A red and yellow ceremonial bull mask, hand-carved in Veracruz, Mexico, with glaring eyes and curved horns, sits on a shelf beside scores of newly stocked history books making up the north wall of a boardroom within the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building.
Mementos like these are emblematic of a centuries-old Afro-Mexican culture, but this mask, placed on the shelf by President Dr. Ben Vinson III, perhaps better represents the craftsmanship with which he wants to build a stronger Howard.
The 53-year-old historian of the African Diaspora and Colonial Latin America is, for the most part, fully moved in as Howard’s 18th president. He shared that he has moved into his new residence, and his office on campus is all situated.
“I feel super comfortable here,” Vinson said. “I’ve had a really special career, I’ve been to some great institutions, but this is a place where you feel like you’re at home.”
Although as much as one can physically have their books in order, “There’s a whole other component of getting settled in, and that’s what I’m working on,” Vinson said.
Vinson first addressed the Howard community in his convocation speech on Sept. 15, where he outlined his vision for the university. He indicated that his focus as president will be to uphold Howard’s mission of truth and service, leverage “the Howard way” to further impact the world and steward the university towards “maximum strength.”
To accomplish these goals, Vinson revealed that he is in the beginning phases of constructing what he called a “listening tour,” during which he will meet with deans and faculty of each college, as well as several staff units, to hear what is top-of-mind for them. The tour will take place over the next several months.
As of now, some areas of consideration for Vinson include strengthening the academic curriculum and Howard’s research profile, and “making sure that our student services are at optimal levels for our students,” he said.
Vinson also mentioned improving graduation rates and keeping the cost of attendance as low as possible.
As of 2015, Howard University institutional research shows one-year retention rates at 83 percent, four-year graduation rates at 53 percent and six-year graduation rates at 64 percent. According to Howard’s website, the estimated cost of attendance for the 2023-2024 school year was $55,704 for undergraduate students on campus and $64,770 for undergraduates off campus.
Having held varying professorial and administrative roles at various colleges and universities, Vinson highlighted one aspect he learned from two in particular that he hopes to bring to Howard.
“Some of the things that I learned most recently at Case Western Reserve and I also learned at Johns Hopkins are really ways to elevate the research enterprise,” he said. “That’s something that, from those institutions, I hope to also bring that knowledge and perspective. It’s important to think of this as – you’re not trying to transform or alter Howard. You use these things to enhance an institution.”
Elevating the research enterprise and the student experience is a high priority for Vinson, though “While we’re doing that, there are other things we must be mindful of while we’re here, too,” he said. “Safety, for instance, is a very important topic.”
Vinson acknowledged a recent spike in crime in Washington, D.C. He noted that his administration will prioritize the safety of students by continuing to partner with the Metropolitan Police Department and by bringing in more technology, surveillance cameras and security personnel.
Howard’s Department of Public Safety was in the process of undergoing a project called “Eagle Eye” last September, which included expanding, implementing or assessing hundreds of cameras around campus, as reported by The Hilltop. Since then, more than 1,000 cameras and card readers have been installed in academic and residence buildings.
“We also want our students to do some of the basics, some of the ‘ABCs’ of safety,” he said. “Try not to walk in a dimly lit area, travel in groups, don’t leave the doors propped open to dorms and let unauthorized access come through…”
As Vinson acclimates to his new role, there are some faculty who anticipate working with him to achieve certain goals. Among them is Dr. Guericke Royal, associate professor in the Department of Music and chair of the HU Faculty Senate.
Royal said that regardless of who the 18th president would be, the senate hoped for someone who would be committed to the idea of shared governance, meaning all stakeholders in the university, including faculty, staff and students, would be heard and have an influence on university-wide decisions. He emphasized that faculty no longer hold a seat on the Board of Trustees.
“We’re hoping that with the new president in place, we have a sympathetic ear,” Royal said. “Not because we want ‘stuff,’ but it’s the idea that we want to be able to work together and not be shut out of all the things that go to make the university better for the students, for the faculty and also for the staff and the alumni.”
Royal mentioned several topic areas on which the senate hopes to have some sort of dialogue with Vinson, among them social justice, the environment of the university, research and teaching infrastructure and faculty and teaching staff workloads.
“These are just general things that we want to get a sense of where the president is on them and the plans he may or may not have,” Royal said.
Vinson expressed that finding talented faculty is critical to Howard’s mission, but he said positive engagement with faculty doesn’t just stop at hiring them.
“It’s not just bringing people, it’s cultivating the people you have, making sure that they have opportunities for mentorship, opportunities for growth,” he said. “On the faculty side, in particular, you want institutions that people look to for talent, but you want to try to also be able to retain your talent.”
Vinson is a tenured professor of history within the College of Arts and Sciences, a position in which he is currently unsure of whether or not he might have time to teach classes, as he has done at previous institutions.
“I am hoping to have a conversation with him about that,” Kay Wright Lewis, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of History, said. “I don’t expect him to teach right away, however, if he would want to, we would love that.”
Wright Lewis and the Department of History “were very excited and afraid to show it too visibly,” she said when they learned that Howard’s next president would be an accomplished historian. In discussions, in the hallways and in faculty department meetings “it was all of us being quite hopeful, fingers-crossed, quite excited about him.”
She went on to say that “History can teach you how to not make the same mistakes as your predecessors, as well as to augment the successes of those who’ve come before you,” noting that it will be important for Vinson to “capitalize” and “continue” the work of Howard’s previous president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick.
“The timing of having him be president is perfectly aligned with where we are as a university, where we are as a country and the global needs that confront this country as well as the world,” Wright Lewis continued. “His worldview, his perspective, his story is so appropriate for the times.”
Both Wright Lewis and Royal have requested to meet with President Vinson to discuss topics related to the Department of History and the HU Faculty Senate, respectively, and are waiting on Vinson’s office to help schedule a formal time, citing the likely probability that Vinson is very busy in his first few weeks on the job.
Case Western Reserve University President, Eric W. Kaler, worked with Vinson for two years and spoke highly of him in a written statement to The Hilltop.
“The first few times I saw Dr. Vinson speak at events with students I could see his innate talent for connecting with them. He genuinely wants to hear about what they are studying, what they like to do for fun, and what they want to achieve in life,” he continued.
The historian, who was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, and grew up in Italy and the DMV area, has authored or co-authored seven books, many of which interrogate the significance of Latin America and the African diaspora. He said he is now working on his eighth book about jazz musician Frank Etheridge and plans for his two 13-year-old sons and 15-year-old daughter to write the final section of the book.
When The Hilltop interviewed Vinson in May, he said that in order to prepare for his position at Howard he would read everything he could about the university. As Vinson now begins his tenure, what he learned about the institution is a compelling truth for him.
“The world needs Howard, and it needs the things that we can do uniquely. It needs our perspectives, it needs our students and the way we teach,” he said. “If it needs us, it doesn’t need us at half strength, it’s incumbent upon us to fulfill our mission by being as strong as we can possibly be.”
Copy edited by Alana Matthew