Well, the meeting went well, and I can now tell you a bit about my new gig. It looks as though I am going to be pretty busy for the next several years. Some background is required.
Greensboro is the third largest city in North Carolina. It is in the part of the state referred to as "The Piedmont," about fifty miles west of my home town of Chapel Hill on Interstate 40. Half a century ago, Greensboro, like all of the south and much of the north, was segregated. Blacks were denied admission to restaurants, swimming pools, colleges and universities, and all manner of other accommodations, public and private. Jim Crow was the official and unofficial law of the land.
Greensboro is home to two historically Black colleges: North Carolina A&T, which at that time was exclusively for men, and Bennett College, then, as now, a college for Black women. On February 1, 1960, a small group of NC A&T men and Bennett women walked to Elm Street in the center of town and sat down at the lunch counter in Woolworth's, asking to be served. As they anticipated, they were denied service because they were Black, but instead of leaving meekly and quietly, four of the young men remained seated at the lunch counter, returning with their Bennett College supporters every day asking to be served. Thus was invented the "sit-in," a weapon widely used in the Civil Rights Movement and many other protest movements as well.
A world away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was a young Instructor in Philosophy at Harvard University. A number of us each Saturday picketed the Woolworth's in Harvard Square in sympathy with the brave young men and women who were challenging Jim Crow in North Carolina. As I walked up and down on Brattle Street carrying my sign, I could not possibly have imagined that thirty-two years later Esther Terry, one of those young Bennett women, would invite me to join the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, of which she had become the Chair, to help create, and then for twelve years to run a groundbreaking doctoral program in Afro-American Studies. Nor could I have foreseen, even then in 1992, that twenty years later still, I would be living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and that Esther, now retired from UMass, would be the new Interim President of her alma mater. Once again, she has called on me to work with her on an exciting, ground-breaking project, this time at Bennett.
Bennett is a tiny church related liberal arts college of 700 students and sixty-one full-time faculty, the oldest historically Black women's college in the world. It is desperately poor, perpetually struggling to keep its doors open. Its mission is to prepare young Black women for productive lives and careers of service to society as a whole. Right now, it is not fulfilling that mission, for more than sixty percent of each entering class never manages to graduate.
In the world of higher education, the customary benchmark by which a college's success is measured is the "six year graduation rate." When I was a lad, students rarely took a year or more off from college before finishing, but this is now so common that it is customary to collect six-year rather than four-year graduation statistics. Needless to say, the success rates of colleges and universities vary widely. Harvard's six year graduation rate is a stellar 93% [although given the care with which they handpick their students from tens of thousands of applicants, it is a little hard to see how they manage to lose seven percent of them!] Princeton's is an almost perfect 97%.
The national six year graduation rate of the more than two thousand five hundred four year American colleges and universities is 55%, which means that almost half of all the young people who go to college never earn their degrees. Bennett's record is significantly worse. Although in a college that small, the figures fluctuate, in the most recent six-year group -- those who entered in 2005 -- only 39% had earned their degrees by 2011. It is useful to provide some context here. Among the eighty-three Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs], the six-year graduation rate averages 37%, a bit worse than Bennett's. By way of contrast, the other [and vastly wealthier] HBCU for women, Spelman College, has a six year graduation rate of 70%.
Very simply, Esther has invited me to work with the Bennett faculty and administration to craft a program that will address this problem and measurably improve Bennett's retention and graduation rates. I have designed a program, and I am now in discussions with the senior members of the administration on ways to implement it, starting with a pilot program to go in to effect right now [before I leave for a month in Paris on June 9th!]
This is going to be the hardest thing I have ever attempted in the real world. Next to this, creating an outstanding doctoral program or a successful scholarship organization was a walk in the park. But I am mindful of Marx's famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. And as I have so often observed, on this blog and elsewhere, changing even a little bit of the world takes an enormous effort, and changing a little bit more takes ten times as much effort.
As time goes on, I will report on the structure of the new program, once we have worked out its details, and down the road I will report on its success or failure. If I can be instrumental in simply raising Bennett's six-year graduation rate from 39% to 50% or 60%, that will be a triumph, worth much more than producing yet another book or series of journal articles.
As I am now seventy-eight, this will, I am sure, be my Last Hurrah.