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‘On Fire’ for Bennett: A Conversation With President Julianne Malveaux

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, recently spoke to Diverse at the end of her first year as president of one of the nation’s only two historically Black colleges for women.

During our interview, Malveaux spoke about what she would like to see in this new generation of college presidents — particularly HBCU presidents, her goals for Bennett, social activism on campus, strengthening Bennett’s academic programs, her inspiration, and why she’s “on fire for Bennett.”

DI: With all of the new college presidents, it seems as though we are ushering in a new generation of college leadership. What would you like to see the new generation of HBCU college presidents accomplish?

JM: Our challenge is to provide an excellent, cutting-edge education even as we are resource challenged. All of us share challenges in terms of resources. Many of us have small endowments and other kinds of challenges, but I also think that many of us come with creativity, with great ideas, often with different backgrounds than typical backgrounds — not always, but often. I think that gives us an advantage as we serve our community, the African-American community, where we still have educational disparities in the 21st century.

DI: You once said in a public forum that postsecondary education should be free, and you said it as a person who worked in media. Now that you’re an educator, do you still feel that way?

JM: I feel that it should be, but I’m not sure that it can be. I said that college education should be free, but that does not mean that colleges should not have financial support. What it means is that through government, grants and other sources of support, people who have income challenges should be able to maximize their potential. When I said college education should be free I was speaking as a pundit. As a president, I must say that my bills have to be paid.

DI: What have been some of your greatest challenges and obstacles and how have you overcome them?

JM: My favorite Biblical verse is 1 Corinthians 16:9: “I’m going to do great things and there are many obstacles.” Paul was writing to the Corinthians about his travels. I don’t think that anytime that you go to do something that is significant — that is, of significance — that there’ll be obstacles. I don’t chose to lift those up; I chose to lift up the triumphs. We had a great first year. I’m very excited about what we are able to do in this first year — in terms of our enrollment, in terms of the capital improvements on campus, in terms of the team we are assembling – all those things. I chose not to lift up the obstacles.

DI: What have you done to help increase the school’s enrollment and improve graduation rates?

JM: We’ve spent time on recruitment; we have done things to improve our Web site. We are looking at the image of the college in the public eye. I have, personally as president, traveled and visited high schools across the country to tell the Bennett story and to increase enrollment. The proof is in the pudding, but I think that we’ll be successful.

In terms of graduation rates, we have aggressively this year improved our services to students around tutoring and around academic support. We have a team that has been working very hard to improve the amount of academic support that we provide to students so that students really cannot say that they didn’t have help when they needed it. We are also improving our system of academic advising so that students understand what they need to do before they can graduate. There have been times when students say, “I didn’t know I needed that class.” We’re taking our academic advising to a computerized model so people can just punch in what they need — not to take the human element out of it.

We’re also doing some training with our faculty so that they are advising students around the things that they need to do. In terms of graduation, we are increasing internship and other opportunities for students to incent them to be more invested in their academic careers.

DI: In one of your books, you discuss the lack of economic content in African-American studies programs. How have you used your economic background and strengthened economic courses at Bennett?

JM: One of the things that we are doing now is developing a major in entrepreneurship. That was one of my stated goals, and it’s something that we’re working on. Because I am an economist as well as a journalist, I tend to want to put my hands in those areas in the curriculum. While I did not spend a lot of time on it in the first year because basically the first year was about learning about all that I could about every area in the college, it is an area that we’ll be spending some time on. We’ve also established a financial literacy center, which was something that was in the works before I came and has gotten more attention because of my interest in the area. The core areas where I have spent time in my career are areas where we are looking very closely at curriculum. There have been occasions where I’ve addressed the campus community about economic issues and I think folks have found that to be very useful. Finally, as an economist, I’m able to look at our own financial situation through a different lens.

DI: How do you feel as though you look at Bennett’s finances different than a college president who does not have that economic background?

JM: I think we all look at our dollars very critically, but I am basically looking at futures, looking at markets, looking at ways we can maximize [our] investments and things like that. These are things that I think about all the time and have been thinking about before I’ve came to Bennett. There is a special sensitivity to the way this economy is working and what it means for us and our students, and basically, for our nation.

DI: Is there anything else that you wanted to share or is there anything that you want people to know about Bennett or about yourself?

JM: Sure, when I came to campus there was a headline in the local paper that said I was a “fireball.” It was a kind of interesting headline. As a college president, you don’t necessarily want to be described that way — but I am a fireball. When our director of communications came up with a button that people are wearing, it said, “On Fire for Bennett.” That has been one of my themes — that’s how I sign correspondence sometimes. I am on fire for this college.

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