Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Following in the Footsteps of Legends

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Following in the Footsteps of Legends

Article excerpt

Stepping down after 12 years at the helm of Morehouse College, Dr. Walter Massey has carved out his own legacy at an institution known for producing Black leaders.


Walter Massey and Morehouse College seem to have been destined for each other. His enrollment to the college in the 1950s was more a matter of fate than anything else. When his mother drove a group of boys from his hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., up to the college to take an early admission test, a 16-year-old Massey went along for the ride.

Nearly 40 years later, with Massey poised to become head of the massive University of California system, he found himself instead back at Morehouse.

Now, after 12 years at the helm of the nation's largest all-male liberal arts institution, Massey says he's ready to retire. But during his half-century-long association with Morehouse, he's cemented his legacy at an institution known as much for its tight family structure as for producing Black leaders. Some at the school say Massey's name could be mentioned in the same breath as two other legendary Black educators and former Morehouse presidents: Benjamin Mays and John Sales.

"He has been a blessing to the college and an asset to the city of Atlanta," says Fulton County Commissioner Jim Maddox, a 1956 Morehouse graduate.

Atlanta was a long way from Hattiesburg, literally and figuratively, Massey remembers.

Segregation and racism were an ever-present part of life in the Deep South, he says. "But I had a very happy childhood, if you can separate segregation from our lives."

His father worked in a chemical factory and his mother was a school principal. She was the one he says instilled education as a foundation very early in his life.

"At that point, I thought I might go into music, but I always liked mathematics," says Massey, who as a teen played saxophone in a band called The Blue Gardenias. "I didn't want to be a high school teacher because everybody did that."

When his mother took 15 local boys to Morehouse to apply for an early admission program, Massey also applied, although he admits, he wasn't a star student. He says he was surprised to be selected, but decided he would attend Morehouse.

Younger than almost all of the other students, Massey says he was intimidated, both by the students and by the big city.

"It was frightening," he says. "I just felt I'd never make it here. I actually called my mother and told her I wanted to go home on the second day."

But at the end of the term, Massey had ranked fifth among his first-year classmates, and he realized he could not only make it at Morehouse, but also excel. He graduated in four years and began a teaching and research career in physics.

The Path LEss Traveled

On his walk each morning to his office, which overlooks the center of Morehouse's campus, Massey usually encounters some of the nearly 3,000 "men of Morehouse" - they don't become "Morehouse Men" until they graduate - as they scurry to classes.

Massey, who turned 69 in April, can often be seen strolling across campus amongst them.

He says he was initially uninterested in the Morehouse job, but changed his mind, becoming the school's ninth president in 1995. He'd already built a reputation as a major academic figure. Looking to have a broader impact beyond research and teaching, he had been a dean at Brown University and was later appointed head of the National Science Foundation by then-president George H.W. Bush in 1991. By 1993 he was vice provost of the UC system. The provost position, one of the most influential in American higher education, was within his sight That's when Morehouse entered the picture.

At the urging of his son and other Morehouse alums, Massey accepted the post, but insisted that he live on campus. He says it was important for him and his wife, Shirley, to be highly visible around campus, mainly to build a sense of their commitment to the school and the community. …

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