Leading ‘An Oasis for African-American Women’ - Higher Education

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Leading ‘An Oasis for African-American Women’

by B. Denise Hawkins

DI: What appeal did becoming an HBCU president hold for you especially after enjoying a very public life as an economist, author, columnist, and sought-after commentator?
JM:
The appeal was not in becoming an HBCU president, but in becoming president of Bennett College for Women. I honestly do not think there would be another HBCU, at this point in time, that interested me in the way that Bennett did. My history with the college began when I was the Diversity Professor in 2005, and I became “Bennettized” by the history, the energy and the possibilities. Being president of Bennett combines many of my passions — for education, for African-American institutional development, and for the full actualization of African-American women’s talents and abilities. Further, this is an opportunity to lead, to serve, and to more directly have an impact on the lives of young women.

DI: Why turn to higher education at this point in your career?
JM:
I’ve never seen my life as a career, but instead as a series of adventures. I left teaching in 1992 to embark on a series of media adventures, including commentary, a nationally syndicated column, talk radio, and the production of several television programs through my company Last Word Productions, Inc. This is another adventure, built on the foundation of an academic background, my media experiences, and my coverage of higher education for 15 years as a Black Issues In Higher Education magazine columnist. I have never been far from higher education, having done some part-time teaching, held chairs at several colleges and universities, and consulted, spoke, or provided services to other colleges and universities.

DI: What challenges if any have you faced thus far in your tenure as a Black, female president in the South?
JM:
Nobody likes change but a wet baby, and even the wet baby cries. Transitions are unsettling to people who have become accustomed to another style of leadership and to doing things a certain way. I don’t think that many of the challenges I face are because I am Black and female, but because I’m new and different. However, it is certainly the case that my tart, sardonic humor, and my legendary bluntness are discordant in the more indirect South. I’m constantly reminded that you can kill more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

DI: What are your top three goals for Bennett College?
JM:
1. Increased fiscal stability and more scholarship dollars; 2. Expanded academic programs, especially around global studies, entrepreneurship, leadership development, and excellence in communications; and 3. Enhanced student life with more co-curricular student activities, programming, and more comfortable living and learning spaces.

DI: Is it too early in your tenure to start thinking about the legacy that you want leave at Bennett?
JM:
Our mission is to move Bennett from good to great, and to leave the college better than I found it. I have not yet dealt with the specifics of a legacy, but instead, during this first year, with the daily challenges of higher education leadership.

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