They talked about the Howard University neighborhood they grew up in, and as they did, the two new college deans fondly remembered the rowhouses and intellectual atmosphere of the '50s and '60s Howard campus.
Harry G. Robinson III, the newly appointed dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, affectionately remembers Howard University as his childhood playground. Three generations of Robinsons have taught there. Neighborhood friends still call him "Butch." His father was born in a house which stood where the Howard University football stadium now stands.
Robinson recalls his father proudly telling him as a youth how he was born on Howard's 50 yard line.
But to Dr. Russell Miller, the new dean of Howard's just completed multi-million dollar medical school, the campus symbolizes his educational climb from segregated, one-room school houses in West Virginia to college professor and dean.
His family moved to Washington when he was a child, Miller said. Barred from several medical schools because of racial discrimination, Miller was welcomed by Howard. Medical internships at major universities in Michigan and San Francisco followed. Five years ago, he returned to Howard University as a professor.
More than 20 years have passed since Robinson, 37, and Miller, 40, were Howard students and neighbors. Within those two decades each has gone to war, married, had children, moved uptown to fashionable Shepherd Park, left Washington and returned to the Howard fold.
Some of the university's glory has tarnished with age, they admit. An ailing School of Architecture caused the replacement of a dean under protest, Robinson said. And the medical school has suffered from poor press relations, said Miller.
As deans, Robinson and Miller said they hope to restore some of the glory to the school once considered the black Harvard of higher education.
A week after he took over his new post, Harry Robinson met with the School of Architecture's 288 students and 34 faculty members to reaffirm their solidarity.
"We are a family," Robinson said he told them, "and the only way we grow is with every member of the family committed to that growth." As his first official act, Robinson made plans to honor Howard Mackey, a man considered the father of that family.
On Oct. 12, the school will celebrate Howard Mackey Day to honor the first dean of the century-old school, which spearated from the School of Engineering and Architecture in 1970 to become a department in its own right. Mackey has since retired.
"He gave 50 years of his life to us," said Robinson of his former instructor. Robinson's goal is to uphold that tradition.
He said he plans to breathe life into academic programs by hiring new staff members, setting program goals and developing new courses, including programs in landscape and urban design.
During the past seven years, Robinson instituted similar programs at Morgan State College in Baltimore, where he was a professor and associate dean of urban planning. Before that appointment, he taught in the D.C. university system and worked for the District government as an urban planner in the Shaw and 14th Street NW urban renewal areas.
It was his leadership at Morgan, however, which earned him -- and Morgan State -- the national recognition that eventually led him back to Howard.Through his efforts Morgan obtained several federal grants to study urban planning issues. Graduate programs he developed also gave Morgan the distinction of becoming the first Maryland college and predominantly black institution to be recognized by the American Institute of Planners. He expects similar achievements at Howard.
"At Morgan there was a chance to pursue my dreams," Robinson said, "but I really wanted to do it at Howard."
Robinson said his opportunity came last Valentine's Day. He was a guest lecturer at Howard, which was trying to replace Robinson's predecessor, Dean Jerome W. Lindsay Jr.
Donald Morgan, a fourth-year architecture student who attended that lecture, recalled Robinson's zeal. "I was very impressed with his presentation," Morgan said. "We needed more effective leadership . . . someone we felt we could respect without reservation." Students began asking whether Robinson could be that person, Morgan said.
The student body formed a committee to investigate Robinson. The committee members talked to him, his former classmates, teachers and colleagues. Satisfied with their findings, the students joined the faculty in asking Howard University President James Cheek to consider Robinson for the position.
Morgan said Robinson was chosen because "he had the personal qualities, training and, based on what we found in our research, a strong conviction towards the education of blacks and poor people."
Like Robinson, Miller said his return to Howard five years ago represented the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Faced with many offers, Miller said he returned to Howard because "I have always wanted to come back and put something into the system that gave me such a great deal."
As a Howard medical student, he said he was impressed by the discipline and guidance provided by his instructors. As far back as he can remember he wanted to be a doctor, he said, and his parents and professors fortified his ambition. Three older sisters also have advanced degrees.
His Howard instructors "allowed you enough freedom to try things out," Miller said. "You felt free to talk with them, throw out ideas and get reactions. They wouldn't always be favorable," he chuckled, "but you knew you could come back."
Dr. Marion Mann, the school's former medical dean, is now a professor, having tired of the dean's post after eight years. He said Miller demonstrated the same skill with his students as an instructor of internal medicine and pharmacology.
"Dr. Miller is going to make an excellent dean," Mann said. "He's a very active person with students. I think all of the members of the faculty need to give him their support. I certainly intend to."
In expressing his admiration of the faculty, Miller said it is a "family. (We) have a love affair with this university. You can't do your job or survive without faculty support. The faculty is the college."
With his new position, Miller inherits the responsibility for the 18 departments, 480 students and the equivalent of 326 full-time professors included in the new $4.9 million medical school. Other medical resources include a $7.5 million cancer research center and a multimillion-dollar dental center.
Miller attributes the expansion to Mann's leadership. He said he'll continue to expand programs while also working to improve the school's image.
"We have a very poor press relations effort," said Miller. "We haven't taken the initiative to let people know (the good things) we are doing, or to find out what people want to know."
Slightly awed by his appointment, Miller said he didn't expect to become a dean for another 20 years.
"My major anxiety was, 'Do I really want to do this at this point? Will I do the kind of job the university deserves?'
"Then I answered myself very quickly. 'I'll do it.' I said. 'Or I won't be dean.'"