Benjamin Harold Alexander, 61, was selected over 92 other candidates to become president of the University of the District of Columbia last April. No stranger to Washington, having been a grants manager for the National Institutes of Health, and a member of the D.C. Board of Education, Alexander came to UDC from an eight- year stint as president of Chicago State University.
His charge is to do at UDC, which has a predominantly black enrollment, what he managed, often in unsettling ways, to accomplish at Chicago State, which also is predominantly black. And that is to upgrade the school's image, its academic standards and the value of the diplomas it grants. Just last week, in a repeat of one of his earliest moves at Chicago, he announced the academic probation of several hundred UDC students and the suspension of hundreds of others who had failed to make good on probation.
Alexander, a conservative educator who believes that blacks have been crippled as much by misguided sympathy as by racism, insists that while matriculation at the open- enrollment UDC "is a right; graduation is a privilege." He says he will give students remedial help if they want it, but he won't lower standards. "If they flunk, they flunk." Alexander, who says he followed his mother's advice to "never go into an easy field," holds academic degrees through doctorate, all in chemistry. William Raspberry is a columnist for The Washington Post.
Q: I'm wondering whether the experience in your own life is what lies in back of your attitude that blacks, even from disadvantaged backgrounds, should not have special privileges, special opportunities, have special concessions made to them. Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Q: What part of town did you live in?
A: The ghetto area, the poor area. I saw a shooting and a killing practically every Saturday night. But I come from a religious home. My parents would say to me, "We are poor now because everybody is poor now (in the Depression). But education could get you above this. What you must do is work hard."
My father was just a foundry worker, and my mother was just a hospital maid. But what they knew was this: that if you got an education -- she worked at the hospital -- you could be the doctor. But this is what all the parents in those days said to their kids. We came home at night, we studied because they asked us to study. When I was in school, the community had spelling bees for the blacks. So we knew how to spell. We had debates. When I was in the sixth grade -- debate champion. Everybody was trained. I could think and talk on my feet at that early stage. We don't do this now.
(In 1954), I wanted to earn a doctorate degree so I applied to Howard, (one of America's premier black universities.) Howard would not accept me because, number one, of my color. Absolutely true.
Q: You mean your (dark) complexion?
A: Yeah, it was my complexion. Also the economic background of my parents. My mother and my father had maybe a 4th grade education. When I went to the chemistry department I was just told outright -- if you were lighter in color or if your parents were professional people -- . Howard turned me down.
So then I applied to Georgetown University and (they) accepted me. Now here's the thing that's going to be a shocker to you: When I got to Georgetown, I had met Dr. Michael Sullivan. He gave me the assignment to start working on my doctorate degree. But there was a Jesuit father (who) met me and he said "Do we (already) have enough blacks here?" He and Dr. Sullivan got into a shouting match. Dr. Sullivan said that's no way to run a university. This man has been accepted and I don't care what his color is. I don't care what his religion is. He's gonna go to Georgetown.
I said I would need a job here. I applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville. At that time, in chemistry, people were chosen by the type of grades they made. They had a competitive examination that was given to all chemists graduating from universities. I took the competitive examination along with some other students, and I made 102 on that examination -- 97 plus five points veteran's preference. I had finished number 3. In those days, everything was competitive, which I liked very much, because then it was ability. They saw that I made this grade at Beltsville. They hired me on the basis that I went to the University of Cincinnati. I went to Bradley University.
Now, when I got here, they found out I was black. (They) said there are separate facilities for black and white -- we had maintenance people working here, they had their toilet -- and we bring a professional in, he may not eat in the eating place they eat in. They said they were not gonna hire me. So this white fella, William Barthel, he said, "I hired this man, and I hired the most qualified person I could. (He has the) credentials. If you don't let him come, then you'll have to fire me also." I knew it was gonna be a big stink. So what they decided was, "Well, you got him. He'll work for you." So they let me use the same facilities they used. They let me eat where they would eat. I wish we could go back to competitive examinations and so forth and judge you only on that.
See, when I went to school, psychologically they say that if you put a black in the back of the room, psychologically you kill him. You know I stayed in the back of the room all my life. Matter of fact, in one class (the teacher) didn't even let the blacks sit in the room. We sat in the hallway so we could see and hear but we were not a part of the class.
Q: Where was this?
A: This was in Cincinnati elementary school. When I got to the University of Cincinnati, I was majoring in chemistry, but you had to take zoology. There was a very attractive white girl named Anderson. My name was Alexander. (We) were supposed to (be lab) partners based upon alphabet. Well, the professor came up, he said, "You cannot have her for a partner." And I said, "Why?" And he told me why. "She's a white woman. We'll get you a partner." The next day when I came back my partner was the only Jewish person in the class. My partner was a genius. Smartest person in the class. Honors and everything. We took partnerships also in chemistry, because he's Jewish and I'm black -- what the heck. They make a good combination. This is why I think I got such an excellent background in chemistry.
Q: Let's back up. With some real disadvantages early on, something happened to you that made you know that you could succeed. A lot of children who grew up the way you grew up don't have that attitude. I'm wondering how you can justify treating everybody as though they were like you; and how do you get kids to have the kind of attitude that you have?
A: I know for a fact that 85 percent of the people can do what I have done if they work hard at it. It's a bell-shaped curve. On this side there are 15 percent and they're going to be geniuses and they will make it whether they're taught anything or not. Now we're going to have 70 percent here, Bill, and those 70 percent are average people. They can be doctors, they can be lawyers, they can be writers, they can be newspaper editors. They can be anything they want to be. But they have to be motivated. God did not make everybody equal. But I say I was in this 85 percent on this side, and because I was in that 85 percent on this side I knew I could make it. Now, Bill, what's wrong with society today and particularly for my people is they have not told them that you must work hard to succeed. They've not told them coddling people is the best way in the world to destroy them. What they've been taught is, you know, we're going to give you this and give you that. And when you give me things all you do is make me a beggar.
My generation is no different, for blacks, from the present generation. The only difference is in my generation parents worked their hands to the bone to see that their children got a college education. At the University of Cincinnati where I went, blacks were outstanding. You didn't teach me how to read. They knew how to read when they got there. You didn't have to teach them how to write. They knew how to write. You didn't have to teach them what to go into. We went into the fields that were difficult. In my day at the University of Cincinnati, blacks majored in chemistry, physics, and the smartest fellow in the physics area there was a black. We went into zoology, we went into the fields where they was less discrimination and you were judged on your ability.
Now let's go back to what we ought to do. When I was on the (D.C.) board of education, 60 percent of that time we were above the national norm, because we had a track system. In that track system, it was broken down into those who were college-prepared and those who were not. Now people can say what they want to, the track system had some good. You need ability grouping. I don't care what anybody says. Because people are not the same.
Q: You talked about the track system and acknowledge that some people learned more slowly than others. As long as you have only the college-prep track going to college, one can set standards that are consonant with the demands made by the top-notch universities.
What changes when you start admitting people to college from a general track or from a lower track -- which is what you inevitably do when you have an open-admissions college -- is you get people who become eligible for enrollment simply by virtue of having graduated from high school. What happens if when you apply the rigid standards?
A: I'm very pleased to have open admissions. Everybody will be given an opportunity to come to UDC if they wish. I have no right to say to a person you cannot become a lawyer or a doctor or professional person. I have the right to give that person the opportunity. Now if that person is in that 15 percent that I mentioned to you and he does not make it, now it's my job to let that person know that there are other jobs in the world that are equally as important as being a college graduate.
For example, in San Francisco a plumber with 6 to 7 months work will make more than teachers with college degrees starting off in the school system. Some of the people working on the Metro system here, their salaries are higher than people who work here at the university with college degrees. This society has stated that if you have a college degree, you are somebody. If you do not have a college degree, you're not somebody. Now that is wrong. To me if you have a college degree and you are doing a worthwhile job and you're happy, that's important. If you don't have a college degree and you're driving a truck and you're satisfied, that's important. We need the truck driver, we need the schoolteacher. Now is a schoolteacher more important than a truck driver? This society says yes. I don't say that.
Q: But there's a different kind of question: With open admissions you enroll people from a still-troubled public-school system who may not have even been eligible for the more prestigious schools. You admit them in fairly significant proportions. It seems to me that once you admit people who are not fully prepared to be freshmen, you've got just three possibilities. One is that you expect them to achieve more than their counterparts at Harvard or Stanford. Second, you expect them to flunk out at very high rates. And third you lower what you require of them.
A: We will not have lower standards, because there you're coddling students and your'e crippling them. Let's take number one. Many students have come through high schools over this country and they were not prepared. But remember not only does UDC admit those students, Harvard admits those students. Yale admits those students. We all admit students of that type. Now if they come here, we give them remediation help if they're willing to do it. Every one of those students put on probation were contacted and asked if they'd like to come in for remedial help.
Q: Do you require an extra semester for that remedial help? Because if you don't, you get back to what I was talking about. While they're doing remediation they're not doing what a freshman who did not need remediation would be doing.
A: It's given to them after school hours.
Q: Non-credit help?
A: It's essentially non-credit. Absolutely. Out of every 100 students who come here ill- prepared, we save about say, six, and we lose four. Well, you can't beat that. That's 60 percent. Now if we were not offering these services we would be condemning those 60 percent that we now save.
I say this sincerely. That kid on the corner can shoot dice, and he can tell you the odds on making 8, or 5, or 4. That kid in the clinic can count basketball, football, anything like that. These are things he's interested in. What we must do is train students to do the computer work, brain work. Then we will take the other student at this end of the line and he will be the one that will repair the robots. Both are needed. Somebody must build the robots, somebody must repair the robot.
What's wrong with society, and I want to emphasize this, is that person who makes F's, if he's in the 85 percent I'm talking to you, he can make B's, if he works at it and tries hard.
Perfect example, one of our faculty members right now has a son, IQ about 124. He just walked out of UDC, just flunked out, this past term. That kid has no reason to flunk out of this school. Do you know why he flunked out? He's lazy. He doesn't want to work. He thought he could miss class. This is a new day at UDC. You're not going to come in and miss classes and people give you anything. Somehow I don't make excuses for those people. It's time for us to stop this nonsense of coddling black people. The only thing worth a damn in this country is green power. And how do you get green power? By brain power.
Q: Do you sometimes find yourself tempted into controversy almost for the sake of controversy?
A: The reason I'm controversial is because I try to do what is right. You know and I know that everything I've said is absolutely correct.