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Sudarkasa’s epilogue – Niara Sudarkasa, Lincoln University – Interview

After nearly twelve years at the helm of one of the nation’s oldest
historically Black institutions, Lincoln University, Dr. Niara
Sudarkasa resigned last month under a cloud of controversy (see news
story pg 14). The former Gloria A. Marshall has enjoyed a more than
thirty-year career in higher education, punctuated by achievements that
have garnered her both esteem — such as her celebrated work as a
professor of anthropology, and her visionary expansion of Lincoln’s
already prestigious ties to African nations — and ridicule — her 1991
testimony on behalf of then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and
the current allegations of malfeasance. The following are excerpts from
an interview conducted by Black Issues executive editor Cheryl D.
Fields only moments after the much revered and maligned president
announced her resignation.

What was your reaction to the findings in the auditor general’s report?

Obviously, no one wants to have bandied about in the press … the
fact that anybody [from the university] was involved in legal work for
me — particularly legal work having to do with my taxes. But once the
auditor general and investigators decided to report on this, they
reported it in such a way as if perhaps I was the one who required or
requested that the university pay this money, and that was not true.

I pointed out that [Richard] Glanton himself even said that in
hindsight, he should have sent the bills to me. But once it became
clear that if he stuck to that position, then Reed Smith would have to
reimburse the university and then they would have to bill me. [Glanton]
then started backpeddling and coming up with all kinds of reasons why
it was my fault and not his.

Now this is what I call some of the errors in judgment that I feel
reflect on my management of the institution, because quite frankly, I
should have thought down the line about the implications of having
their firm do work for me as opposed to getting another firm
altogether. But when you are on good terms with people, you don’t
necessarily think about what will happen [or] what is the worst-case
scenario here?…

[Investigators] looked into at least eight years, from ’90 to the
present, of my administration. The only thing that they could come up
with to show what they call “poor standard of management” or something
like that, was the fact that I asked to have my furniture replaced and
that the replacement dollars was $1,200 higher than what I actually
paid for it on sale.

I think that’s ridiculous. If you are president and you are engaged
in mismanagement, [they shouldn’t] have to search eight years [to] come
up with this [one] instance. And believe me, if they had had another
example, they would have put it on the table. They had no other

Then the other thing they talked about with respect to the
president was the president’s house…. The fact of the matter is that
this is not my house. Every dime that went into it is permanently
there. There is nothing that I fixed that I can take away.

Is it true that all of the house repairs were approved by the board?

This is where the auditors disagreed. Now first of all, you have to
realize that the $500,000 wasn’t just for renovations. That included
all of the routine maintenance. It included all of the wages of the men
who worked on the routine maintenance. When I say “routine
maintenance,” I mean if you had to paint this, come in for that, repair
the toilets, whatever you have to do, that is counted.

The money also includes roofing, paving the driveway, building a
carport, and building the storage facility that we added onto a barn.
All of that is in the $500,000, mind you….

But this was political. You have to talk about the president
spending a half million dollars, not over any period of time, just a
half million dollars on her house. Now what does that sound like? Those
were the only three, as I remember, the only three findings that
related to the president.

Obviously, the most damaging and disturbing findings had to do with
John Clark. And I tell you this: as sure as I’m sitting here, we are
going to get to the bottom of that…. A lot of people know him. This
… is the furthest thing from his character that you can imagine —
bid rigging and creating ghost companies, all of this done on the

But in looking back, do you think that it was prudent to put your husband in that position?

I don’t think it was prudent. I think someone should have been put
in over him. Because he had and has the talent, I want you to see the
president’s house and see what he did. The president’s house and many
other places on campus reflect his own talent.

[Clark] is a builder, an inventor. He is not a college-educated
engineer or anything like that. I think that part of the fact was that
he was not credentialed in the traditional way [raised many people’s

What I was looking for, frankly, was somebody who was going to help
us repair all these buildings that were in disrepair, including the
president’s house…. We had no money to get it done. And if you look
around this campus, this is not a campus that is in disrepair. And it
didn’t get that way by accident.

But while this was going on, did you ever think, “What are the
people thinking?” or “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea?” Did people say
things to you along the way?

Yes…. I guess, in hindsight, the ideal thing would have been to
find somebody who had the skills that [Clark] had to do the work, or to
find somebody who was more sophisticated administratively under whom he
could work….

I think that one of the biggest lessons for me is that I’m a kind
of “full-steam-ahead” person. You can’t do that in complex
organizations of this sort. You have to make sure that constituents are
informed and with you. And if it means slowing down to get them on
board, you have to slow down.

Do you think, if you had it to do all over again, would you have given your son [Michael Sudarkasa] that contract?

Did you see what those [dollar amounts] were? … I think that’s
ridiculous. Michael was doing us a favor. Are you kidding? … They
were so eager to try to suggest that Michael was given something off

The past eight months represent the latest installment in a series
of quirky episodes that you’ve found yourself in. There was the whole
brouhaha that emerged after you testified in support of Clarence Thomas
during his judicial hearings. Some people were saying then, “Oh, she
sold herself to the devil for this money.”

The Clarence Thomas thing, it was really interesting. I come from a
background that is politically interesting. It’s always been described
by some of the activists as being conservative and radical at the same
time. If you’re a nationalist, you get led in certain directions…. I
didn’t know him. And I said in the future I am going to be a little
more circumspect. But I did not know Judge Thomas, at that time, at all.

What I was saying is, “Look, this is a Black man who has a chance
to go into the Supreme Court. Why should we not support him? Why should
we put a White person on there, [or] put anybody on there instead of

I thought, “Well, Thomas has said that he came up from this
background in the south, and so forth,” and I believed that of the
conservatives, he is likely to be more favorable to us than other
conservatives. You know, Bush was not going to appoint Bill Coleman. He
certainly was not going to appoint … Leon Higginbotham….

When you look over the course of your career, what do you wish you knew when you got started that you know now?

You know what my problem is, I believe I have some devotion to
perspectives on life that come from the African cultures that I have
studied. I absolutely believe that people have to keep learning lessons
until they get them. That doesn’t sound like a very scientific
statement, but then many of us are not scientists.

I said to you before I am a kind of forge-ahead, 1-do-things
person. And in some respects, even though people think of me as being
gregarious, I tend to do a lot of things by myself. I’m a hands-on
person, and I take on jobs and tasks that I really should delegate to
others, [and] involve others in my decisionmaking as well as in
implementing decisions ….

You cannot be a great administrator with that kind of an approach
to things. I have tended to think, “Well, I have this great idea, this
great vision for Lincoln.”… [But] providing a vision is not
sufficient to make a successful administrator, unless you are at a big
university where you have a lot of people doing the ground work, the
organizing, the consensus building, and so on….

But that’s an important lesson. And I have to try to remember that,
if I ever am in another administrative situation — which I am not
certain that I would ever want to be.

When you think about these last eight months, will [they] impact the legacy that you felt you were leaving at Lincoln?

Well, I don’t think it will have much of an impact at all because,
you know, it’s an audit. It’s not as if anybody said, “The president
stole some money. She …”

Well, there are people, like Richard Glanton, who are saying, “she did steal money.”

Well, that hurt. But [it was] an audit that had as much input from
him as you could possibly get. [Investigators] spent eight months
looking and if they found anything, it would have turned it up…. I
would say I have never seen anybody so driven in his pursuit of

Politically, I guess, I was pretty naive. But I want to tell you
this about the Glanton saga: this is not over. This is not over.

What will you do now?

I had my sixtieth birthday a month ago, and I have things to
write…. I want to write a small book about African American families
and family values…. And I want to do more work on the [African]
continent consulting, as well. And I would like to do some things

Maybe one of the things I can do after I rest up a bit, is do some
volunteer lecturing … with schools and colleges, talking about
achievement and excellence, because I’m good at that. I’m very good at
getting students motivated and so on, and I think that would be
something I would like to do.

When you think about the person who is going to succeed you, what
would you hope that that person would bring to this institution?

Well, I tell you what, I guarantee you that it will be a male. Now, I’m willing to guarantee you that.

Why do you say that?

Are you kidding? A lot of what I have confronted at Lincoln has to
do with the fact that I’m a woman heading what was considered to be an
all-male institution — what was, and is still perceived by some
people, as being appropriately male dominated. And I’m not a woman who
deals with men by inferiorizing myself, or making myself feel
diminished — be diminished — in order to lift them up….

People do not necessarily want to show you the same kind of
courtesies or the same kind of respect that they would show male
presidents without even questioning it. Now I think that the atmosphere
has gotten better at Lincoln — far, far, far better…. And I think
that [of] the alumni, particularly of certain generations, some of them
have come around to having a female president. [But] there are others
whom I think would just never accept it.

That’s the reason I said that I would guarantee you that the next
president will be a male — and probably an alumnus. And I think that’s
fine if there’s a male alumnus who was chosen…. I hope that he won’t
engage in bashing his predecessor.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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