Skip Gates for President — of Howard U

The imperiled HBCU is in need of a serious infusion of cash -- and ideas. Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. knows just how to do that.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mireya Acierto/Getty Images); students at Howard University (the Washington Post/Getty Images)
Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mireya Acierto/Getty Images); students at Howard University (the Washington Post/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The “Best Colleges” rankings from US News & World Report are usually an opportunity for many colleges and universities to go into PR overdrive to attract the best and brightest to their campuses. For other schools, it’s an opportunity to take stock of their aspirational goals. For Howard University, the school’s decline in the rankings — 22 positions from 2012 and 46 positions from 2010 — represents an obvious crisis. For one, Sidney A. Ribeau, the university’s president since 2008, recently announced his retirement.

A week after Howard University’s descent in the rankings became news fodder, the New York Times profiled the relationship between venture capitalist Glenn Hutchins and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The occasion of the profile was the launching of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, underwritten by a gift of $15 million to Harvard in support of the center. That sum is the largest individual gift ever in support of African and African-American studies.

Admittedly, there seems to be little connection between the current trajectory of the most well-known and best-endowed university in the United States and that of what some have often referred to as the Harvard of HBCUs. Yet as Howard begins its search for a new president, Gates may be just the figure to reverse not only Howard’s fortunes but also those of many other HBCUs. (Gates is, of course, the editor-in-chief of The Root.)

A winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant in 1981 and the author of one of the classic texts in African-American literary theory — the 1989 American Book Award winner The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism — Gates was a relatively young scholar when he was recruited to chair Harvard’s department of Afro-American studies and direct the university’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in 1991.

More than two decades later, Gates presides over, arguably, the premier scholarly enterprise devoted to African-American studies, essentially transforming a field that had historically been on the margins of higher education in the U.S. (even at HBCUs) into a visible and meaningful brand. Gates’ rise to national prominence coincided with the emergence of a generation of black public intellectuals — including Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, the now-deceased Manning Marable and Cornel West, whom Gates poached from Princeton University and who, along with former University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, formed part of what was referred to as Harvard’s black “dream team” in the 1990s.

To be sure, the success of that brand has been most pronounced at elite institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke, and even then, black faculty at these institutions have rightly decried being on the outside of leadership circles and have been critical of institutional ambivalence around issues of diversity. These issues notwithstanding, what Gates has essentially created is a shadow university within the confines of Harvard. One can only wonder what Gates’ skill set might look like if, in fact, he were the president of an actual college or university. Howard might be just the institution for him.

In a rather unusual move, US News & World Report actually detailed the reason for Howard’s fall in the yearly rankings. The magazine specifically cited concern over graduation and retention rates, student selectivity, faculty resources, alumni giving and administrative malaise. On the latter point, the university inexplicably failed to report numbers related to the above concerns, forcing the magazine to estimate — and, most likely, doing so without the benefit of the doubt that it might have given a PWI, or predominantly white institution.