TSU President Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young, PVAMU President Dr. Ruth Simmons and Defender Education Reporter and event moderator Laura Onyeneho. Photo by Aswad Walker

Recently the Defender Network held its inaugural “HBCU Presidents Classic,” an event spotlighting Black excellence, HBCU pride and the stellar leadership given to Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) and Texas Southern University (TSU) by their presidents, Dr. Ruth Simmons and Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young.

Taking place in advance of the annual Labor Day Classic, the gridiron battle between TSU and PVAMU, the event, sponsored by Amegy Bank, welcomed more than 200 attendees who were informed and inspired by the captivating conversation between PVAMU’s Simmons and TSU’s Crumpton-Young, and moderated by Defender Network Education Reporter Laura Onyeneho.

The conversation covered many topics including college funding, alumni engagement, new programs and initiatives, and the future of both institutions. Below are excerpts from the dynamic dialogue.

BIGGEST PLANS FOR SCHOOL YEAR

Crumpton-Young: As we think about this upcoming year, our team has been focused on innovation, transformation and disruption. And what we’re looking forward to this year is the plan to allow students to register and become part of our team and our new College of Transdisciplinary Studies. And let me say why that’s so important to us. Certainly, our history book is entitled “Born to Serve.” And we understand as an institution, we need to be responsive to the needs of individuals who haven’t always been served in higher education. So, our new College of Transdisciplinary Studies has 12 new degree options: eight undergraduate degree programs, four master’s degree programs, and we will enhance that by adding doctoral programs, as well. But what’s unique about our College of Transdisciplinary Studies is it is focused on serving individuals who have some college credit, relevant work experience, but they didn’t have an opportunity to complete their degree.

How many of you know someone who has some college credit, they’re very hard-working individuals, but they didn’t have an opportunity to complete their degree because of life situations and circumstances? That’s why we created the first College of Transdisciplinary Studies in the state of Texas. We are looking forward to responding to the needs of those students. And the need is great. The Lumina Foundation says there are 35 million Americans. Data in Texas says that there are five million. We had one press release and we’ve received over 1,200 inquiries in two to three weeks. So, we know that’s a population of individuals that need to be served. So, we are looking forward to making sure through our College of Transdisciplinary Studies, we continue our legacy of being born to serve.

Simmons: At the heart of what we are doing at Prairie View is really trying to make our university stronger in every sense. And that means we focus on the quality of our programs, on the excellence of our faculty, on the opportunities afforded our students. I had an email this morning from a young man who graduated recently, who talked about the experience that he had at Prairie View in a way that made me infinitely proud of what we are doing for our students. Steve [Stephens] and I were talking earlier about the fact when I was 17 years old, I set off on a bus. I had barely been outside of Texas, but I went to Mexico to try to learn about a different culture. What we’re trying to do for our students is afford them an array of opportunities that they have not been afforded.

And I can tell you, coming from other universities that they have not had access to the same kinds of opportunities that are typical of college students across the country. They deserve to have exactly the same opportunities and we’re working hard to give them that. And I’m very happy to say we have developed numerous partnerships with institutions and corporations to give them additional work experience. We have developed a program to encourage students to go abroad. We offer passports to our students on Passport Day to encourage them to think about looking beyond their immediate circumstances. We are working with major universities about opportunities for collaborations on research and particularly offering our students opportunities for research experiences in their institutions. We have to be a part of this higher education community around the world.

People should not put an asterisk next to HBCUs and say, “Oh yes. That’s for those people.” We are in this community. We are worthy of having access to everything that a typical student in a college would have access to. And we are going after that in every conceivable way. I have the pleasure of seeing our former provost at Prairie View, Joanna Thomas Smith, who is leading our new Toni Morrison Writing Program. You know, for a long time, people wanted to see HBCUs as training sites in very specific areas, but not after all, you know, Blacks really didn’t have to have that broad liberal education. That was really for other kinds of people. Right. So, we are claiming our right to study the arts, to study literature, to develop writers who can excel like Toni Morrison. So, we are claiming our rights to have a broad array of access to everything that students normally have access to in this country. That’s what we are about.

ALUMNI ENGAGEMENT

Crumpton-Young: We have been fortunate because our alums have been very supportive of the institution. So, we’ve been fortunate that many of them are here. This past year we had a record increase in alumni giving, alumni support and alumni engagement. Our president of our national alumni association, I call her President Williams, is also here with us today. And she and the members of the alumni association have been true pioneers for ensuring that we keep our alums engaged and focused on what we need to do to advance the institution. I don’t think she’ll mind me saying this. Recently, we are of course inspired by Martin Luther King. Many of us are. He talked about “Keeping your eyes on the prize.” What we’ve developed on our campus is the saying to “Keep your eyes on the paw.” We raise our hands, we make a tiger paw.

And so the alums have agreed to keep their eyes on the paw. What that means for us is they’re going to work on enhancing internships. They’re going to work on enhancing scholarships. They’re going to work on enhancing mentorships and they’re going to work on enhancing recruitment. Those are the things we’ve committed to, and we are keeping our eyes on the paw. I’m very grateful to the alums for what they’ve done for Texas Southern University. And we’ve also decided, because they’re so active, they’re so large, they’re so engaged, and because they’re making a contribution throughout our city, our state and our nation, we decided this year that we’re no longer “Tiger Land.” We are “Tiger Nation.”

Simmons: I was very taken with the story that Steve told about the gentleman who went out and bought a Mercedes and realized that was not going to help him acquire wealth. He took it back and invested the money instead in his business. I am very tough on our alums. So, the first thing that I say to them when I hear that somebody has been an alum, I would’ve said with regard to your mother, has she been giving money to TSU? That’s the first thing to ask. We have to be very demanding of the people who came through our institutions and benefited from them, and challenge them to do what is necessary to keep our institutions growing, to keep them strong.

Now, I sometimes do it in very crude ways. I’ll give you some examples. I was at an alumni event and I noticed that there was an S550 parked outside. I don’t know if you all know what that is, but it’s an expensive Mercedes car. So, when I see that, I say to people, “The only way you should be parking that car outside of this event is that if you have made a consistently major gift to Prairie View. And I say to women who have red soles, I say to women who love to spend money on expensive clothes and jewelry and shoes, that’s good and well, but before you buy those Le Butane shoes, and that is the correct pronunciation; they don’t even know how to pronounce it.

So, before they buy those Le Butane shoes, they better be sending money to Prairie View to help support these young people who are coming along with very great need. What we are developing, we created an alumni affairs operation to give more attention to our alumni. But we are also trying very assiduously to educate them to how important it is to invest in the future; not to put everything into what we are wearing and to fancy, ephemeral things. But, to put money into the next generation. I’ve always been this way. It’s not just with Prairie View. But people do occasionally ask, if somebody has to come ask them for money, not to have me come. And to me, that is a great honor. Because when I come, I’m coming to speak the truth. And that is, give, give seriously, give with commitment.

RENAISSANCE IN CORPORATE FUNDING

Simmons: I think that this is the moment for HBCUs. For all of my career, I have not seen this kind of efflorescence with regard to HBCUs. And because it is the moment for HBCUs, we have to really make good on it. HBCUs have been so accustomed to receiving less that we have fallen into an acceptance of it. I have been advocating that we must cease the subservience that we have displayed for so long in regard to attracting funding. So, when I’m meeting with corporations today and they offer token support, I tell them, “No.” That if they can’t be serious, then we don’t need the token amount that they’re willing to give.

So, part of the reason that partnerships are getting better is not just because the climate, but because our dignity is rising and we are saying, “we deserve, we are prepared to assert, and even in some instances demand the respect that our institutions are due.” And I’m incredibly excited about this period because I love it when CEOs don’t want to see me coming. I love it when people say, “Send somebody else because I know you’re busy; don’t come.” I hope you’re doing the same thing <addressing Crumpton-Young> because we have got to stop this.

We were having a meeting with a very famous CEO; one of the very glamorous CEOs. And they were talking in a lovely way to several HBCU presidents about how wonderful it was what they were going to do. And at a certain point, I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I just said, without consulting the fellow presidents with me, “Okay. We are going to call this meeting to an end because it’s clear that you don’t understand what needs to be done. We know that if other institutions’ presidents were sitting here, you’d be having something else on the table. So, we’re going to leave this meeting now until you can think about what is appropriate to do for us. And they came back with a $50 million gift for the institutions instead of the minor amount that they were talking about. If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anybody believe in us?

Crumpton-Young: Well, let me start by saying, I totally agree with Dr. Simmons. We absolutely have to raise our expectations. And when I was at the National Science Foundation, I used to say to my HBCUs, you don’t have to be on sale. We don’t have to be on sale. We would write proposals and we would ask for less money. It is something that we have to change about our culture. I had a conversation with my cabinet about that very topic. We have to have higher expectations, and we have to expect to receive the same types of funding that other institutions receive.

We also need to make sure we have the advocacy that other institutions enjoy. I had a meeting today with a very well-known firm in Houston and one of the CEOs, and I said, “You know that we have been historically underfunded. We’re a state institution. We need the same advocacy that my wonderful alma mater enjoys. And he said, “You’re right. You haven’t asked the business community for advocacy.” So, we’re asking them for advocacy. This year, thanks to Dr. Simmons who has been my coach, we are asking in our legislative request for over $900 million.

Because we clearly have been that institution that’s produced outstanding results. We are an excellent return on investment and we are contributing to the state’s mission of creating a talent-strong Texas. So, we deserve to be funded like all of the other institutions. I want to make sure that our business community is advocating to our state legislators for us to receive the funding we deserve for the work that we do.

What event attendees had to say about the HBCU Presidents Classic

I thought the event was very successful in that the presidents actually spoke from their experience and they were not just giving us what we wanted to hear. They actually made some very good points that we could take and kinda stayed with us. (Pearl Wright, TSU alumna)

Camellia Jackson (right) with friend from TSU. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Regarding what stood out about the event, immediately, what comes to mind is Black excellence. We had two phenomenal women speakers, speaking on the history, the legacy of the importance, the impact of HBCUs. And for me, I always take an opportunity to sit at the heels of greatness to learn and to educate myself and others. (Camellia Jackson, PVAMU alumna)

The most memorable part of tonight’s event was the honesty of both presidents. Their honesty, their passion, and their love and respect for the office that they hold. I’m an alumnus of Texas Southern University and a legacy. My grandfather graduated in one of the first classes of Texas Southern university. (Thrushema Shannon, TSU alumna and legacy)

I think tonight was exceptional. I think to see two brilliant minds to be over so many other brilliant minds, they showed the reason why they’re presidents. And it spoke to really what the future holds for our communities at large, in the Texas area. (Nicholas Hunt, PVAMU alumnus)