The Labor Day Holiday brings the start of a new academic year at colleges and universities around the nation. This is a time for academics to begin a term with fresh possibilities in our work as teachers, researchers, and citizens. I experienced the breadth and depth of new beginnings at my school’s faculty retreat as I transitioned from one university to another.
Looking across the physically distanced auditorium, I was no longer the only or one of the only Black professors at the fall academic year faculty retreat. Most of the faculty were Black identified. This is an important fact because the latest data from the U.S Department of Education say that 5% of Black faculty are tenure-track or tenured in colleges and universities across the nation. However, 57% of faculty at HBCUs identify as Black. Put another way, there is a 1 in 2 chance that students at Black colleges will be taught, mentored, and/or advised by a Black faculty member.
I have been fortunate to participate in many faculty retreats over the past decade as a mid-career professor and administrator in higher education. None have felt as affirming, loving, encouraging, and supportive as the one I participated in at my new intellectual home - North Carolina Central University's School of Education. None have captured the nuance of these times; the theme "Perplexing Times in Education" centered the realities that Black and other minoritized communities are facing due to COVID-19, ongoing anti-Black racism, and the effects of the January 6th insurrection. None have included a multi-generational, solutions-oriented approach to long standing issues that Black children have faced in schools.
I had a strong sense of belonging at the half-day retreat and the other occasions that I've interacted with students, faculty, and staff. Knowing that this intellectual community was built just for me to thrive, to be challenged, to be supported, and to help educate a new generation of higher education leaders was evident throughout the faculty retreat. An ethic of care was thematic across the speakers, the gestures, and the ways the event was designed.
Gestures involved retrieving name tags, which had faculty member's honorifics displayed (i.e., Dr. Alice Bob; faculty rank; retreat theme); listening to greetings from administrators who centered the active institutional mission of “truth and service;” recognizing the accomplishments of students and faculty; welcoming new faculty; and honoring emeritus faculty for their storied careers. An affirming experience occurred when two musical selections were led by a soloist who brought nearly all participants to their feet after singing Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’s “Wake up Everybody” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” A lunch with a dessert nourished the soul as the final gesture to end the retreat. These symbolisms and gestures were followed by content that focused on the issues that we as educators face today.
Dr. Lisa Delpit, noted educationalist and “MacArthur Genius” recipient, provided insights on "reimagining excellence in troubling times." Delpit discussed how curricular content out to be connected to student’s cultural and intellectual backgrounds and lived experiences, to their communities, and to experiences outside of the classroom. Delpit linked this body of work to Dr. Asa Hilliard's remaking of the African mind and Afro-centrism which affirmed what it is vital about the role of HBCUs in creating conditions that enable Black students to thrive. Appreciating student’s brilliance, their special gifts, and shifting the onus to faculty to develop student’s gifts and brilliance is aligned with what HBCUs have been doing for generations.
I am convinced that connecting curricular content to student’s lived experiences will help me build an inclusive learning environment and help students thrive as learners and emerging higher education professionals. I am equally persuaded that appreciating the brilliance and gifts of my students will provide them a deep sense of belonging, increase their self-worth, and allow me to connect and learn from them about their own interests, knowledge, and experiences in the education profession.
As a higher education scholar and teacher, I often leave conversations centered on P-12 education with lessons learned. I believe that there ought to be more synergies between P-12 and higher education to help tackle these longstanding inequities that exist and that there should be more collaborative opportunities that will positively change the outcomes of individuals and institutions in P-20 education.
Identifying educational problems and generating solutions from a multi-generational perspective was also an organic theme that emerged. There was a discussion on how to help teachers understand the humanity of Black school-aged boys. Scholars have consistently found that Black boys are more likely to be suspended and treated inhumanly in schools. At the retreat, a parent, education faculty, and the presenters modeled how to create conditions that enable student success for Black school-aged boys. This experience was seminar-like where problems were identified, multiple pathways to solutions were offered, and encouragement was embedded throughout the threaded conversations from a non-deficit perspective. It speaks to the value-added nature of what HBCUs do well.
An educator shared their perspective as a parent navigating a school system where they felt their child was not being respected and they felt like their concerns as parents was also overlooked. The presenters affirmed their perspectives, noted that they don't have all the answers, and indicated that often P-12 schools are harsh places for Black children and are a microcosm of society-at-large, which contends with anti-Black racism and white supremacy daily.
I concluded the faculty retreat with a list of new Afro-centric readings, multi-generational perspectives, and an abiding commitment to educate the next generation of higher education professionals at one of the nation's exceptional historically black universities. This type of physical, social, and intellectual space was needed as I embark on my 11th year in academia contending with enduring pandemics, climate change, an eviction moratorium, wildfires, hurricanes, and the withdrawal of a 20-year war that America started. As I reflect on my faculty retreat, I’m left with hope over fear because of the nuanced knowledge added to my toolkit.
Dr. Tryan L. McMickens is an award-winning associate professor of Higher Education and Program Coordinator of the M.S. in Higher Education Administration Program at North Carolina Central University. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTLMcMickens