When Andrew Billingsley was the assistant dean of students at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1960s, his first responsibility was to rescue his boss from her barricaded office and escort her across the roof to safety. When he was a vice president at Howard University in the early 1970s, he left behind a reputation as both a disruptive genius and a cultural hero. At Morgan State University, where he is now president, he not only has had to fight for the shool's independence and future, but for his own neck as well.
Billingsley, the author of a classic study on the black family that pushed him to the forefront of black intellectuals in the late 1960s, has just finished nine months of public inspection and internal dissension on his Baltimore campus. Last December, the faculty gave its president of five years a resounding vote of no-confidence, spurring a resignation request from the tenured faculty and negative editorials in the student newspaper. He was blamed for Morgan's million-dollar deficit and accused of a lack of adequate consultation with the faculty. After an evaluation by outside consultants, the board of regents voted to keep him. He never felt defeated. "I was discouraged," he said. "But if I resigned, I would have to have better reasons than someone else thinks I should resign."
At the height of Billingsley's troubles, the Maryland State Board of Education unsuccessfully attempted to merge Morgan, which has been part of the state system, with the University of Maryland. Morgan faces the same survival crisis as the country's other 107 predominantly black colleges, a dwindling treasury in the midst of a national education argument that black colleges are vestiges of segreation.
"We do as black people do when they are up against it, we fight, organize, stand up and stand together," Billingsley said.
At 54, Billingsley doesn't look besieged. In fact, in his black suit with its cavalier red stripe taking its cue from Nathan Detroit, and his smokey goatee taking its lead from W.E.B. DuBois, Billingsley looks prepared to sell anything, from soap, to schools, to his own credibility. In the heat of the forced resignation effort, he could calmly say, "This isn't anything I invite, but I live with it." Even now he uses a philosophical tape measure to discuss the pain the faculty vote caused. His objectivity might come from a second wind, from the pull of his Quaker and Baptist perspectives. A friend compares his resillence to the ginkgo tree, a survivor of prehistoric storms. His placidness has led some to label him a pushover. He has that resigned anger that comes from a fighter who has seen his own reputation questioned before.
All his troubles have not dimmed his national reputation as a spokesman on the black family and black colleges. At the Congressional Black Caucus meetings last weekend and at yesterday's Black College Day here, deference was paid to his perspective and contributions. To many young black scholars and politicians, he has been a guru. Yet frequently, the fusion of the man of ideas with the mechanics of adminstration causes some tremors. "He may be the prime example of why our leading intellectuals should not be administrators. He doesn't have enough running room. He outgrew Morgan very quickly," said Harry G. Robinson, the dean of Howard's architecture school, who helped start Morgan's architecture program. Billingsley, slightly worried, remarked: "I would say I am good at conceptualizing, organizing. And the ease of administration depends on a lot of other factors."
The curious thing about Andrew Billingsley is that a sociologst looking at his early life might have written him off as a lost statistic. One of three children of a poor farmer in Marion, Ala., Billingsley didn't enter the first grade until he was 10 years old. His education was later interrupted by World War II. When he got out of the Army, he was 21 and a high school sophomore.
Yet by the time he had studied at Hampton Institute, Grinnel College, Boston University and the University of Michigan and was working on his doctorate at Brandeis University in the early '60s, he had become a privotal participant on race relations. "It was the time of a whole rethinking of moving the social order forward. That period helped me scratch the inner parts of my ideas and intellect. From then on I knew what I wanted," said Billingsley. His wife Amy, remembers the intellectual intoxication of the time. "James Baldwin was talking and writing. Everyone was shocked at the frankness of Malcom X, surprised because at that time you had two conversations, one in integrated circles, one with black folks. Ken Clark's theories were popular. And we were very drawn into it." At Berkeley, their living room became a strategic workplace. Billingsley, who was a professor, dean and then chancellor, negotiated with the leaders of the "Free Speech" movement. Discussions for an ethnic studies cirriculum took place with the Asian, Native American, Hispanic and black students. When Ron Dellums was deciding to run for local office, he came and talked to Billingsley. Alex Haley sat in the Billingsley living room and talked about his research on his family.
Appropriately enough for a scholar of the black family, Billingsley's family came first. "When it was about time for Bonnie to be born, Amy was driving me to the airport, but decided she better go to the hospital. We went, I watched her deliver Bonnie, then drove myself to the airport, and got to Los Angeles in time to give my lecture," recalled Billingsley. They have two daughters, Angela, 17, and Bonita, 16.
Publication of the Billingsleys' joint effort, "Black Families in White America," in 1968, refuted the matriarchal theory of black families and examined the black family and other black institutions as positive forces. The publication coincided with the theoretical emergence of black cultural nationalism. James Cheek, then the new president of Howard, asked him to implement his ideas of a black university. "The whole social movement propelled me forward at that time," said Billingsley.
At Howard he is credited for turning ideas into institutions, including a radio station, a publishing house and several institutes, including ones on higher education policy, the arts and humanities and urban research. After four years, he abruptly resigned as vice president and returned to the classroom. Both he and his wife appeared distracted when the subject was brought up. "It was time to move," Billingsley said. "I like building experiences."
Whatever the pain of his experiences at black institutions, Billingsley takes an uncompromising stand on their value. In a meeting with then-secretary of HEW Joseph Califano, Billingsley took exception to the theory that black colleges were becoming too dependent on federal aid. "Andy eloquently pointed out that MIT received a large amount of research money from the government. And that the service to low-income students of the black colleges was just as important," recalled Samuel Myers, executive director of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
When the state announced a proposal to merge Morgan with the University of Maryland, Billingsley found, for the first time last year, unanimous support. m"It was a very serious blow to our spirits around here," he said. in a few weeks nearly 1,000 alumni, students and supporters gathered at a public meeting to protest the merger on historic grounds.
As the colleges change to meet contemporary interests and job opportunities, Billingsley feels the black institutions should make their own definitions of the new directions. "Yes, we will be urban but we will define what is urban," he said, referring to Morgan's five-year-old mission as an urban-oriented university. Starting programs of transportation, telecommunications and international economics, among others, has sparked another delicate discussion among his black critics in Baltimore, who feel black colleges have a more traditional role. "If we just sit here and do the thing we have been doing, which some people seem to want us to do, we will go down," said Billingsley.
Even without the turmoil in his life, he feels the need to be a fuller participant in the intellectual avnt-garde. He cites the work of sociologists Joyce Ladner Carrington and William Junius Wilson and urbanoligist Robert Hill as something he has watched carefully. "I do feel somewhat distant. My frustrations are that I would like to participate in their work. dI tried to last year at a meeting," he said, wearily. "But as it turned out, there was a budget hearing that day."