Roundtable: Black Colleges; Candidate's Lives

Thursday's topics include the future of historic black colleges and the private lives of our very public presidential candidates. Tony Cox's guests are political consultant Walter Fields; economist and author Julianne Malveaux, CEO of Last Word Productions; and Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm DC Navigators and a former special assistant to President Bush.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, presidential candidates see their private lives become public issues, and some historically black colleges are going through major changes. We'll tackle the future of these institutions of higher learning.

But before I introduce our Roundtable panelists for today and we get into our regular discussion, I would like to welcome the newly named president of the historically black Bennett College, an all-women's school in Greensboro, North Carolina, none other than NEWS & NOTES panelist, economist and author Julianne Malveaux, who is also CEO of Last Word Productions Incorporated - welcome and congratulations, Madame President.

Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President, Bennett College): Thank you so much, Tony. Thank you.

COX: You know, I am looking at your Web site at Bennett College and there's a picture of you with these young smiling ladies. And you, I have to say, you look very happy.

Ms. MALVEAUX: I, you know, I love African-American women. I love higher education. It was - and I admire Dr. Cole - this is such a phenomenal opportunity.

And on Monday, when I walked into Steel(ph) Hall, it was packed and the students gave me just such an ovation that it just overwhelmed me. I'm still trying to sort of let the dust settle in my head.

But the story that we just had with the young woman Shaquanda Cotton explains to me exactly why I'm going to Bennett College. There is no place in this country where African-American women are regularly celebrated and educated, except maybe Spelman. But we have to have safe havens and places.

That person - you could see the on his neck through the radio. And you know, that is what our young sisters are heaving to face when they're out there in the world, the double and triple standards. And we want places where they can just grow and thrive and be nourished and learn and go out and be productive 21st century workplace citizens.

COX: Well, we're going to talk more about HBCUs with the rest of the panelists in just a moment. But before we do, I'd like to spend a few more moments just with you talking about Bennett College in particular.

Now, as I understand it, when your predecessor, Johnnetta Cole, took over the school back in 2002, it was $2 million in the hole. What shape is Bennett College in now financially and what are you going to do to help it stay afloat?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Tony, I'm going to send you a letter and a letter to everybody else I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: One of the primary roles of a college president certainly is to fundraise. I have energy, ideas, and passion, but what I need is money. HBCUs do struggle; not all of them, and certainly some of them are doing better than others. Doctor Cole came in and did a phenomenal job in taking an institution that was literally on the brink of going out of business to an organization that has been stabilized. But by stabilized I don't mean that we're thriving yet.

The theme has been to go from good to great and that's my mandate. I will be out there raising money. That's what I'm going to have to do, is to make Bennett College for women a value proposition for people who are potential investors in African-American women's education, because African-American women are the backbone of our community and because there's still room for a single-sex college for African-American women.

COX: I see that Oprah Winfrey was on your campus back in January. I'm assuming that that's a source of some funding for you.

Ms. MALVEAUX: The event that Oprah Winfrey headlined actually happened in October of '06.

COX: Oh.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Probably brought in a half a million dollars or so in contributions. It was one of these big old black tie sit-downs, pay a bunch of money and hear these phenomenal divas speak. And we're going to do a lot more of that. And we do hope that we can involve Oprah in a way that generates a substantial contribution.

COX: You're a big city girl. Are you going to be okay in Greensboro?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALVEAUX: Yeah. You know, for one thing, you know, it's a lovely community. The people have been very welcoming. I've got friends, sorors, lots of folks there, but it's six hours from D.C. by car and an hour and a half by plane. So I would I would imagine - I mean I don't sit still in D.C. So I don't imagine I'll sit very still in Greensboro either. I will, especially the first couple of years, spend a lot of time on campus, because you know, that is how I begin to, you know, literally brand this as, you know, my mission. But I will be on planes to look for money, I will be on planes to do other things, and so I don't imagine it as, you know, constraining at all. You know, I'm so excited.

COX: You do look excited. Let's bring in our other panelists for today. Political consultant Walter Fields, and Ron Christie, V.P. of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and former special assistant to President George W. Bush. Fellows, welcome.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, D.C. Navigators): Hey, Tony.

COX: You want to say something to your panelists?

Mr. FIELDS: Sure, Julianne, congratulations. I think, you know, it's an incredible honor. HBCUs are probably our most treasured heirlooms that we have. I'm a proud graduate of Morgan State University. So I'm a big supporter of black colleges. And we still need these institutions. My alma mater is in a struggle right now because a nearby, predominantly white institution, Towson University, has decided to launch an MBA program that really duplicates what's on Morgan's campus just 25 minutes away, and President Earl Richardson is in a real battle to try to make sure that doesn't happen. We need these institutions more than ever. And to my friends down in North Carolina and family members, you'll get ready because Doctor Malveaux is in town.

COX: Ron, you want to add something?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Walt is exactly on the mark. You know, I sit here, I'm sitting across from Julianne this morning and I've just never seen such a big, huge smile, big, huge presence, such enthusiasm. But I have to tell you, this is the gain of Bennett College. This is a fantastic addition, someone with a brilliant background in economics from MIT, someone who understands economics and understands the important issues facing our community, and someone who has the energy and the talent to take an institution of higher education to the next level. So my hat and my praise go off to you, Julianne.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.

COX: Well, you know, let's talk also about some of the other situations with regard to HBCUs in general. For example, at Morehouse in Atlanta, Walter Massey, the longtime current president is stepping down this spring. And despite the legacy of that school, which boasts such alumni as Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee the filmmaker, and many others, the financial picture isn't quite so bright.

Morehouse has an endowment that breaks down to roughly $42,000 per student, which sounds like a lot of money except when you compare that to Emory University just not that far away from Morehouse in Atlanta, its endowment per student is $360,000 - the financial gap obviously very different. How are black colleges going to compete in this day and age when we have situations like that, that Walter just mentioned, when we have situations where the competition for dollars is very, very steep?

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, Tony, first thing that has to happen is African-American people have to give back to their own institutions. And by that I don't mean that if you went to Morgan, you only give to Morgan. I mean that HBCUs literally produce 21 percent today of our B.A. recipients, although they represents only 2.5 percent of our nation's institutions. So that says something. That says that all of black America has an investment in HBCUs and - you know, I just encourage folks, give. You know, find one, give to UNCF or, you know, the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. Or just find a college like Bennett that you want to adopt and decide that you want to spend your dollars on.

Secondly, corporate America has to invest. But you know, I was with a dean at a predominantly white institution as I was going through this application process, and he told me how much fun fundraising was for him, because he got to go all over the world and the alumni just wanted to give him money. In contrast, Dr. Cole has shared with me how difficult and challenging it's been. So black folks have to be as excited about us as other people are about them, but we also have to explain to these folks in the era of diversity that it makes sense for them to invest in our colleges.

COX: Well, you know, I want to follow up on that because you did not, Julianne, attend a black college, nor did I. And I know that Walter did. Ron, I'm not sure whether you did or did not.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I did not. I went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

COX: All right. So you earned your degrees, again, Julianne, at Boston College and MIT. That's an okay school, I guess.

Ms. MALVEAUX: It'll do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: What role did you think your experiences at a predominantly white institution will play in your decision-making at Bennett?

Ms. MALVEAUX: You know, I've been exposed to all kind of universities. My grandmother was an HBCU graduate, as well as my great aunt. My mom attended Xavier University. So HBCUs have always been a part of my life, even if I had not attended. I do think that knowing how - knowing about different cultures will bring, I think, a broader set of experiences. Doctor Cole also is not - she had attended Fisk, but she graduated from Oberlin.

So many of us have had those diversities of experience. I want to make sure that we have some exchange programs so that our students at Bennett - we do have a couple now, I want to increase those, can go to other places, and that other women - African-American and others - can come to Bennett and experience that slogan, the blacker the college, the sweeter the knowledge.

COX: You're listening to NPR's NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Tony Cox. And in case you're just joining me, on today's Roundtable our economist and author who you just heard, Julianne Malveaux, who is also CEO of Last Word Productions and the new president of Bennett College. We're also joined by political consultant Walter Fields and Ron Christie, V.P. of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

This question is for you guys before I get to the next topic. And that's this. I'm going to put you on the spot a little bit, Walter and Ron. And maybe before I do, let me just say that in my own situation, I have a kid, I have a son who attends an HBCU now. I have a daughter who had the option to attend an HBCU and asked me what I thought, and I advised her to go to the other school that she was interested in.

My question to you is, would you send your kids to an HBCU? And if so, why? And if not, why not?

Mr. FIELDS: Well, you know, I went to graduate school at New York University. My wife went to Williams College and to MIT. My daughter, who is eight, has attended every Morgan State University homecoming since she was three weeks old. Therein lies the answer. I would certainly encourage it.

I think it's an incredible experience for young African-American children to be enriched in these type of institutions and to gain the self-confidence and awareness that they may not acquire under their institutions. I'm not saying that's impossible that you can. But I think when you go to a black college, you are immersed in culture.

You know, the walk of Bennett's campus, the walk on Morehouse's campus, the walk on Morgan State's campus really is a story of triumph of black people. And I think so many of our young people need that today and that's why it's so important that people like Julianne have agreed in this point of her career to take on this responsibility, because it's a huge responsibility.

So, yes, I would certainly encourage my daughter to attend the black college.

COX: Ron Christie.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't have children just yet. But I have to tell you, growing in Palo Alto, California, one of my best friends, one of my dearest friends left Palo Alto, which is a predominantly white city, and went to Morehouse. And he came back and had such a amazing experience. The breadth of diversity, the breadth of (unintelligible) cultural enrichment that he had going to Morehouse was off the charts. And listening to his stories and going down and being able to visit him.

And also for having gone to Haverford College. My first dean at the college was Dr. Freddy Hill who was the immediate past president of Spelman College. And she talked about the diversity and the strength and the sisterhood that they had at Spelman.

So while my wife and I don't have children just yet, of course I would encourage my children to look at it. Because only looking through the eyes of graduates and listening to their experiences can you really understand how much pride and how much strength it gave them to go to those schools.

So no knock on any other schools. But again, looking at it first hand, of course I would encourage my children to look at it.

COX: All right…

Mr. CHRISTIE: When Jennifer and I have them.

COX: I appreciate that. Let's move on to our next topic in the time that we have left. The 2000 presidential race has had tongues wagging for weeks now. But it's the candidates' private lives and not their stance on issues that's getting folks to talk.

Just last week, as we all know, former Senator John Edwards announced his wife's cancer came back. There's been a great deal of discussion about that. At the same time, people are talking not about Rudy Giuliani's record as mayor, but how many wives he has. Senator Barack Obama talking about his marijuana use and cocaine use in the book he that he wrote about sometime back.

So here's the - and obviously there are issues with the Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Hillary all of that rolled up into one. And Mitt Romney is a Mormon and John McCain is 72. And the list goes and on and on and on.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Tony, you sound like the National Inquirer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: You know, what? All of this stuff is in the Washington Post. So, how much of this is fair game now, and how much of this do we need to be concerned about, if any of it, with regard to selecting our next president, Julianne?

Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, you know, if you put it out there, and certainly Rudy Giuliani has led a public life, he had a very public divorce. I mean, he moved his woman into Gracie Mansion while he was still married, which is weird. And then, you know, he wants to be - he's on a Republican ticket and these folks are the moral people, so it makes senses that they should question this.

questioning Bill Clinton about his fidelity while he was carrying on an affair. When hypocrisy is involved, you know, it's a specially important that the public, quote, "know."

Barack's cocaine use 20 years ago, is that relevant? I don't think so. He put it in book that he wrote 12 or 15 years ago. The cancer issue, its information, but it shouldn't be dissected. And I find it really highly hypocritical that the Limbaughs of the world are talking about the man's commitment to family.

But face it, we're in an Internet. What is it called? YouTube…

COX: Yeah, YouTube.

Ms. MALVEAUX: Yeah. Know all kind of era. And so it's going to be out there. I would hope that people at the end of the day voted on the issues and not on these things that are coming out fortunately a year before the, you know, a year and a half before the election. So we've got time to think about them.

COX: Well, Ron Christie, how do you as a candidate strategize around it? Do you tell your secrets up front or do you wait and defend yourself when necessary?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I've worked on two campaigns thus far in my career. I have to tell you, one of the most embarrassing things for the candidate is watching them as they go through the opposition research that they have commissioned on their own personal life. And being very candid and being very honest of, you know, it's going to get out there, so maybe you better get out and admit to you've had that affair or you've had that problem.

Look, I am worried about attracting the best group of people to join public service. And I think Julianne is absolutely right. If you have put yourself out there as a beacon of moral authority and then it comes to find out you've had an affair with a woman and you kick your own wife out of your home to move another woman in, you don't have any right to claim that you have the moral high ground.

But I'm concerned about the way that we've become in this country where it's a gotcha mentality and people are trying tear other people down. If you have a private life and you want to keep your family private, I think that people's family lives should remain off limits except when the candidate invites that discussion by doing something hypocritical.

COX: Walter, you get the last word, and unfortunately it's going to have to be a short one because we've got just under a minute left.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, you know, we're looking for perfection in an imperfect democracy. As someone who has been involved in numerous campaigns, I've always told candidates come clean, tell me everything because I want to know. Because the lines between public and private have been blurred.

But I think we're at a point now where, you know, maybe in addition to primaries, we need to just have a confessional day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIELDS: Where everybody could just get it out once and for all. Because that's what we're nearing. We're nearing the point where we're going to have to have a reserved amount of time where everybody can just put in on the table.

Because I think we've gotten to this point. I think the American public has brought this on themselves because we're also very hypocritical in terms of we will accept some things when it's to our advantage and look the other way, but then when they come back around and bite us, then all of a sudden we raise our hands and say oh, my - we didn't believe.

Well, you know what? We've created this because we've also accepted the tawdriness as part of the process. So I don't think it's going away.

COX: I appreciate the time. Political consultant Walter Fields in our New York bureau; and Ron Christie, VP of the lobbying firm DC Navigators in Washington, along with the new college president of Bennett College, Julianne Malveaux. Everybody, thank you very much.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Thanks, Tony.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES, NPR's Juan Williams takes us inside the Beltway on Political Corner. And how a swim coach turned inner-city kids into swim champs, and your letters.

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