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A View from the Founders: Diverse at 35

Watson Headshot

During the initial preparation for the inaugural edition of Black Issues In Higher Education, co-founders Dr. Bill Cox and Frank L. Matthews spoke with a large number of professionals throughout the country. They also spent many days, weeks and months surveying the higher education community to determine the need for a professional publication of this nature.

“After researching, analyzing and listening to the pros from all sectors of higher education, it became obvious that a publication with this focus was long overdue,” they wrote, chronicling the magazine’s history. “The results of our analysis also revealed a high level of interest in the diversity of information we planned to report on and carry in the magazine.”

For Cox and Matthews, the objectives were always clear. The magazine would share a full range of events, trends and occurrences that spoke to and about Black participation in the field of higher education. Recruitment strategies, successful retention programs, curriculum, faculty development and the critical analysis of governmental policies were also core, relevant subjects addressed in each issue.

Black Issues In Higher Education was launched in March 1984. In 2005, the publication was renamed Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. Published biweekly, we remain the only national newsweekly today focusing on matters of access and opportunity for all in higher education.

Dr. Jamal Eric Watson, who served as executive editor for Diverse, recently interviewed Cox and Matthews about the publication’s storied history and the impact that it has had on the higher education landscape. The interview has been edited.

Dr. William E. Cox, President/CEO & Co-Founder

Dr. William E. CoxDr. William E. Cox

JW: What is your sense of where we are with regard to the publication? Are you pleased when you look back over these 35 years?

BC: I am very pleased with the quality and I think we have one of the best staffs we could have. I am very pleased with the outcome — every two weeks that the magazine comes out.

JW: When you and Frank started the publication in 1984, did you think it would become what it has become today?

BC: No. It was more than an idea, it was a concept. We started Black Issues In Higher Education simply because there was a void in the higher education community. The only one out there in higher education at that time was Chronicle of Higher Education. We attempted to do something for Black faculty and administrators and so Black Issues was started. When we started in 1984, we were only coming out once a month. And I told Frank that in order to attract advertisers, we needed to be more frequent and so we started to come out twice monthly, after two years.

JW: And what was the impetus to change the name? Looking back, was that a good move?

BC: I think so, because we had to become more inclusive rather than just Black issues. We changed the name to Diverse to include Hispanics, American Indians, Whites. We did those things.

JW: Are there similarities in the kind of stories that we were writing then and today?

BC: The issues are very similar. And we have done a good job reporting on all of the issues in higher education.

JW: You have turned over the day-to-day operations to the next generation. Where do you see the publication moving forward?

BC: I hope that we will be around for another 35 years and the kids are doing a good job. You are doing a good job. We are doing a good job of writing and reporting. I am very confident that things are in good hands. I enjoy reading Diverse: Issues In Higher Education and I think we’ve done good things. The daily newsletters, breaking stories on the web, I see things moving ahead better than before. More than Frank and I could ever realize. I think we’ve had a tremendous impact on the higher education community. That’s what we’re all about. That’s why we hired the people to take charge and move forward.

JW: What are you most proud of?

BC: Technological changes. We did about 45 videoconferences all centered around the higher education community. And because technology changes, that business ran out on us. But it was not uncommon for us to come up with 500-600 colleges and universities to sign up to further get the word out in addition to the publication.

JW: Congratulations! It’s nice to see the fruit of your labor.

BC: That has a lot to do with the people onboard today. That is quite evident.

Frank L. Matthews, Co-Founder

JW: How would you assess the current landscape and Diverse’s role in it?

FM: I think the key has always been to be relevant. The demographics and the whole context of race and education have evolved and we’ve tried to keep up with that through the years. Our mantra has been to be relevant, to be useful and to put out quality journalism.

JW: Are you surprised by the publication’s longevity? Did you know when you started this enterprise that you and Bill were on to something?

FM: We started with my role as the affirmative action officer at George Mason University. I saw in that role what the needs of higher education were, at least at my institution. And there was an informational void. At that time, the educational media generally defined Black issues in terms of HBCUs. And so, reflecting on my own personal experience — I went to Clemson University for undergraduate school and to the University of South Carolina for graduate and law school — and was teaching at George Mason University. No one was speaking to the things I was dealing with, that I had dealt with in my education. It seemed like there was a dearth of information and I knew we would be successful if we did quality work.

JW: Obviously, the decision to change the name in 2005 made some people unhappy. Was it the right decision?

FM: Yes, and at the time, there were a couple of things that converged to confirm for me at least, that it was the right decision. One was the Michigan case and we were getting a lot of pushback from our readers and the universities who interpreted that case to mean that you couldn’t do anything that was race specific. So the name Black Issues became a problem because they said that was race specific and that may be illegal. We never were race specific. From Day 1, we always covered all of higher education. That was a clear indicator that the bottom line — in other words, the revenue base for the publication — was taking a decline. So that was just a reality of staying in business. If you’re in business, the name of the game is to stay in business.

The other one was more personal. I always thought of race in a kind of two-tier dimension: African-Americans and White people because that was my experience but when my first grandchild was born, he was bi-racial — African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. And that got my attention. Later, I had another grandchild who is biracial, in fact Brazilian. So, those two personal experiences really confirmed to me that it was the right thing to do.

And third, and equally important, was the idea of trying to live a Christian life — everyone is equal in God’s sight. So, everything we did needed to reflect that view as well. We’ve never been an advocacy magazine. People were upset because they felt that we were the advocates for African-Americans when we changed our name. We never set out to be an advocacy magazine. We were always an informational magazine, at least in our news reporting.

JW: One of the brilliant moves that you made was the hiring of professional journalists from the beginning and allowing them to make editorial decisions.

Cox and Matthews at a teleconference in the early days.Cox and Matthews at a teleconference in the early days.

FM: That was extremely important and probably attributed more to our success than anything else. Neither Bill nor I were journalists. We had educational backgrounds. Bill ran counseling and education programs for the Department of the Air Force and I was at George Mason. We knew nothing about journalism. At that time, we didn’t know a typesetter from a typewriter. The printing of the publication was a complete learning experience but we were blessed to have people like you taking the lead and what we tried to do was stay out of the way and we have been very fortunate and blessed that through these years we have been able to hire people who share that professional work ethic.

JW: Was there always a sense when you started the publication that it would eventually be taken over by the next generation?

FM: I think that was always there. Being a parent, you’re always thinking about your children and their future. We did not groom anybody to major in journalism or media. That may have been a mistake, but in hindsight, in looking at the entire scope of things, it probably was best because we were able to bring in people who had a free hand to do what they think is best for the readers and for the magazine itself.

JW: Looking back over these 35 years, is there one thing that you’re most proud of?

FM: There have been so many. One thing that happened, that spun from the magazine and had its nucleus in the magazine was the John Hope Franklin awards. We covered scholars and I looked around and I saw a lot of people getting awards and I got to know Dr. Franklin and then I realized the breadth and depth of his research and scholarship. And I said, ‘There needs to be an award named for him.’ So, I feel very, very proud of that.

At one point, we got to doing video conferences and one of our early conferences was on the Black student athlete and included Arthur Ashe. Arthur was very concerned about academics and looking around, once again, there was a void. No one was recognizing the student athletes of color and the stereotype was that they were all dumb jocks and we found that was far from the truth. There was an abundance of young men and women of color who were doing extraordinary jobs in the classroom and the athletic field and no one bothered to recognize them. So, Arthur’s widow was kind enough to let us use his name and we still have that program, as well as the John Hope Franklin program.

These programs are ancillary to the magazine itself, but I think in terms of the magazine itself, one of my proudest moments was when we had to stare down a lawsuit that would have closed us down because a prominent college president didn’t like what we had written and hired a very powerful law firm. We stood by our team — our editors and our writers were right. That one reached all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States over the confirmation and the backdrop of the characters involved with the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. We had to hire a law firm to defend us and go to battle, but we are proud of the fact that we stood our ground. Because we were right and we knew we were right and we had the facts. We wrote the story and we stayed on the story until we were vindicated.

 Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson

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