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Black Leaders & the Future of Higher Education

U.S. Higher Education is among the nation's most important achievements, though the opportunity it affords isn't experienced equitably.  

IFYC’s president and founder, Eboo Patel, joined Fred Davie (Executive Vice President, Union Theological Seminary), Mary Dana Hinton (President, Hollins University), and Lori White (President, DePauw University) for an engaging conversation as the academic year was getting underway. These phenomenal leaders spoke about how this molten moment opens up new possibilities for building the kind of institutions we need for this moment and beyond.  

Fred Davie: “I bring my Black experience to this job in a way that I will hope will be of value not only to the Black students at Union Seminary but all students at Union seminary. And all the ways in which that story, and my story, might help inform how they write their stories going forward. But also I come to this job as someone who has had a successful career, who has accomplished some things, and I want to use what I have learned and what I have accomplished along the way in doing a job that I do at Union so that we do leave behind when we exit that place, an institution that generations coming after us can actually take advantage of and have as a place to learn and grow and develop into those successive generations of leaders. So stories are important. They are the yeast in a sense to the bread that we are making with our lives both professionally and personally. And just continue the metaphor, bread that then feeds generations that come after us.” 

Mary Dana Hinton: “The world had definitely shifted in the spring of 2020. A number of people have said, how do you make sense of the new racial strife. And my response is that we have been living in racial strife. We’re now starting to heal. And some people may not like what the healing looks like, but the strife has long been there, and we're starting to name it and figure out what to do with it. I think we have to do that. This moment offers us the opportunity to aggressively heal, to take charge of our healing, to help others see the healing. The last thing I will add is you ask about the burden. Does the burden feel heavier right now? And I guess I would say to that the responsibility to lead has always felt heavy to me. If anything, there may be a modicum of relief. Because before May, the hurt that our students felt, the pain that they felt, the dismissal they felt, the condescension they felt, was readily denied by others. We were told, that didn't really happen. It wasn't about race. You don't understand. There's less of that today, I think. And that's a good thing. People understand that our students are hurting. They understand the need for reconciliation. The need to see the pain. So while the responsibility is always great, and I wouldn't want it any other way, there has been, I think, wider recognition of the pain which helps a bit in our need to lead every student we serve. I have to make sure every Hollins student is served well. And there are great opportunities for that right now.” 

Lori WhiteSo when I was offered the position of President of Depauw, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to say yes, understanding the challenge that I would be facing and didn't even know it would be even more challenging given COVID. But I remembered when I was visiting campus, and I was contemplating whether I wanted to say yes to an offer that I was pretty sure was going to come my way, I had a chance to go to one of the iconic buildings on campus. It's the building where they have all of the portraits of the former presidents. And I am president No. 21. As I looked at the previous portraits of the DePauw University presidents and at the same time was asking for a sign from the higher power as to what I should do, I got to the place where the portrait for No. 21 will hang. And I heard the voice say loud and clear, you need to say yes. Not just for you, but for future generations of this institution and to hopefully be an inspiration to young women, to people of color, and others who might have never imagined that somebody who looks like me, and who looks like President Hinton, would one day be president of a liberal arts college in Indiana. That's ultimately how I ended up here, based I think on my family commitment to service, to paying life forward, and to understand that we do this work not just for us but hopefully to inspire the generations that come after us. 

Access the full conversation here.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.