Around lunchtime on a recent December afternoon, dozens of inquiring spectators crowded into the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge to hear from one of the city’s newest powerbrokers.Photo courtesy of LSU
Some were naturally suspicious.
While they frequently saw Dr. William F. Tate IV on the local news and marveled at how he had successfully recruited Brian Kelly from Notre Dame to become Louisiana State University (LSU)’s head football coach earlier that month, they really didn’t know him.
“He seems like a really smart guy,” one lawyer quipped about Tate, as he picked over his chicken, rice pilaf and a tossed salad during the rotary meeting luncheon. “But more than anything, I’m here really to find out what he’s all about. We just don’t know him.”
In this city of about 750,000, the person who helms Louisiana State University is of importance to the locals, even those who have never attended the public-land grant university.
During football season, local enthusiasts eagerly crowd into Tiger Stadium — an arena that can hold 100,000 people — to cheer on LSU’s football team. Former basketball titan Shaquille O’Neal is an alumnus, as is Olympian hurdler and bobsledder Lola Jones. There’s little question that LSU sports is important to the fabric of the city that hugs the Mississippi River. But so too is academics and the nearly 35,000 students currently enrolled at the state’s flagship university.
It’s one of the reasons why Tate — a veteran higher education leader — has spent the past year barnstorming the state to introduce himself to key stakeholders after he was named LSU’s first Black president.
In order, Tate said, for the university to maintain its world-class standing as a premier research institution, the state legislature, alumni, and the philanthropic community all have a unique role to play in rallying behind its mission.
“It’s important to us to engage in cooperative partnerships that advance an agenda that allows for our people here to flourish,” said Tate, who during his speech at the Rotary Club that afternoon introduced himself as an “active and engaged citizen of the world,” whose upbringing in Chicago was deeply influenced by his family’s southern roots via Oxford, Mississippi.
A prominent educational researcher, who rose through the ranks as a professor, department chair, dean, provost and now university system president, Tate is a rare academician whose cutting-edge scholarship and interests are a bit interdisciplinary, blending a research agenda that centers the importance of mathematics education, Black education, geospatial science, and epidemiology.
When COVID-19 took hold of the nation and paralyzed higher education, Tate used his background as an epidemiologist to publicly sound the alarm on the seriousness of the pandemic.
“We have one option: flatten the curve,” he wrote in an op-ed published in Diverse in March 2020. “Social distancing is the water to put out this fire. Cancel public events. Close schools and colleges. Limit travel. Telecommute to work. Maintain physical distance. Watch church online; this is a culturally sensitive matter. However, if you love your neighbor, then act in a fashion to slow the spread of this virus.”
He would rely on his own advice to weather the pandemic, first as dean of the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis, and then as executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina, before being appointed president at LSU.
Last September, Tate was invited to the White House to brief President Joe Biden and his COVID Response Team on the success of LSU’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Throughout the pandemic, Tate was particularly concerned about the health disparities that impacted local, poor people of color and has long viewed access to healthcare as a basic, fundamental right.Photo courtesy of LSU
“We have to deal with poverty and all of the social determinants thereof,” he said in a recent interview with Diverse, adding that he remains laser-focused on using his public profile and the resources of LSU to work toward eradicating cancer.
“We’ve got to deal with the cancer problem. The disparities are quite high,” he said, noting that in rural communities, for example, the lack of access to the highest medical care is an urgent and pressing issue.
He said that he is committed to helping the state through LSU’s two medical schools and through the institution’s biomedical centers to “create a network of cancer assets from research to clinical to prevention to make sure we are doing everything we can for the state of Louisiana.”
“You shouldn’t have to get in the car and drive to MD Anderson,” he said, referencing the University of Texas Cancer Center located in Houston, Texas. “You should be able to get care here.
“This is just a basic dignity we should provide for people in our least affluent environments and if we do that and we do it at scale where we are really providing opportunity for people to have excellent care, that’s just the purpose of the flagship,” he added. “You do those things that people need. No one in the state can do it. We’re the ones.”
To be clear, Tate isn’t a social justice activist in the traditional sense of the word. He’s first and foremost a scholar, with bona fides as a past president of the American Educational Research Association. Still, he acutely understands how education can be a great equalizer for those in society.
“You will hear me talk about scholarship first,” he told the Rotary members who clung onto his every word and nodded in agreement. He referenced the stages of child development of parallel play — in which children play adjacent to each other, but do not try to influence one another’s behavior — as a metaphor for how LSU must move throughout the city of Baton Rouge, and indeed the state.
“If the state of Louisiana is to attain the highest and optimal level of our people, we must move beyond parallel play,” he said.
By the end of his speech, it was clear to the Rotarians that although Tate may be an outsider, he was now one of them — a true Tiger — through and through.
“I like him,” the lawyer whispered to his banking friend who was seated across from him at the table. “He’s got what it takes to move LSU forward. I’m a fan.”
Though Tate himself prefers not to dwell on the historic nature of his appointment as the first Black president in LSU’s 162-year-old history, it inevitably is top of mind for professors, administrators, students and even members of the board of supervisors who see his selection as president of LSU not only as a symbolic marker, but a significant turning point in what had been a troubled and complicated history for the institution.
Alexander “A.P.” Tureaud Jr. was the first Black undergraduate student admitted to LSU in 1953.
“It was probably one of the worst experiences I had ever been through,” Tureaud told students during a visit to LSU back in 2019. “I was totally isolated and nobody spoke to me.”
In 2011, LSU granted him an honorary doctorate and in 2018, he was the keynote speaker for the school’s College of Art and Design’s graduation ceremony.Photo courtesy of LSU
“To be successful as a leader, no matter what your background is, you have to connect it to the people, all the people,” Tate said. “How do you connect? You come to understand and appreciate their history. You come to understand and appreciate their personal journey. You don’t assume anything. You let them talk to you and help you understand what’s really happening.”
During his inauguration speech at LSU, Tate showed the audience a picture of where his grandfather grew up in Mississippi because he wanted them to know that even though he was not raised in Louisiana, “my family helped build the American South. I’m not down here as somebody who is disconnected from this. These are people who are impactful to my life, and I am connected to it, and I do respect it.”
Today, there is record enrollment for African American and Latinx students, and Tate predicts that LSU will remain attractive to students from across the country, “because we have something to offer at LSU. We have great faculty, wonderful culture, and it’s just a good place to be. I think we will be very attractive.”
Javin D. Bowman, LSU’s student government president, called Tate an “electrifying” leader who has been an exemplar for him and other students.
“He doesn’t always look the most excited,” said Bowman, a senior from Shreveport, Louisiana. “But when he speaks and he talks, it’s just electrifying.”
Bowman, who is the fourth African American to serve as LSU's student government president, remembers shedding a tear after it was announced that Tate was coming to LSU.
“It just showed me that Black people can do whatever they want,” he said, adding that he had contemplated a career as a lawyer, but after meeting Tate, he is considering other options as well, including potential careers in higher education and healthcare.
“He made me realize my potential,” said Bowman, who frequently texts with Tate about student related issues and has a standing meeting with Tate on the calendar at least once a month.
“Whenever we come to him with an issue or a concern, he responds,” said Bowman. “If students request that he be at an event and he can, he will be there.”
While not overt, race, and even some of Tate’s scholarly research agenda filtered into many of the conversations across Baton Rouge, which is not surprising given how popular former President Donald J. Trump continues to be here.
“We were absolutely committed to finding the best president of LSU. We were not at all committed to hiring an African American,” said Robert S. Dampf, the former chairman of LSU's Board of Supervisors. “I wasn’t born yesterday. Did I consider that a bonus? Absolutely.”
When Tate was provost at the University of South Carolina — a position he accepted after he initially was considered the frontrunner for the presidency there — he came to Baton Rouge for a dinner party and happened to be seated across from Dampf.
At the time, LSU had an interim president but had announced plans to commence a national search.
“After we talked for about an hour and a half, I said, ‘You ought to apply to be president of LSU,'” Dampf recalled, saying that when he left that dinner meeting, he called up the chair of the search committee and told him, “I may have just met the next president of LSU.”
What impressed Dampf about Tate was that after the University of South Carolina presidency had been given to Robert Caslen — though Tate was considered the favorite — Tate accepted a post in Caslen’s cabinet as his provost.
Caslen would later resign from the presidency amid allegations of plagiarism, but by then, Tate had already accepted a post at LSU.
“I was blown away by that loyalty,” said Dampf, who recalled that Tate told him that as provost, his job was to rally about Caslen and to help him become successful in his role as a leader of South Carolina’s flagship.
Building on a storied past
As the one-year anniversary of Tate’s hire approaches, he has received high marks for innovating in five key areas at LSU: agriculture, biotechnology, coast, defense, and energy.
“These investments will transform our research capabilities and drive student outcomes, while ascending to our potential and improving the lives of all Louisianans,” he said. “That is not the culmination of our prioritization — the strategic planning process, which is in its very nascent stages, will more fully cultivate our collective areas of opportunity, engaging stakeholders at every level.”
Dr. Chance W. Lewis, who holds the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professorship of Urban Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and directs The Urban Education Collaborative, hailed Tate’s appointment as a “game-changer.”
“Bill Tate is the epitome of a scholar that has positively influenced the field of educational research at a level where very few have been able to achieve,” said Lewis, a Baton Rouge native.
“His understanding of the power of academic research will continue to have direct economic, academic and societal impact for the state of Louisiana and beyond.”
Tate — who earned a bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University; a master of arts in teaching degree from the University of Texas at Dallas; a master’s degree in psychiatric epidemiology from Washington University School of Medicine and a Ph.D. in mathematics education from the University of Maryland, College Park — said that the challenge of leading an institution bigger than some U.S. towns is that there is never enough resources for the ambitious plans he wants to implement.
Tate said that his diverse career as an elementary school teacher and administrator in Dallas, Texas; a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin and Texas Christian University; and his time as a dean at Washington University in St. Louis and provost at the University of South Carolina, has prepared him for his current role at LSU.
“My job is helping people understand your main goal is to protect and secure the future of the state, while simultaneously capturing and documenting our historical and cultural past,” Tate said. “And if you do that, and you do that well, I think you’re a great flagship university.”