Following in the Footsteps of Legends
By Add Seymour Jr.
Stepping down after 12 years at the helm of Morehouse College, Dr. Walter Massey has carved out his own legacy at an institution known for producing Black leaders.
Walter Massey and Morehouse College seem to have been destined for each other. His enrollment to the college in the 1950s was more a matter of fate than anything else. When his mother drove a group of boys from his hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., up to the college to take an early admission test, a 16-year-old Massey went along for the ride.
Nearly 40 years later, with Massey poised to become head of the massive University of California system, he found himself instead back at Morehouse.
Now, after 12 years at the helm of the nation’s largest all-male liberal arts institution, Massey says he’s ready to retire. But during his half-century-long association with Morehouse, he’s cemented his legacy at an institution known as much for its tight family structure as for producing Black leaders. Some at the school say Massey’s name could be mentioned in the same breath as two other legendary Black educators and former Morehouse presidents: Benjamin Mays and John Sales.
“He has been a blessing to the college and an asset to the city of Atlanta,” says Fulton County Commissioner Jim Maddox, a 1956 Morehouse graduate.
Atlanta was a long way from Hattiesburg, literally and figuratively, Massey remembers.
Segregation and racism were an ever-present part of life in the Deep South, he says. “But I had a very happy childhood, if you can separate segregation from our lives.”
His father worked in a chemical factory and his mother was a school principal. She was the one he says instilled education as a foundation very early in his life.
“At that point, I thought I might go into music, but I always liked mathematics,” says Massey, who as a teen played saxophone in a band called The Blue Gardenias. “I didn’t want to be a high school teacher because everybody did that.”
When his mother took 15 local boys to Morehouse to apply for an early admission program, Massey also applied, although he admits, he wasn’t a star student. He says he was surprised to be selected, but decided he would attend Morehouse.
Younger than almost all of the other students, Massey says he was intimidated, both by the students and by the big city.
“It was frightening,” he says. “I just felt I’d never make it here. I actually called my mother and told her I wanted to go home on the second day.”
But at the end of the term, Massey had ranked fifth among his first-year classmates, and he realized he could not only make it at Morehouse, but also excel. He graduated in four years and began a teaching and research career in physics.
The Path Less Traveled
On his walk each morning to his office, which overlooks the center of Morehouse’s campus, Massey usually encounters some of the nearly 3,000 “men of Morehouse” — they don’t become “Morehouse Men” until they graduate — as they scurry to classes.
Massey, who turned 69 in April, can often be seen strolling across campus amongst them.
He says he was initially uninterested in the Morehouse job, but changed his mind, becoming the school’s ninth president in 1995. He’d already built a reputation as a major academic figure. Looking to have a broader impact beyond research and teaching, he had been a dean at Brown University and was later appointed head of the National Science Foundation by then-president George H.W. Bush in 1991. By 1993 he was vice provost of the UC system. The provost position, one of the most influential in American higher education, was within his sight. That’s when Morehouse entered the picture.
At the urging of his son and other Morehouse alums, Massey accepted the post, but insisted that he live on campus. He says it was important for him and his wife, Shirley, to be highly visible around campus, mainly to build a sense of their commitment to the school and the community.
“One of the things we agreed on was, if we come back to Morehouse, I wanted to be around students,” Massey says.
But despite his professed desire to connect with the men of Morehouse, some students say it’s been among his weaker areas. Andre Okoreeh, a 20-year-old junior majoring in biology, chemistry and physics, is one of them.
“I believe he’s done a great job in the community, as in raising funds for the school,” Okoreeh says. “But I think he’s kind of failed incommunicating on a personal level with students.”
The concern among some students is that Massey has spent more time cultivating relationships with the community and corporate world than he has with students, says Brandon Lawrence, the 19-year-old editor of the school’s paper, The Maroon Tiger.
“A lot of students want to feel that their president is there for them,” says Lawrence, a sophomore.
But while some debate his effectiveness in interacting with his students, no one questions Massey’s track record in the community and corporate world.
The school’s largest-ever capital campaign had hoped to reach $105 million. It reached $120 million. New buildings have sprouted up across campus, while others have seen massive upgrades under Massey’s watch.
Led by Morehouse, the Atlanta University Center schools — which also includes Clark Atlanta University, the Interdenominational Theological Center, Morris Brown College and Spelman College — have all had a hand in revamping the surrounding community, which had been full of dilapidated housing developments and abandoned houses.
A new apartment/townhouse complex now sits across the street from Morehouse, and other redevelopment plans are in the works. Much of the revitalization can be traced back to Massey’s corporate connections — he sits on the boards of Bank of America, British Petroleum, Delta Air Lines and others.
“I’m not sure if I could have had the success with the capital campaign if I didn’t have the relationships that I’ve found in these organizations,” he says. “The [Morehouse board of trustees] has recognized that it’s had value.”
Students have also thrived, as there have been two Rhodes Scholars, two Marshall Scholars and two Pickering Scholars during Massey’s tenure. Massey has worked to create an academic village concept that encourages intellectual thought along with scholastic achievement. He’s also been part of local efforts to strengthen K-12 education, quality of life in Atlanta and other civic issues.
But one of the biggest coups of Massey’s term is the school’s acquisition of the personal papers of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., arguably Morehouse’s most famous alum. The King family was about to put the invaluable collection up for auction, but a cadre of Atlanta political and business leaders quietly raised $32 million to buy the papers and to have them housed at Morehouse.
“[Massey] says his legacy will largely be measured by bringing the papers to Morehouse,” says Phillip Howard, the university’s vice president of institutional advancement. “He made very clear that we’d move heaven and earth to get it done and get [the papers]
But despite the success and the accolades, Massey’s time at Morehouse hasn’t been without its trials and tribulations. The sensitive issue of homosexuality on campus became a heated topic after a student used a baseball bat to beat another student who he said looked at him in a shower stall in 2002. That incident has led to a controversial dialogue about gay students’ place at the college. Gay communities in Atlanta and nationwide criticized Massey’s slow reaction to addressing, or even talking about, the issue. And although there is a thriving gay community in the Atlanta University Center, the response has also fed into a perception that Morehouse doesn’t want to deal with the issue of homosexuality on campus.
“We wanted him to open up the campus and have an open dialogue with students, but he didn’t want to have an open dialogue,” says Donna Payne of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. “It was about six to eight months, but after that, he let us on campus. They have been slow, but they have been much better.”
In 2006, Massey faced another crisis when some then-current and former students tortured and killed another student in a robbery.
“Those incidents took a lot of work to deal with,” Massey says. “The first incident took a lot of time and attention, causing us a lot introspection.”
Despite these incidents, many people say Morehouse is on much firmer ground since Massey’s arrival.
“Students that I’ve run across feel Massey has done an exceptional job in getting the Morehouse name to the next level, be it raising money and building new buildings,” says Lawrence. “I think Morehouse would lose that comfortable feeling from a school that’s had a president who’s been there for 12 years. I mean, [the stability of a long-serving leader] does give you a feeling of comfort.”
Clark Atlanta University President Walter Broadnax, who is dealing with his school’s own financial and legal issues, remembers talking with Massey during CAU’s tougher days.
“I call him my big brother because I admire him so much,” Broadnax says. “He’s done such a great job at Morehouse. He’s just a fine gentleman.”
On May 20, Massey will deliver his final commencement address. Morehouse holds its commencement activities on the school’s lawn each year, and the event has morphed into a who’s who in Black entertainment, politics and education.
Still the focus is on the conferring of degrees to several hundred men — most of whom are Black. Two of the last three graduating classes have been the school’s largest ever.
Trustees have chosen Dr. Robert Franklin Jr., a Morehouse alum who teaches social ethics at Emory University, as Massey’s successor.
For his part, Massey says he will continue to keep busy and stay in close contact with the school while continuing to serve on multiple corporate boards. He and his wife will also spend time in their homes in Atlanta, Chicago and Cape Cod, Mass., and doting on their two grandchildren.
But Morehouse will always be in his thoughts.
“I have really enjoyed my 12 years,” Massey told a group of Atlanta politicians, many of them Morehouse graduates. “For any job like this, you have your ups and downs. Looking back though, this has been the best job in my career.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com