academic year, Harvard recruited 62 and Howard recruited 59. Now, I'm never one to celebrate second place‹in fact, celebrating second is contrary to the Howard experience--but still, it's impressive that 59 of these most exceptional students opted for Howard. And 58 opted for another historically black institution. So two of the top three schools competing for the best and the brightest are black schools.

Next year we're going to be number one. That's our proper place at Howard.

If you're a bright high-schooler who gets called by recruiters from Howard and Harvard, what would you do?

Oh, that's easy. Certainly it's Howard.

The first African-American president of Howard, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, reinforced our main values and stressed our comparative advantage. For nearly a half century, until 1926, all our presidents were white. Then Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was chosen. His inaugural address told our students that if they wanted to attend school to live the good life, many institutions were open to them. But if they wanted an education for service as a black leader, then Howard was best for them.

Students here carry, and carry on, that 132-year tradition of African-American leadership. Success as a Howard undergraduate will mean success later, in graduate school and in one's career.

Howard has students of every complexion and racial group coming from more than 100 countries. While predominantly black, our community members have incredibly diverse experiences and backgrounds. I think thatıs a lot like America.

Does black adolescent culture "dis" education? Is being academic seen as somehow unblack?

That's a challenge, but not as profound a problem as folks like you characterize it. Success isn't frowned upon by our youngsters today. Surely not in sports or entertainment, but how about in academics? A black kid going for a PhD in physics--is that cool? It is here. But the media doesn't attach the same importance to it as to sports and entertainment. Where's the media when a small church is having its scholarship night? Where is it when a young man overcomes significant obstacles to complete high school?

That's not news. That's not excitement. It doesn't sell papers or capture anyone. But I see a lot of achievement of that type. I constantly talk to youngsters desperate to achieve in academics. In fact, I'm becoming more encouraged by what I see, not discouraged.

Young people today must see role models successful in academia. That's why we've started a Fund for Academic Excellence, which is like a venture-capital fund to allow faculty to explore topics and activities not included in any grant or normal departmental budget.

For instance, we have a program on technology-assisted learning. Professors in English and engineering team-teach a course to help engineering students become more expressive‹to communicate what they know and need to relate. We also have a program to study the role of visual arts in South Africa's liberation; another, in partnership with Dow Jones, for students to work in journalism and advertising during the summer; and a program from our medical school focusing on alcohol abuse.

Is Howard doing anything to assist public high schools in the area?

We encourage student mentoring, which a lot of Howard students do‹especially in DC and Prince George's County schools. We also have summer workshops for public high-school students. Howard's a big part of the South East Consortium for Minorities in Engineering, a program that trains college professors to train high-school teachers in better math and science methods. This summer Howard hosts the 38 universities in the consortium.

What's the university's relationship to its own DC neighborhood?

We're partnering with Fannie Mae to revitalize LeDroit Park, at the southern end of the campus. This is a great historical area of Washington‹home of Duke Ellington, Ed Brooke, former DC mayor Walter Washington, and many other prominent black Americans.

We've already rehabilitated and/or reconstructed some 46 properties that had been acquired by Howard. Many of them were abandoned rowhouses, which faculty and administration officials have purchased. This has spurred considerable private development and community growth in the neighborhood.

How much is racism still a problem in America?

It's a big problem. We should, though, acknowledge the progress which has been made. When I first came to Washington, the Daily News carried apartment ads "for colored couples only" or "white couple preferred." Everywhere you turn there is evidence of significant progress. The notion that the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Armed Forces would be an African-American would have been scoffed at in my youth. In my adulthood, it became a reality. The fact that Colin Powell served with such distinction is an add-on.

Ours is the first generation of a significant black middle class. Such gains have been made against the bad experiences we endured. We fought hard for these successes. They were not handed out. We know of Dr. King's and Malcolm X's personal sacrifices.

Do you support affirmative action?

For many whites, that's come to mean preferences and quotas. This implies something unfair. But many in the black middle class would not have made it otherwise. They were qualified by intellect and determination but lacked the opportunity to compete fairly. Without challenging institutions to affirmatively seek out persons of confidence, quality, and ability, we'd revert to an unacceptable state of affairs.

I'm for giving everyone an opportunity to show he or she can perform. Affirmative action, properly defined and applied, is absolutely required.

Just look around the Washington area. If you're visiting the high-tech parks now circling the District, you'll be struck by the absence of persons of color anywhere in those professions. And that's after all the government programs and private efforts that have been made.

Could that be a supply problem? Perhaps Howard doesnıt generate enough black high-tech computer wizards.

I'm not talking about high-tech computer wizards. I'm talking about their bosses and kids who can be trained to become such wizards‹intelligent, competent, hard-working kids. Pressure still needs to be applied. Opposing affirmative action can be a way of saying that racism is no longer an issue in this nation. Well, that's not so.

Jews who have made it traditionally "reach back" to those who haven't. Is that philanthropy as common within the black community? Only 12 percent of your alumni give to Howard.

That's a bogus issue. There are lots of ways to give back. Black churches have been our principal social-service agency. These churches are supported by their congregants, especially the better-off blacks who are reaching back.

Whenever someone in the community takes in a nephew or niece and helps get him or her through college, that's reaching back‹even though it's not recorded in any accounting book. The notion of extended family is still a profound form of philanthropy in the black community.

Many blacks are known and respected for their philanthropy. While Howard's alumni participation rate is around 12 percent, it's moving upward. It used to be under 5 percent, so the trajectory's right. Weıve set 30 percent as our goal by the year 200l, and we're going to get there.

Remember, the black middle class is a new middle class. It'll take some time for giving patterns to become more firmly established.

You gave a speech regretting the "loss of character" when black colleges become increasingly white. Isn't integration what Martin Luther King was all about?

Yes, Dr. King was about opportunity‹making it because of the content of one's character and not the color of one's skin. Integration and diversity are what America's all about.

However, historically black schools have unique experiences and environments to offer their students, which disappear if the institution turns predominantly white. It would be a shame to lose that unique learning environment.

Besides, black institutions were never segregated. The first four Howard matriculants were white. We've never rejected white students wanting to attend. Those seeking to share our unique cultural values should be able to do so while still getting a terrific education. They'll be in a nurturing environment with a shared cultural ethos.

Take our new Truman Scholar, Louis Sterling, or our Rhodes Scholar, Carla Peterman. These are great, promising young people. In fact, Carla is a legacy‹her mother attended Howard. Young women and men like Carla and Louis can be found at Morgan State in Baltimore, Lincoln University in Missouri, and Jackson State in Mississippi. I've met many on black campuses across America.

What have you learned from being a university president?

Since this is my second presidency, I've learned how to commit the same mistakes, only faster. I don't waste as much time.

I've learned that whenever a university president thinks he knows something, just show up on campus. The next day, he'll be humbled once again.

The greatest lesson, really, is to maintain fidelity to the core values of your institution: What's most important to your institution? How does your institution identify itself?

At Howard, the core value is leadership. Every day I have to make sure that Howard inculcates and demonstrates leadership.

Other lessons? Some do's and don'ts?

I know a lot of the don'ts because I've committed nearly all of them.

Don't think that, as president, you have some special knowledge not otherwise known to the rest of the universe.

Don't think of being president as a permanent state of affairs. Understand that your opportunity to be university president is just that‹a great opportunity. Don't come to love the robes so much that you forget the purpose of wearing those robes.

Last and most importantly, don't take yourself so seriously.

What have you learned from life?

Whether in your professional or your personal life, try to have a sense of fairness. But being fair doesn't mean being moderate in all things. You shouldn't end up pablum.

If you have a job or life's work that reflects what you truly believe in, youıre doing something special.

I've found that the greatest thing any human being can do is to help somebody else. We can get so engaged in grand issues and global dynamics that we never stop to touch another human being.

I love university life because, as president, I can actually help someone else‹whether a support person, faculty member, alum, or student. Anybody who has that opportunity to touch another person is blessed.

It's become clear to me at 55--which wasn't clear at 25, 35, or perhaps even 45--that when all is said and done, you'll be remembered by your deeds. Not by what you have, because you won't have it any longer. Not by who you are, because you won't be that any longer. But by your deeds. They live after you and follow you‹for good or ill.

And last: You have to believe in something, whatever that something is. Believe in yourself. Believe in your family, your God, your country. Believe in something, and try to live that belief.

 

Author's Note: National editor Ken Adelman has been conducting "What I've Learned" interviews since 1988. His book about management lessons from Shakespeare will be published in October 1999.

Copyright İ 1999 by The Washingtonian. Reprinted with permission of Washingtonian magazine.
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