In a climate in which historically Black colleges and universities are continually having to defend their relevance and viability, Miles College is positioning itself as not only a critical cornerstone of Birmingham, Alabama’s past, but also a key partner in its future.
In addition to producing a large number of graduates who work in the city government, its utility offices, and who comprise its professional population of doctors and lawyers and business owners, the institution has been a key partner with the city in many political initiatives, including partnering on a recent bid for the Democratic National Convention, the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and other civic and educational pursuits.
“Miles College has played a vital role in supporting city initiatives throughout the years while molding future citizens of Birmingham for the future,” said Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, Sr. “They are truly a partner with us in moving Birmingham forward.”
Miles College President Dr. George T. French, Jr. organizes a march from the steps of Brown Hall—the campus administration building—to the local polling place every election day to instill in students a sense of history and importance associated with the right and now responsibility for Black citizens to vote in Alabama.
But the institution’s community involvement isn’t limited to political engagement.
French said the institution has a responsibility “to [help] meet the needs of our community.”
“We have a unique opportunity to assist the city of Fairfield wherein we reside,” he said, noting, “All colleges and universities don’t have that opportunity. Some of them are already in very stable communities and very stable cities that have tax bases and revenue streams that allow them to assist the local college. Unfortunately, our city wherein we reside, being the city of Fairfield is experiencing some financial challenges, so they are not able to provide financial resources to us, but instead we are looking for creative ways to partner with them to assist with housing and community development.”
As part of this push toward community engagement, the institution’s leadership has begun working with the City of Fairfield, Ala., to develop strategic community partnerships that would enhance both the college and the neighboring community.
Among these is a proposed collaboration with the Public Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to “work on a concerted effort to figure out how to transition the [Demetrius C. Newton Gardens Public Housing Community] into student housing and to relocate the families that are in the public housing facility into newer, mixed-use communities,” said Frank Woodson, community economic development director for the city of Fairfield.
Woodson calls this move “a win-win for both entities,” as it both “joins the college into one contiguous property” that includes the current campus with an as-yet-undeveloped North Campus—a 41-acre piece of land that will serve as the home to a performing arts center, outdoor amphitheater, health and wellness center and state-of-the-art hotel and conference center, if French has his way—and lines up with the housing authority’s goal “to figure out how to mainstream people that have been in public housing for generations.”
Concurrently, the college is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild abandoned homes in the surrounding community, some of which will be used as rental properties for students for whom mobility is an issue, some of which will become faculty housing and some that will remain occupied by private residents.
Woodson said this will give the city of Fairfield “not only a more appealing community, it also gives us a safer community” and allows prospective families to “see a beautiful community around the college” when they visit.
French has often said that the strength of a community’s Black institutions correlates directly to the strength of its middle class.
“When you have a strong HBCU, you have a strong middle class. That means you strengthen the African-American workforce. This impacts Birmingham. It impacts Alabama,” he previously said.
In that vein, French said his top priority is “to partner with the school system and to establish a laboratory school where we send our best and our brightest to do their practicums, we help write grants for the cutting-edge technology for the high school, and it becomes a situation where it is basically a school that partners with Miles.”
The twist is that, instead of allowing people from around the state to transfer in, students would have to live in the city of Fairfield, which he believes will help attract middle- and upper-income Black families back to Fairfield and establish “a middle-to-upper-class inner city African-American community” in the city, which he said is “anomalous these days, but, when you find them, they’re strong, which is why Atlanta is so strong, because of the strong African-American middle class.”
“I live on campus,” he said. “When I send my son to the grocery store, every now and then I want him to see a [Black] doctor or lawyer, principal, a college president, an entrepreneur but he’s not seeing that, because everyone’s moved out of the community. … We don’t have the diverse community anymore.”
But what is perhaps most remarkable about the recent growth of Miles College is the fact that it is thriving, even as the rest of the country is working to emerge from the shadows of the most damning economic recession in recent memory.
The college launched a $31 million capital campaign in 2007. When the recession hit and people advised it was a bad time to plow ahead with the campaign, French told naysayers that, to the contrary, the economic climate necessitated the continuance of the campaign.
“Because we’re in the middle of a recession, I cannot abandon my capital campaign,” he retorted. “And the corporate community actually really appreciated that.”
By 2012, the campaign had exceeded its goal by $11 million, raising $41 million, which allowed for the purchase of Lloyd Noland Hospital, which would become the site of the North Campus, and the simultaneous construction of three new buildings on campus—a student center, a dormitory and a campus admissions and welcome center.
Miles College is the fourth most financially-viable HBCU in the nation and enjoys a financial composite score well above not only the average for historically Black institutions, but what is considered the national target. Thanks to cost-containment and slashing departmental budgets by 15 percent, the institution has been able to establish a separate savings account (above the endowment fund) that is currently sitting around $4 million (after starting seven years ago at $250,000), raise salaries across the board by 3 percent every year and offer end-of-year bonuses to the entire faculty and staff for the last 10 years.
French said the success of the institution is largely attributable to “the intentional and methodical engagements of the tenets of transformational leadership,” which he calls “essential” to the success he has overseen at the college over the last 11 years. “You have to motivate your team,” he said. “You have to take care of them where you can—it may not always be salaries, it may be time off or promotion.”
Also key, he said, is “being creative in your approaches to fundraising” and demonstrating success and communicating with the corporate community that “gifts are not really going to get us where we need to go, but partnerships and investments will.”
With a solicitation for investment, however, French said, leaders must be mindful that, “If they make an investment, that means that they expect a return. And we have to have a conversation: what kind of return would you like to see in future employees … who are graduates from Miles?”
In March, Miles will announce the launch of a new $100 million campaign to fund the development of the North Campus.
“I want people to think I’m crazy,” he said, laughing. “Because then they just might help me.”