About a month ago, Dr. Benjamin H. Alexander, president of Chicago State University and then a leading candidate for president of the University of the District of Columbia, gave a speech in Washington.
Alexander used the forum to address a burning question that certainly must be nagging millions of American blacks during these troubled times: "Are we black, Negro, colored, mulatto, Cush or American of African Heritage?/The Truth About Uncle Tom." The speech was Alexander's rationale for why the term "black" is not an appropriate designation and a defense of Harriet Beecher Stowe's slave character, Uncle Tom, who for decades has represented some of the worst in black people.
On the first point, he declared that "as an educator and scientist, I insist that black is as inappropriate a term as brown or white for Americans." He proffered 'Americans of African heritage' instead. And on Uncle Tom, he advanced that despite all else, "It was Tom's quiet but unwavering 'No, master,' when he was ordered to lash his own people that characterized the man" and ennobled the slaves of African heritage in the eyes and the hearts of many.
Alexander said later that he believed in what he said, and his conviction is not undeserving of praise. But why bring up this subject at this time? Who cares? It was not his first soliloquy in defense of Uncle Tom. He has made similar speeches throughout the country, sounding more like Don Quixote flailing at old windmills than a creative educator ready to lead a school like UDC with its unique characteristics and needs.
Theoretically, such a speech has its merits. It shows that as a black person, Alexander can be bold enough to go against the grain. And that hard-headed thrust seems to fit with his educational philosophy, for he is known to be a tough, no-nonsense administrator, concerned first and foremost with academic achievement.
Alexander told me in a telephone interview that the most important issue is to "change the image of UDC and make it one in which people will have respect and pride and have students who are able to compete anywhere in the country." That's all well and good. He also seems to feel that some blacks have used their race as a kind of a crutch, and there is also an element of truth to that.
For most of the five years of its existence, UDC has been considered a university of last resort, a school somewhat second-class, and no one can dismiss from that perception the fact that the overwhelming majority of its students are black. What better goal than to elevate this school to the level of first-class scholarship?
But what must not be lost in the shuffle is the reality of UDC. It is not just an ordinary university. Like all historically black colleges, its mission is to turn out graduates who become leaders, and to be the school for the many young black people in Washington who for various reasons do not go to Georgetown, American, Catholic or even Howard university. UDC has been a university of last resort for many students from the city's troubled public school system. Now there is pressure to raise standards to meet the demand for a highly skilled, educated and technically competent work force. Will the effort to make UDC top flight effectively place it out of bounds for those it has served?
Alexander earned a strong reputation during his eight-year tenure at Chicago State as a president who produced results, reorganizing its administrative structure and toughening its academic standards.
But UDC in 1982 is not Chicago State in 1974. What is demanded here and now is more than a no-nonsense educator with a reputation for expelling students who don't meet standards. What is needed is a major mind and a major mover who understands the relationship of blacks in American society, who understands the threats to higher education for the poor when the middle class is complaining about college costs, and who is excited about moving his students into the rapidly changing America of the '80s and '90s.
Washington neither wants nor deserves a second-class state university. But it also does not deserve a university that effectively excludes or misdirects its own. That, like Uncle Tom, could in theory be considered a very positive image. But if in the process, thousands are denied the opportunity for higher education, in a manner of speaking, who cares?