Charting a Black Research Agenda

Black Issues in Higher Education, March 5, 1998 | Go to article overview

Charting a Black Research Agenda


President H. Patrick Swygert, 54, assumed the helm of the nation's only historically Black Research I institution in 1995. Since his arrival at Howard University, he has been crafting a strategy to carry the institution into the twenty-first century on a more stable financial footing, from which it will be poised to lead the nation in shaping and implementing the academic and research agenda for African Americans in the next millennium.

Swygert came to Howard from another Research I institution, the State University of New York-Albany, where he was president for five years. An alumnus of the institution he now leads, Swygert appears committed to sustaining Howard's stature as a leader among postsecondary institutions serving African Americans.

Black Issues spoke to him in February. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

Do you see a lot more African Americans being groomed at White schools and then going to HBCUs to teach?

You touch upon one of the critical issues confronting higher education today. There is a sense that some of our best and brightest find their way to majority group institutions as opposed to the stream running in the other direction. As I travel around the country and as I visit with colleagues elsewhere, I'm finding that more and more colleagues understand that the future is with the historically Black colleges, and that one can have a full and satisfying professional life at a historically Black college.

Are there challenges that scholars face when working at HBCUs that they don't necessarily encounter at traditionally White institutions? And if there are, can you talk a little about what it is that Howard is doing to address this, both at the administrative and faculty levels?

I come to the question with the perspective of someone who spent twenty-three years on the other side of the mountain. There's no mystery to me in terms of what those schools have to offer. Indeed, I have led one of those institutions, and I think many of them are overselling. As many colleagues find when they move to those institutions, it's simply not a bed of roses.

In terms of what a Howard or other historically Black schools and colleges must do to retain the best and brightest, I think we have to do a couple of things. The first thing is ... we [as an institution] have to acknowledge and confront certain truths. The best and the brightest are mobile folk who can and do leave. You simply cannot say to a colleague or faculty member or the brightest graduate and professional students that you must come here because you must come here. That simply doesn't work.

The second reality is that you must provide your talented faculty -- and all of your faculty -- with, at a minimum, the basic academic and technological resources that they would expect at any first-rate institutions. As an example, when I came to Howard -- now nearly three years ago -- a fraction of our teaching faculty had access to personal computes supplied by the university. At my first meeting with the faculty, I said that at the end of three years, every full-time member of this faculty would be outfitted with computing resources and the conductivity necessary to communicate with colleagues both on campus and around the world. I'm happy to say that by spring break 1998, we will have met that pledge.

Coming from a research university and with my background, I understood that was the minimum that must be given to a faculty. That's a multimillion dollar proposition, but you have to do that....

What we're trying to do here at Howard is acknowledge that, build up departments, and give departments resources. That, in turn, provides for a more wholesome, more energetic environment for our faculty.

Could you give us a specific example of how you do that?

In my Strategic Framework, we sough to establish a fund called the Fund for Academic Excellence. …

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