In a move seen as a win for HBCUs and a potential boon for diversity in America’s intelligence community, Howard University on Wednesday announced that recently ousted FBI director James Comey has been appointed to an endowed chair on public policy.
“I am pleased to welcome Mr. Comey to Howard,” Howard University president Wayne A.I. Frederick said in a statement. “His expertise and understanding of the challenges we continue to face today will go a long way in sparking rich discussion and advancing meaningful debates across campus.”
As the 2017-2018 Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard, Comey is slated to deliver the opening convocation address on Sept. 22.
The appointment of Comey won high marks among former intelligence community members for what it means for diversity, including from former CIA director Leon Panetta.
“I think the appointment of former FBI director Comey to a public policy chair at Howard University is an important move both for Howard as well as for James Comey, because I think that campus is renowned for diversity and for trying to deal with the challenges facing our country,” Panetta, co-founder at chairman at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, said Wednesday in a phone interview with Diverse.
Dr. Edna Reid, a retired FBI intelligence analyst who is now an associate professor of intelligence analysis at James Madison University, said Comey’s appointment could do much to expose students to careers in the intelligence field, which Comey himself has lamented suffers from a lack of diversity.
Reid said part of the reason African Americans are so few and far between in the FBI is because the federal agency’s historical relationship with the African American community “has not been very positive.”
“We see FBI agents as racist agents coming to raid our homes and things like that,” Reid said.
Comey, Reid said, would be “one of those spokesmen who can pull from his intelligence and policy experience” and show students that there are “different aspects of intelligence that the average person wouldn’t think about and also see the diverse range of careers that are available.”
Comey is no stranger to HBCUs and has gone on record championing the cause of diversity and tackling complex matters of race.
For instance, in a 2016 speech to Historically Black Colleges and Universities Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators Annual Training Conference, Comey said that “one of the central narratives of American life is race.”
“It’s also something we have a hard time talking about,” Comey said during the speech at Bethune-Cookman University — just days after the killing of five police officers in Dallas by a Black veteran upset over the police killings of Black men.
“The answer to our challenge is we’ve got to get over that,” Comey said of America’s difficulties in discussing race. “We have to get close to each other and talk about what is bothering both sides and what is true about civilians and what is true about law enforcement.”
Comey also explained how he was “thinking of diversity in the FBI.”
“We have a crisis in the FBI, and it is this: Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing,” Comey also said Bethune-Cookman, citing statistics that showed the agency was 83 percent white in its special agent category.
“That is a path to a fall down a flight of stairs, because at some point, people will look at the FBI and say, ‘Well, that’s where white people work,’ and then 83 percent will become 100 percent, and we will be less effective for the American people,” Comey said.
Comey can also speak from a unique vantage point about the federal agency’s troubled historical relationship with the African American community.
For instance, in a different speech at the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama — site of the infamous 1963 bombing by members of the KKK that killed four girls — Comey spoke of how he kept on his desk a memo from the first FBI director — J. Edgar Hoover — that sought to wiretap Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., to remind him of the awesome power of the FBI and the need for that power to be checked.
Comey is also no stranger to issues of diversity in higher education. For instance, as a journalist at The Flat Hat, a student newspaper the College of William & Mary, Comey penned a controversial article that probed the institution’s struggle to increase Black enrollment.
In his post at Howard, he is set to lead and conduct five lectures during the academic year that feature speakers who will touch on a variety of topics, according to the university.
Criminal justice reform is among the topics Comey is expected to address, a university spokeswoman told Diverse.
“Like all of us, Mr. Comey recognizes that the criminal justice system is not perfect and there are elements that need to be reformed in order to ensure everyone is treated equally under the law,” said Crystal Brown, vice president and chief communications officer at Howard.
“He wanted to come to Howard to engage with the student body and discuss how law enforcement can work together with them and the broader public to restore confidence and create a system that is fair for all,” Brown said.
Details of precisely how Comey came to be appointed the chair at Howard were not revealed, but his appointment will not be his first connection with the university.
For instance, back in February, Comey invited President Frederick to deliver a keynote address at the FBI, Brown said. Details of that address were not revealed.
Perhaps the elephant in the room with regard to the Comey appointment is that Howard University — which relies on the federal government for funding, to the tune of $221,399,000, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education budget request — would bring on Comey despite his recent firing by the mercurial President Donald J. Trump. Trump fired Comey over concerns of “this Russia thing with Trump,” a reference to the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.
Given the fact that the Twitter-happy commander-in-chief has previously threatened via Twitter to cut off federal funding from the University of California, Berkeley over issues of free speech, Howard could easily become a target for President Trump’s ire. In a recent incident, two White high school girls from New Jersey reported being harassed on the campus of Howard University because they were wearing attire in support of President Trump. One of the girls said a Howard student took a “Make America Great Again” hat off her head.
Frederick was not made available for interviews Wednesday, and Howard University did not respond to a request for comment from Diverse over concerns that Howard mishandled the incident and failed to forcefully or immediately condemn it.
However, in a statement obtained by the Washington Post, Frederick reaffirmed the university’s commitment to free speech, saying that “engagement, now more than ever, is the answer.”
“But that engagement must occur in a respectful manner between all parties on even footing,” Frederick said. “Howard is a community where freedom of speech in all forms and opposing views are respected. Every member of our community should further their truth through meaningful interaction and embrace differing opinions, while not compromising principles and ideals.”
Panetta, the former CIA director, said he didn’t foresee Trump retaliating against Howard simply because Howard appointed the FBI director that Trump fired.
“This is a volatile time in our country, and there are a lot of things going on at a lot of campuses across the country and a lot of communities and state governments, a lot of whom in one way or another depend on receiving federal funds,” Panetta said. “I just think at this point in time that — whether it’s a university or someone at the community level — I think the important thing is to do what’s right and what they believe in.
“If they do that, I think in the end they really shouldn’t fear any kind of retaliation from government,” Panetta said. “I just don’t see that as a real threat because there are so many people who are speaking out with regard to the administration.”
Although the Trump administration may raise threats, Panetta said “the reality is that in the end I think they’ll have a difficult time just cutting off funding for the sake of trying to achieve retribution of one kind or another.”
Comey said in a statement through Howard University that he was honored to hold the King chair.
“Howard has a longstanding history of being a vibrant academic community and the perfect place to have rich dialogue on many of the most pressing issues we face today,” Comey in a statement. “I look forward to contributing to this remarkable institution and engaging students and faculty alike.”
The Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy was established with a $1 million donation from businesswoman and former Social Security Administration commissioner Gwendolyn S. King and her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Colbert I. King, in 2008.
The chair is meant to encourage “highly accomplished individuals to come to Howard and share their experiences with current students,” according to the university. Both the Kings are Howard alumni.
Comey will donate the $100,000 he gets in compensation from the position to a special university fund to support students coming from a foster home environment, according to the university.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.