Medgar Evers College Embroiled In Dispute

A criminal justice think tank run by former prisoners faces eviction from its home on a Brooklyn campus. The dispute between Medgar Evers College and the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions is part of a wider split between the administration and faculty over the proper mission of this predominantly black college that's named after a slain civil rights leader. A court hearing on the eviction is scheduled for next month.

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There's a debate raging on the campus of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. That's a public, historically black college name for the slain civil rights leader. The college is trying to evict an academic center run by former prisoners. And as Joel Rose reports, the debate is part of a wider split between administrators and the college community.

JOEL ROSE: Medgar Evers has led the fight for civil rights in Mississippi.

(Soundbite of Medgar Evers' speech)

Mr. MEDGAR EVERS (Civil Rights Activist): All we want you to do is keep going with this fight for freedom. And as we stick together here...

ROSE: His assassination in 1963 inspired songs and demonstrations. Seven years later, educators and community leaders in Brooklyn named a new college in his honor.

Ms. BRENDA GREENE (Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature, Medgar Evers College): Our mission is dedicated to upholding the work that he did and the activism surrounding that.

ROSE: Brenda Greene has taught English at Medgar Evers College for 30 years. Today, the school serves 7,000 commuter students, including many who are not traditional undergraduates. Greene describes the college as a communiversity, with an extra emphasis on the community part.

Ms. GREENE: It's a university. It's a college with communiversity. You can't separate both parts.

ROSE: Yet that's exactly what some community members accuse the school's president and provost of doing since they came to power in 2009. The new administration has pushed for a lot of changes, none more controversial than the decision to evict a criminal justice center run by the formerly incarcerated.

Dr. DIVINE PRYOR (Deputy Executive Director, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions): This is not just a purely academic institution, but it's also a brain thrust.

ROSE: Divine Pryor is the co-founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, which has been based at Medgar Evers College since 2004. The center describes itself as an advocate for former prisoners, both on campus and in policy debates about the nation's criminal justice system. But the new administration was not impressed. Last month, Medgar Evers College provost Howard Johnson moved to evict the center.

Dr. HOWARD JOHNSON (Provost, Medgar Evers College): My goal, clearly, as chief academic officer is to make sure that we can have the highest academic standards for our students, and I didn't think they reached the level of the rigor that I would be looking for for an academic center.

ROSE: College officials point out that none of the center's staff are on the faculty at Medgar Evers College. They've also raised questions about the credentials of co-founder Divine Pryor, who got his Ph.D. from an unaccredited distance learning company. But Divine Pryor defends his degree. He says it's college administrators who are being dishonest.

Dr. PRYOR: This is about an administration who does not support a progressive, a social and criminal justice agenda. They have concerns about the criminal element being on campus. These were the actual words that was used by the provost.

ROSE: Medgar Evers College officials say the formerly incarcerated are still welcome on campus, and just to be sure, they launched a new partnership this month with the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office to provide educational support for former prisoners. Center for NuLeadership is fighting its eviction in court, but there are those on the faculty of Medgar Evers who would not be sad to see it go.

Dr. NANCY LESTER (Chairperson, Education Department, Medgar Evers College): To tell you the truth, I never ever heard of the Center for NuLeadership until all this broke out. And I've been here for 13 years, so that says something.

ROSE: Nancy Lester directs the Education Department at Medgar Evers College. She says social justice is an important part of the school's mission but so is good old-fashioned teaching.

Dr. LESTER: This is a college. It's an academic institution. It needs to have everything be part of that. I don't see how anything that's been done by the new administration goes against this mission.

ROSE: Now, the administration will have to make that case in court. A hearing on the Center for NuLeadership is set for next month.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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