Charting a Black research agenda – interview with H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University – Cover Story – Interview

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. It operates as a kind of venture capital
fund for faculty, allowing them and their departments to explore a
particular issue or set of issues, or underwrite faculty travel or some
activity that either is not subject to grant funding, is not subject to
external support, or is not within the operating budget of the
department.

How large is this fund?

The fund is now $1 million. This is [its] first year. It is managed by our provost Dr. Antoine Garibaldi….

We made $500,000 worth of awards this semester. That’s the kind of
thing that faculty can see, touch, and feel. And that transcends the
rhetoric of saying, “We want to create a wonderful environment.”

Is that in addition to and above the departmental budget?

Yes! Absolutely! It’s additional money.

What are your criteria for determining where you want to put your research emphasis?

This year, 1998, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the
awarding of the first Ph.D. at Howard University. We therefore begin
the analysis as a research university by looking at our graduate and
research programs that we believe do several things. First, they
continue to add to the base of knowledge of the individual discipline
itself. Secondly, they are disciplines that have demonstrated staying
power. They have been sustained by faculty and grants and public
acclaim. Thirdly — as I think is the case with most HBCUs, and is
certainly the case at Howard — the program or activity is consistent
with, and complements, the aspirations of the larger African American
community.

I think it’s most appropriate that, at Howard University, we never
lose sight of the fact that this is an African American institution.
It’s an African American institution that was created and chartered by
the United States Congress to speak to the needs and the aspirations of
the larger African American community. That core value is something
that has to inform all of our decisions — whether it’s allocation of
resources, graduate education, or otherwise.

Also, like other research institutions, there is a degree of
engagement in terms of issues that are evolving, and issues that
warrant and can find external support. One can’t craft research and
graduate programs by simply chasing current funding fashions. But
funding resources and issues of national priorities as defined by major
funders, in this case the federal government, are certainly important
to us. The framework requires us to begin program review this year.

There is a tremendous funding gap between those research
institutions that get the bulk of federal dollars and the rest. How
does Howard plan to catch up? Or are you setting more modest goals for
this university?

As you know, I have been accused of a lot of things and modestly is
not one of them. And that’s perfectly consistent with the history of
this great institution. We didn’t get to be great by thinking in modest
terms. However, we can’t do everything. There was a time, not long ago,
when universities by definition thought of themselves as being
universal in reach and program and discipline. Those days are, in fact,
over.

At Howard we have a history that gives us a context. I’ll give you
an example. Civil rights, for my generation, meant, among other things,
access to the greater society. Whether it was public accommodations,
whether it was voting, whether it was economic opportunity, it was a
notion of access. We wanted to be there. We wanted to have an
opportunity to be there. And in large measure, the revolution succeeded.

However, we now confront the phenomenon of so many African
Americans who are either middle class by income, or middle class by
status and aspirations. Yet at the same time, we are confronting this
phenomenon of more African Americans incarcerated — and African
American women are being incarcerated more than ever before … How
does a great institution relate to [this] dual phenomenon?…

Now does that mean that every faculty member [and] every researcher
here should somehow or another funnel their research aspirations in a
way to address that issue? Of course not. What it does mean, however,
is that the university can encourage, the university can support, the
university can nourish those faculty members who are looking at that
kind of issue.

Black and Hispanic colleges are now competing with one another for
federal dollars. How do you feel about the notion that black colleges
are in some way being penalized, particularly because Howard gets this
large block of federal money?

Well, that’s interesting. I’ve never had a colleague or president say to me that he or she felt that their campus was penalized.

I don’t have an argument with my Hispanic colleagues. What I would
argue, though, is that we all need to get more. We need to increase the
size of the pie rather than get into what I think are really
destructive arguments and diversionary issues that only serve to divide
us. I think there’s $1.7 trillion. It seems to me there’s enough for
everyone.

But how do you make that happen?

Well, I think these are two issues. It’s not simply a question of
the Hispanic community making its weight known in higher education
circles. There’s another issue which is equally, if not more, pressing
— the issue of the loss of character, or the risk of loss of
character, of some traditionally and historically Black institutions as
a result of a kind of integration where it would appear as if the
institutions are becoming less Black. And in fact, some have become
While institutions.

Lets talk about those successful, middle-class young people who have
become alums. You’ve brought about some significant gains in alumni
support. You’ve got a 30 percent goal of participation. How have you
done it? The legacy that you inherited was not a good one.

I’ve done quite fortunate in that we have some tremendous folk here
who are working very hard to reengage the alumni — and it’s certainly
not a one-man band. In the last two-and-a-half years, I think I have
personally visited virtually every major alumni center in the country
to try and take the message out there personally. And like other
institutions, I am a beneficiary of this economy. The economy has been
very robust, and just as our endowment has done very, very well the
last several years, so have many of our alums. We’ve gone from about 4
percent alumni participation to slightly more than 12 percent. In fact,
I hope that by spring it will be more like 15 percent. I write a lot of
letters to alums to let them know what’s going on, and they’ve been
very responsive. But we’ve got a long way to go.

Has the Patrick Swygert message, the approach you take, been incorporated into the culture here? Is your faculty on board?

I’ve been here not quite three years. The university has been here
131 years. I think it would be presumptuous of me to speak in terms of
a culture change in such a short period of time. The way I like to look
at it is that my faculty and the students are moving in a way that is
positive, as they define positive, and I try to help them with that
definition.

Every year you have an opportunity to put your stamp on the faculty
in terms of the people you recruit and the people to whom you give
tenure. Has it been communicated downstream that this Black agenda is
important, and do they understand that they need to get on board with
this agenda if they’re going to be promoted and tenured at Howard?

I hope there’s a greater awareness that the Black agenda, the
unfulfilled agenda for African Americans, is part of Howard’s core
value. It’s not something that I’ve invented. It’s not something that I
pulled out of the air as a kind of catchy phrase. That’s why we were
chartered.

Isn’t there some conflict, in some ways, with a larger national agenda?

I don’t see that it’s inconsistent at all. Quite the contrary. Some
of the skills that many majority institutions thought were throw-away
skills, or not skills at all, as the economy becomes globalized in a
real way, are terribly important. For more than 100 years here at
Howard, for example, we have educated Africans, we have educated folks
from the Caribbean, we’ve educated folks from all over the United
States and all around the world. That’s a fairly substantial skills
bank that you build up over time.

There was a time when folks said that was all soft. It didn’t make
any difference if you knew how to relate to different people’s
cultures. But people now are specializing in that and are marketing
that — and it’s very, very important. That’s not new to us.

There is a notion of “I can be in a particular discipline that is
totally free of, and not touched by, culture.” But I don’t know what
discipline that is. We don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist in a dynamic
environment. It happens that the dynamic environment of Howard
University is the United States of America first, and it is the African
American community as well. And the two are not inconsistent with one
another because we helped define that larger United States of America.

Fast Facts Howard University

Founded: 1867
1997-98 operating budget: $539.5 million
Standard and Poor's debt rating: A+

Doctoral and professional programs offered:

African Studies Materials Science
Anatomy Mathematics
Atmospheric Science Mechanical Engineering
Biochemistry Medicine
Business Administration Microbiology
Chemistry Nutritional Science
Communications Pharmacology
Economics Physics
Education Physiology
Electrical Engineering Political Science
English Psychology
Genetics and Social Work
Human Genetics Sociology and
History Anthropology
Law Zoology

1995 Doctoral degrees awarded: 68
1995 Law Degrees awarded: 97
1995 Medical Degrees: 123

(*)Total Full-Time Faculty: 764
(*)Total Full-Time African American Faculty: 516

(*) Source: Office of Post Secondary Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1995

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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