Thinking About Justice in Little Rock: Philander Smith College

Recently I was invited to address the faculty and staff at Philander Smith College, a small Black college in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The institution’s president, Walter Kimbrough, asked me to talk about the link between fundraising and academic excellence.  As a result of a fantastic visit with the Philander Smith community, I wanted to write about the wonderful progress and changes at the institution in this week’s blog. 
Under the leadership of President Kimbrough, the faculty and staff members are committing themselves to promoting justice in diverse venues and from multiple perspectives.  The institution’s new motto is “Think Justice.” In our current higher education climate, in which colleges and universities are shying away from a commitment to social justice, I think Philander Smith College is brave.  Fewer than 20 colleges and universities in the United States have a mission focused on social justice. Too often, institutions of higher education are running scared from a commitment to equity and leveling the playing field.  Rather, colleges and universities focus on diversity (only) because it makes “us” feel good. 
I was tremendously impressed with the commitment of the Philander Smith College faculty and staff to the institution’s new focus.  In teams, they discussed how each of them – as individuals – could make the college a better place for all of their students, promoting social justice locally and nationally and eventually increasing the likelihood that students will give back to the institution in the future.  They generated concrete, obtainable goals.  This was no sappy brainstorming session, but the creation of a “hands on” to-do list for the college.  I was delighted to see people who truly love their institution and want to see it succeed. As I walked around the room to listen to the team discussions, I didn’t hear any cynicism – an attitude that tends to hold colleges and universities back.
This small college has experienced tough times in the past, suffering accreditation and financial problems and being censured by the American Association of University Professors.  However, Philander Smith College seems to be poised for greatness.  President Kimbrough and his administrative team are working hard to strengthen the institution’s faculty, encourage stronger teaching and research, expand the institution’s fundraising staff, and hire young, energetic staff members. 
 I suggest that readers keep their eyes on Philander Smith College.  Good things and a whole lot of justice are forthcoming!

 
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).