The wrong party got locked up (or down)
Last week, the so –called 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, organized in 2015, gave the 45th President of the USA its Bipartisan Justice Award at the 150-year old HBCU, Benedict College, where I once worked as vice president of community development and external relations. I would have been the point person at the Columbia, SC based Benedict College for this event were I still there. I am glad I was not.
Students at the college were locked down in their dorms and not even allowed to eat lunch in the cafeteria during the period 45 was on campus. If I was a parent of a Benedict College student, I would have been mad as hell if my daughter was told she couldn’t leave her dorm room to protest against the POTUS if she desired. Among the purposes of education, with its academic freedom and constitutional right to free speech, is a student’s right to register, through peaceful protest, his or her dislike for those in power.
Faculty was told as well not to teach but not to be seen either. Classes were cancelled for the day. Out of 2,200 students, the college first reported that only 7 students actually attended the event (10 received invitations). A few days later the college upped the number in attendance to about 30, still less than 2% of the student population enrolled. The college offered the weak excuse that students were locked down for their own safety.
Some of us believe that the wrong party got locked up (or down).
At first brush, landing a president of the U.S. on campus seems like a public relations coup. But one who is racist, a white nationalist, xenophobic, and a pathological liar is another question.
First, let me be clear—any group that bestows upon the president any kind of “justice” award is not bi-partisan. What is just about the president making a mockery of lynching by declaring himself the victim of the same; flipping the bird at the U.S. House of Representatives by failing to provide witnesses and documents so this branch of government could carry out its constitutional and sworn to uphold duties; and committing an impeachable offense by asking the president of Ukraine to help dig up dirt on his chief rival for office, Joe Biden (or else military assistance appropriated by Congress would be withheld)?
Beyond the travesty of honoring the POTUS as a man of justice, and allowing him to exploit the optics of receiving an award at the venue of the black college honored last year as the HBCU of the year, was, seemingly, the lack of preparation on the part of Benedict College and the city of Columbia. The White House took over the event, restricting the guests list for the $40 a seat affair and bussing in Republicans from across the state so the president could have a friendly crowd.
Further, Mayor Stephen Benjamin initially got rolled by the GOP, first by agreeing to serve as a co-sponsor of the event. Later he rebounded in a manner that may have salvaged the event by booting out the so-called Bipartisan Justice Center from sponsorship. Then he persuaded Sen. Kamala Harris to participate after she withdrew in protest of the president receiving the award in the first place. By then, much of the damage had already been done. Benedict College and the city had been used and shamed by the White House.
Presidents of HBCUs must be able to view real opportunities from political as well as financial lenses. They must carefully scrutinize invitations to determine what strings, if any, are attached. All that glitter is not gold. The ultimate solution is HBCUs need more philanthropy and higher levels of alumni giving from within the black community so they do not have to depend so much on external support.
But how many decades have black college presidents asked for this? Given that the black community is predicted to have zero wealth by 2053, and median wealth today for black college graduates is only $23,400, will this ever come to be? If HBCUs are worth saving (and they are), then the Black community must develop innovative and long-term funding strategies.
Also, HBCU leaders must understand the politics of higher education, particularly the need to have the skillset among its senior leadership to comprehend politics on the local, state and national levels. Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis should have thought deeper about the downside of turning her campus over to an outside group to execute such a high profile event. Making the wrong call could cost dearly in the long run in terms of negative publicity.
Both the mayor and the college had different reasons and interests for having a high profile political event in Columbia, SC. The mayor wanted to be courted as a king maker for Democratic candidates seeking the presidential nomination. Who knows, perhaps, he even has his sights on a vice president nomination (Elizabeth Warren, if you’re listening).
The college needed this event to serve as a living laboratory for student learning on politics and criminal justice reform. Higher education institutions exist to educate students, and all events on campus, when classes are in session, must have clear educational goals and benefits to all students.
Something went awry—badly awry. The wrong party got locked up (or down)!