Franklyn Jenifer, Howard University's new president, gropes for a way to describe his dream of leveraging the institution's considerable economic clout for black economic development. His smile signals that he has found an analogy he thinks will make his point.
"Do you play poker?" he asks. "Well if you think of the American economic system as a poker game, blacks have always been marginal players at best. The reason: we haven't been able to ante up to get into the game.
"One of the reasons I applied for the job when it became available -- by the way, it's the first job I ever applied for -- is not just that Howard is still a strong academic institution but because it is one of the few black-controlled institutions that can truly ante up."
Warming to his analogy, he ticks off the assets that he thinks will get Howard into the game: a $500 million budget directed by a self-perpetuating black board; $145 million in construction projects already scheduled, significant real estate holdings, a huge food service, major pension fund assets.
"We are one of the biggest black-controlled entities in America," he concludes. "Only Beatrice is bigger. We're bigger than Johnson Publishing, bigger than most of the businesses on the Black Enterprise list of 100 top black businesses."
Howard's mistake, he says, has been black America's mistake: the notion that full equality could be achieved through social programs, legislation and appeals to white conscience and the law.
"There's nothing wrong with the civil rights approach," he says, "but it didn't work because it didn't have a significant economic development component. We have spent our time watching the game being played, waiting for the winners to toss a few coins in our direction. We got so good at requesting the coins -- even demanding them -- that we started to think we were actually in the game. We even learned the terminology -- learned to sound like players -- and because we always left the game with a little more than we started with, we thought we were doing okay. But we were never serious players, because we couldn't afford the ante.
"Well, Howard can afford it. The money we will be spending on construction gives us the leverage to create major construction firms. The contracts we are involved in gives us the clout to develop powerful law firms. The $100 million in our retirement fund can make or break a bank, without our even having to spend it. We could play, if we only knew how to play."
Already he has launched a two-pronged effort to learn -- and teach -- the game. The first prong is a panel of senior faculty whose charge is to define and focus the university's mission and a board of corporate leaders who have been asked to develop ideas for leveraging Howard's economic clout. "I want to get our best minds in a room and keep them there until they figure out how we can avail ourselves of the opportunity to be a conduit of timely information and economic development ideas that can help us make a difference in the entire metropolitan area. The sad truth is that Howard, for all its assets, really hasn't made much of an economic difference to the rest of the black community."
The second prong is his effort to "change the culture of the institution."
"I'm trying to talk to every one of the 20,000 members of the Howard family -- the 8,000 employees and the 12,000 students -- about where we have been and where I hope we can go. I'm telling them that we all have a stake in the enterprise. I'm instituting training programs so that those who want higher jobs can prepare for them. If they want to go to school, they can take up to 10 courses free of charge. In return, I'm asking their support in changing the culture, and by that I mean everything from picking up trash off the campus to making the registration and financial aid systems less onerous to husbanding our financial resources so that we can eventually be free of our dependence on Congress.
"And, yes, it will entail some sacrifice. We will have to reduce or eliminate some of our programs, cut down on our waste and inefficiency and even eliminate some jobs."
Jenifer, who graduated from local public schools and Howard before he went on to head the university systems of New Jersey and Massachusetts, remembers reading a story called "The Bound Man" while he was still in grade school.
"This was the story of a man who, though bound with ropes, learned to feed himself and function almost normally. He became so adept at managing in spite of his bonds that he wound up as a side-show attraction at a circus. After we read that story, I made what I remember as the first significant comment I ever made in class (I wasn't that much of a student). I told the teacher, 'You know, that bound man is us.' "
He still believes that it is something of a miracle that black America has been able to function reasonably well, notwithstanding the bonds of discrimination and deprivation. But he also thinks it is time to get rid of the bonds, and that economic development is the way to do it.