Johnny C. Taylor: Why Black Colleges still matter

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[On Education]

Fifty years ago one could not imagine a Black man or woman being a CEO in corporate America, much less being the leader of the free world. Some of these opportunities were made possible by the historic lawsuit, Brown vs. Board of Education, on behalf of the NAACP that established Thurgood Marshall as a household name. Later, he became the first African American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Marshall spent his tenure on the highest court in the land establishing a record for supporting the “voiceless American”. Twenty-four years ago the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) was founded in his honor by N. Joyce Payne. The vision: “Changing the world…One leader at a time”.  The fund is continuing Justice Marshall’s legacy of supporting the “voiceless American” and providing an equal opportunity for education.  
It represents 47 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S.  Johnny C. Taylor, the President and CEO of TMCF, shares Justice Marshall’s passion. He advocates for quality education and opportunities that will get our youth prepared to compete in the global marketplace.  
Not only does he serve as the President and CEO of TMCF, Taylor also practices law, is a business and leadership key note speaker and a human resource thought leader. Being a lawyer first, he is happy to take on the fight against those who doubt the continued relevancy of HBCUs.

BSN:  I’d like to talk with you about why Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Predominantly Black Institutions are under attack. How important is it for people of all color to recognize the relevance of HBCUs/PBIs?
JCT:  It is extremely important. This topic motivates and excites me. People must realize that many years ago most Black students attended HBCUs/PBIs because they had to. A number of these graduates have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. We should all have a vested interest in making sure our scholars have access to a quality education and viable opportunities. That is what HBCUs/PBIs provide.   

BSN:  Since assuming the presidency at TMCF, what changes, if any, have you implemented?
JCT:  A number of them. I am focusing on capacity building and diversity to make sure our schools can compete with all universities, not just HBCUs/PBIs.  I want them to be great colleges & universities, not just great BLACK colleges and universities.

BSN: Why do you think HBCUs/PBIs are being targeted?
JCT:  As a group, HBCUs/PBIs, were slow to change.  I’m not going to sugar-coat it. We did not see the impact diversity would have on our schools. We weren’t prepared. Major universities began aggressively recruiting minorities and before we knew it we were losing our best and brightest students. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that every Black student should attend an HBCU. I myself did not attend an HBCU. But the option should be available to them. It’s not wrong to want to go to school with people who look like you and make you feel more comfortable. To not have to feel that pressure of proving that you’re not just the Black kid who got into college because you have an athletic scholarship. To be able to focus on your studies without that element of race hanging over your head.     

BSN: Does being a lawyer, among your many job titles, give you an edge when defending the TMCF against those who doubt their relevance?
JCT:  Yes, it does. From a lawyer’s stand-point it’s very interesting. I very much enjoy the mental game of wits. When your opponent comes up with an idea or strategy, you must try to combat it with something even wiser.  I look forward to the challenge of having to reinvent ourselves. If you become antiquated then you will be replaced. It’s that simple. My job is to make sure that doesn’t happen by making ourselves attractive to all of the best students, not just the Black ones. We want the Asian students, the white students and the black students to apply. We must compete with the quality of education and diversity on these campuses at the major universities. We will prove that a black university is not sub-par. The students who attend our HBCUs/PBIs could also apply to and be accepted into a Columbia or a NYU.

BSN: Your team recently visited Malaysia, Singapore and China on a fact-finding mission for the S.T.E.M. (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics) program, which is a fairly new initiative designed to increase the quality of education by studying exemplary degree programs abroad.  How successful was that?
JCT:  Really successful. Full scholarships were given to several students to broaden their college experience. We currently have students studying in Malaysia, China, Ghana, Singapore and South Africa. It is an amazing experience not only for them, but for the students they meet.  We are also doing “student-swaps” where we send an American student to another country and that country sends their student here to study. It is such a rich experience on both sides. And we are now in the early stages of “faculty-swapping”, where we will do the same thing with our teachers.  It is really a great program.

BSN: What differences did you notice about their education process and their students?
JCT:  Two things stood out to me. One was, I realized how spoiled our students are. These foreign students deal with a serious lack of resources, very small classrooms and no air conditioning in their buildings, yet they don’t complain. They are so eager to learn and excel despite the conditions they must work under. And two, the students were so intrigued by African-American people. They have seen Africans before but not African-Americans. They stared at us, wanted to touch us. It was amazing. One young man told me I looked like Barack Obama. It was really an awesome experience. We hope to be able to increase the number of students that can participate in this program.  

BSN:  Twenty-four years after its establishment, how close is this organization to reaching its goals?
JCT:  We never achieve one specific goal. We just keep persevering towards excellence. And we are very far away. The reason I say that is because the goal line has changed. When it was 100 yards away we were at 50. Now it’s been moved another 100 yards, so we have a lot of work to do. We are extremely proud of the work we have done up to now but the market has changed. As I said before we weren’t prepared for how diversity would change the game. We must upgrade the level of education, the state of our campus housing. Everything must improve. We want students to apply to our colleges because they are good, not just good for a Black college. Our potential students should be those bright, intelligent hard-workers who can attend any major university of their choice. But we want them to choose an HBCU or PBI.         

BSN: With the current state of economics in our country, what can we do collectively to ensure the continuation of the different programs and scholarships offered by TMCF to our youth?
JCT: We must emphasize the importance of education from a very early age.  Our community has to value education. We must rally around education. As a people, we should all have a vested interest in making education a priority. Let’s stress to our children that school is not K-12, it’s K-16. College is a must. Parents must save for college, whether it’s $100 per week or $10 per week. When these children are born we know that in 18 years the day will come when our child will attend college.  So we must help our children with their educational expenses. You can’t tell them you value education and, “You have to go to college!” and when the time comes you can’t assist them financially.  Parents hold car washes, bake sales, talent competitions and all different types of fund raisers for basketball, football and cheerleading teams.  They raise thousands of dollars to make sure the teams can travel to tournaments. Why aren’t we doing that for our students who are going away to college? The whole neighbor needs to rally around and make sure that our children don’t get left out because they can’t afford to go to college.

BSN: I agree. My son plays basketball and we will definitely get together and raise money for a road-trip if necessary. That’s a great point.
JCT:  Do you realize that 86% of all students that attend HBCUs rely on financial aid for support? That is a huge number. Money is absolutely a factor.  We lose students all the time because their parents just can’t afford the tuition.  It’s heart-breaking.  This is a call to action!  We have a program called Gap Access Scholarship.  It provides scholarship money to students in their senior year of college who are having financial difficulties that may prevent them from finishing school. We just can’t afford to lose good students who are one semester away from a degree.  Ultimately we hope to expand the program to include Junior, Sophomore and Freshman students as well.  Lowes Home Improvement recently gave us $100,000 towards this program and Microsoft gave an $8 million grant to provide software to all 47 of our HBCUs. Fantastic.  

BSN: What a wonderful program. And these programs require money.  What a blessing it is for companies such as Lowes and Microsoft to give back to our community. But there is more than enough money to go around in the black community at this present time. Why aren’t we giving back to our own communities? There are so many African-American business moguls, actors/actresses, entertainers and sports figures who are multi-millionaires. Why aren’t they your biggest supporters?  Monetary donations are a mere tax write-off.  If Lowes can give $100,000, why can’t every entertainer? They make a great deal of money off of our teenagers and college-aged young adults.
JCT: Precisely. As I said, this a call to action. We need to challenge them.  The $100,000 challenge. Entertainers, why not give $100,000 to send our children to college or donate all the proceeds from one of your concerts to TMCF?

BSN: Absolutely. Let’s challenge every entertainer to participate in this.  Jay Z and  Kanye West are on tour now. Why not donate all the proceeds from just one of the “Watch the Throne Tour” shows to TMCF? At $300 per ticket for a mediocre seat, think of all the tuition that could be paid from one show. Seriously, they have a responsibility to give back to these children who idolize and emulate them. It’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.
JCT: Yes. We can’t let our youth go astray. We must all do our part in educating them and preparing them for the world we live in. They don’t realize how far we’ve come and much further we have to go. There are elder people who never thought they’d live to see the world as it is today.  A Black president?  Wow. I’ll tell you a quick story. A friend of mine and I were downtown and stopped to get our shoes shined. Now it just so happened that the two men at the shine shop were White. As we sat there engaged in small talk, an elderly woman passed by. She stopped and stared at us in amazement and then began to cry. “Ma’am what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” I asked. She replied, “Oh my Lord! A White man shining a Black man’s shoes. I never thought I would see the day.”  She could not believe her eyes.  In the world she was raised in that was an impossibility.  She stayed on my mind for the rest of the day. I’m getting goose bumps now just retelling the tale. It just goes to show you how much progress we have made as a people. This is why TMCF will continue to commit to educating our youth.

BSN: What a story. It really makes you stop and think. You must be excited about TMCF’s 24 year anniversary dinner next month. How important is it to you that these honorees are recognized?
JCT:  Extremely important. We are so very appreciative of their support and hard work and we want them to know it. This year among those being honored will be Russell Simmons, Hip-Hop Mogul, Thelma B. Thompson of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and John Esposito, the President & CEO of Bacardi USA, to name a few. Pastor Shirley Caesar will be our host and Marcia Ambrosius will perform. It’s going to be a wonderful night.

BSN: It has been quite a pleasure speaking with you Mr. Taylor. The relevance of our HBCUs is a topic of paramount importance in our community.  Your passion and dedication to this cause is appreciated.
JCT:  You’re quite welcome. Thank you.

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