The End of An Era, But Not the End of the Struggle Black Issues In Higher Education Transitions to DIVERSE
By Kendra Hamilton
For Frank Matthews, publisher and editor in chief of Black Issues In Higher Education, and Bill Cox, president and CEO, the journey from Black Issues to DIVERSE began more than 20 years ago — with an idealism informed by both men’s roots in the civil rights movement.
Matthews was active in the Fairfax, Va., chapter of the NAACP. So was Cox’s wife, Lee.
“What with his wife being from Alabama and my wife being from Alabama, we just hit it off,” recalls Cox about his business partner.“We had some of the same interests,” adds Matthews. “We were both in the education field” — Matthews as a newly minted faculty member at George Mason University; Cox as a civilian educator with the military, running educational counseling services worldwide for the U.S. Air Force — “but we were also interested in entrepreneurship.”
The young entrepreneurs got off to a promising beginning — making a small profit off of a videotape sales.They discovered during that project that they had business “chemistry” and really enjoyed working together, so they decided to plow their profits into a bigger venture: a bid for a piece of the Fairfax County cable television franchise.
Matthews chuckles as he remembers their early optimism. As he explains it, Cox approached him with an opportunity to invest in Fairfax Telecommunications, one of the groups vying for the franchise. The owners of the company believed “that they would strengthen their proposal by having minority participation, but they were picking our brains to such a degree that we realized we needed to get organized — because there would be lots of business opportunities if this company were to get the franchise.
“Of course we didn’t get the franchise — we lost our money, the money from the Walter Williams debate,” Matthews adds. “My share was $1,500 — I’ll never forget it.”
But Cox, Matthews & Associates had been born — and the men quickly started casting about for the next big brainstorm. It didn’t come to them immediately, but when it came, it was another out-of-the-box idea: With no background in media and no publishing experience whatsoever, they decided to create a publication aimed at people like themselves — African-Americans and other minorities seeking to navigate the often-hostile terrain of the predominately White higher education landscape.
“At that time” — around the fall of 1983 — “there was only one rival publication, if you could call it that,” says Matthews. “It was called the Affirmative Action Register, and all they did was print ads — 40 or 50 pages of ads. They didn’t give any news. There wasn’t any content at all, just ads.”
There was, of course, that venerable news source, The Chronicle of Higher Education, but Matthews felt the issues of minority professors and administrators weren’t yet on their radar screen. “I said to Bill, ‘This is just ridiculous. Higher education professionals need better information.’”
“So Frank came up with the idea with a newsletter, and we both ended up with the name Black Issues In Higher Education,” explains Cox. “It took us six months to get the first issue out, working from the basement of my house — a cold, unfinished basement.”
“And we knew nothing about publishing,” Matthews adds. “We had to hire the public relations director at George Mason, Stephanie Colbert Hopkins, to basically tell us the difference between a typesetter and a typewriter. We were just that green.”
Cox laughs, recalling their youthful naiveté. “We never had any intentions at the time of quitting our day jobs. We intended to put out an eight-page newsletter 10 times a year” and continue to work full-time, he says.
A PIONEERBut Black Issues proved from its birth, in the spring of 1984, to be a demanding child — one who required their full attention.
“After we published the second issue, we learned [the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education] was holding a conference in Washington,” recalls Cox. “Well, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any subscribers, so we needed to get to that conference. By being at NAFEO, we were able to introduce the newsletter to the HBCU community.”
That conference led to another — at MIT’s Black Administrators in Higher Education annual meeting. Cox and Matthews flew up, rented a suite at the Hyatt in Cambridge, and held a reception.
Dr. William B. Harvey, now vice president for the Center for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equality at the American Council on Education, recalls that reception. “Potato chips and pretzels on paper plates. I could definitely see that these brothers were working on bare bones,” he says.
But Harvey, who had just joined the faculty of North Carolina State University and been invited into the ACE Fellows program, could see something else as well. “What they were speaking of seemed to me to be something that was very, very much needed, and they had a real a vision of how they were going to launch it and roll it out.”
The target audience appeared to agree. Both sales and advertising took a great leap forward. As Cox recalls, “That [Black administrators meeting] was it for us. We were officially launched. And we just kept going and growing.”
The magazine initially published reprints, but Matthews and Cox quickly realized that, to fulfill their vision, they’d need an editorial staff. They also thought they’d be able to publish just 10 times a year, but ad buyers quickly let them know that they needed more frequency. So the growing Black Issues team went first to 20 and then to 26 issues per year.
Dr. Yolanda Moses, former president of the American Association of Higher Education, was a Black Issues reader from the very beginning. “I started when I first became a dean out here in California” — where she lives and works again as a professor of anthropology and special assistant to the president for excellence and diversity at University of California-Riverside.
“The magazine was one of the few magazines speaking about structural inequalities — structural racism, structural sexism, structural classism in higher education. And in that sense Black Issues was a pioneer. It was the place to go to read what was being said by Black intellectuals and leaders and administrators.”
In the late 1980s, the magazine found a whole new audience as it branched into teleconferencing. “We saw ourselves hosting a series of national ‘town hall meetings’ around the issues,” says Matthews. “And that just brought together a cornucopia of people — over 500 sites, 500 colleges and universities that paid their fees and got a chance to dialogue with everybody from John Hope Franklin to Cathy Hughes to Ron Brown and Arthur Ashe.”
As the staff grew in size and sophistication, Cox, Matthews & Associates continuously updated the magazine’s look, first morphing it from an eight-page newsletter to a full-fledged magazine, finally shifting from a two-color format on textured paper to a four-color glossy look in the mid-1990s. CMA also created a family of related publications: the now bi-weekly Community College Week in 1989 and Black Issues Book Review, distributed through bookstores nationally, in 1999.
By 2004, the year that Black Issues In Higher Education marked its 20th anniversary with a gala and three-day conference, the pretzels and potato chip reception had been replaced by a black tie affair. The humble beginnings as an eight-page newsletter were remembered, with fond smiles of reminiscence, by only a few.
Initiating the John Hope Franklin awards program in 2004 was our way to give back, while recognizing the greatest scholar of our times, Matthews says.
But while it might have seemed unimaginable to those gathered to toast the magazine and its founders, a most difficult decision lay ahead: Should Black Issues remain, forever, proudly — if possibly anachronistically — “Black”? Or should the magazine’s name change to reflect a rapidly emerging American demographic.
Earlier this year, after long, intense discussions about the economic, legal and regulatory environment, as well as the marketing and editorial dimensions of the decision, the choice was made. Black Issues would change with the times, becoming DIVERSE: Issues In Higher Education.
Matthews explains the shift as significant, but part and parcel of the gradual evolution and change at Cox, Matthews & Associates.
“We made the decision to move forward [with a name change], but with a full recognition that we’re not going to abandon our core mission. We’re not firing anybody — our staff is going to grow as we add people of other backgrounds: Hispanics, Asians, South Asians, American Indians. We’re being guided by the same ideals in terms of quality and in terms of ensuring that a forum is provided to discuss the issues of African-Americans and other minorities,” he says. “In effect, we’re just spreading a table and inviting more people to sit.”
So it is that Black Issues comes to the end of the road. This issue will be the final one of the landmark publication.
Cox admits that he feels a sense of having reached “the end of an era.”
“Twenty years is a long time for anything. Having reached the 20th anniversary and looking back over 20 years of ‘getting there’ and being thoroughly happy on the way, 20 years of being accepted and embraced, 20 years of seeing wonderful writers and employees come through the doors — many of whom have gone on to bigger and better things — is one of the highlights of my career,” Cox says.
“But now that we’ve reached that major milestone, we’re trying to build on that and looking toward the next 20 years. It’s been very difficult deciding to put aside [the name] Black Issues, but it’s time to look toward the future, and the future is a more diverse and inclusive society that’s not just Black and White. So I guess it is the end of an era.”
But not the end of the struggle, notes Moses.
“I think there’s more of a need than ever before” for a publication dedicated to a serious exploration of the issues of diversity, she explains. “because I think we stand at a crossroads in higher education looking at this issue.”
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