Paying tribute to longtime Howard University president James Edward Cheek

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

Three generations of the Howard University community gathered Friday to remember James Edward Cheek, the longtime Howard president who envisioned a "second emancipation" of African Americans through scholarship.

Cheek died Jan. 8 in North Carolina at 77. He was buried there, while fierce snowstorms forced the postponement of a memorial service in Washington.

The service, held in the Howard chapel, was about reclaiming Cheek's legacy. He led Howard through the 1970s and 1980s and largely built the campus that stands today.

Cheek came to Howard at 37 and unleashed a torrent of energy. He hired hundreds of faculty members, multiplied the operating budget nearly tenfold, led a massive building program and launched the nation's first black-owned public television station. He earned the respect of students and silenced campus protests -- for a time, anyway.

He fought off a challenge from historically white universities, which had begun to compete for top black students, by voicing a provocative new vision for Howard and other historically black institutions as "weapons of our people's liberation" and "battlegrounds for the serious."

He fought for racial equality as the white higher-education establishment sat, dispassionately, on the sidelines. Howard University "is no hiding place," he once said, "and there is no resting here."

He was "the right person at the right time," said Sidney A. Ribeau, the current Howard president. "And Howard was the benefactor of that."

Raised in North Carolina, Cheek served in the Air Force before graduating from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. He earned a doctorate, then returned to Shaw as president at age 30, turned the struggling campus around and earned his way to the presidency of Howard, the nation's premier historically black college.

Howard was a militant campus in 1969, with students and younger faculty pushing for a voice in decision-making and a curricular shift toward urban affairs and black studies. Cheek matched their intensity, telling students he would not accept "intimidation, violence or coercion of any kind" even as he warmed to the black-power movement. He once told a presidential commission, "Students are determined that they are not going to be fired upon and not be prepared to fire back." He occasionally wore a dashiki.

Cheek wanted to build a first-rate Howard, he said, not a watered-down Harvard.

"He brought in 200 faculty members from the greatest universities in the world," said Alvis Adair, a professor in the Howard School of Social Work who was among the group hired. "We knew that we had to have strong faculty members in historically black colleges."

He raised salaries to competitive rates -- Cheek's pay was once ranked in the top 1 percent among university presidents -- and built new schools of business, communication and education.

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