Dwight McBride is a name pitcher. Not celebrities but academics he respects; his speech is peppered with mini shouts, often directed at people of color.
As a black, gay man in the upper echelons of American higher education, the president of The New School, an elite private university in New York, understands the barriers minority scholars must overcome.
“Every time I see a Black Scholar, a Latinx Scholar, an Asian American Scholar and so on prosper to high levels of distinction, I feel like I’m in the presence of a unicorn,” he said. “I understand how absolutely difficult it is in every way imaginable to get into these spaces at this level.”
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The scholar of race and literature, who has a deep love for James Baldwin, has spent his life achieving firsts: the first in his family to go to college, now the first person of color to lead the New School. But his boiling nature hides a certain exhaustion.
Being the only color specialist, or one of the few, brings a whole lot of extra work, says McBride. “Literally from all parts of the university, students are looking for you because you are someone who looks like them; they feel they can talk to you.
This extra mentoring — “I’m not going to say no, I’m not firing them” — as well as educating others about race issues, can be “crippling,” he says, “and can really put limits on his ability to evolve in a career.
Since becoming president in April 2020, McBride has been committed to tackling this issue at The New School. With the help of a $5m (£3.7m) grant from the Mellon Foundation, the university is recruiting more scholars from a variety of backgrounds: PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as more experienced academics .
The New School also co-founded the Academic Leadership Institute with the University of Michigan to help diversify leadership positions in higher education.
McBride is part of a network of black presidents of American universities and, through discussions with these peers, he realized that boards of directors should do more to prepare institutions when appointing the first to ‘some type of person in a leadership position, whether it’s a person of color, a woman, or someone from another marginalized group.
“You don’t walk in with the same kind of credibility that a white man doing the same job walks into the room,” he says. “If you don’t learn how to negotiate it, it can ultimately create a difficult tenure in many of these roles.
“There’s a way it also has a tax that the institution is rarely prepared for or thought about.”
To mitigate this, it is imperative that the problem be resolved, he says. “The most important thing you can do is not ignore it.” There must be “real, frank and honest conversations about things that Americans are really embarrassed to talk about: race, gender, sexual orientation.”
In addition to looking inward, universities have a duty to lead by example on issues of equality, inclusion and social justice around the world, McBride believes. Not because they are models of democratic perfection, but because they have been complicit in discrimination.
“From [their] From the beginning, our core institutions have participated, been informed and supported by white supremacy. It is therefore not surprising to those of us who study history that there is still work to be done when it comes to the institutions that make up our society. The university is one of these institutions.
The New School could, however, claim to be one of the most progressive universities in the United States. Founded in 1919 by academics attached to an institution where professors and students would be free to honestly discuss societal issues, it was in the 1930s a refuge for academics fleeing totalitarian regimes. It claims to have had the first college-level course in women’s history in the United States and even today its college mascot is neutral.
Does McBride think some of the universities with less auspicious founding histories, such as those built on the backs of slavery, have a greater duty to uphold social justice?
“I don’t know if they have more or less; I think they certainly have the same obligation,” he says. “I think the difference is that some of the work that we have to do, given our unique histories, may feel different.”
The institution he previously worked at, Emory University, is now grappling with the question of how to deal with memorials and professorships bearing the names of those no longer deemed worthy of admiration. “It is part of the work of an institution born in the South in the 19th century. This work is going to be different at Emory than it will be at The New School, but I think the work is important and necessary in both settings,” he says. The New School, he points out, sits on indigenous lands.
McBride’s self-confidence and militant inclinations are the product of a clash between her early childhood and her school years.
Born in South Carolina, he explains that “my world growing up until I started school was a very dark world. I saw myself reflected in those early years. I saw black teachers, preachers and lawyers and they were the heroes of our community.
He spent a lot of time in church where “my talkativeness was rewarded. People thought it was amazing. And I felt a lot of sense of my own worth,” he adds.
Then, when he went to a racially integrated school, he first encountered spaces where “my worth wasn’t reflected on me.”
“In retrospect, it was a huge education. Because I know what it’s like to be in a community where I feel included. But I also know what it’s like to be in a community where I feel like I have to constantly prove my worth and worth. And so it was, in some ways, that dichotomy that was really instructive,” he says.
Recent events in the United States have rattled McBride, the Trump presidency and the January 6, 2021 incursion into the Capitol, in particular.
“I’m even more stunned and horrified and scared because so many people seem so willing to dismiss it and take it as something that needs to be taken seriously,” he says of the latter.
“The peaceful transfer of power is such a foundation of any democracy” that he could not have imagined it being called into question. “Maybe it was my own naivety,” he says.
McBride’s tactic in the face of this shock is to “start over”, as his hero James Baldwin, the 1924-born New York-born black writer and activist, suggests. Here he is referring to a book, Starting over: James Baldwin’s America and its urgent lessons for todayby Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University (“a great colleague and friend and someone for whom I have deep respect”).
“Baldwin calls on us — at times like this, when you start to lose hope, when you start to feel less optimistic about the future — to start over, to get back to basics,” McBride says. “And for me, these last five years have been a call to go back and ask questions about what is our work, what is my work, as a researcher? What is my job as an academic leader, as a university president? »
The fragility of democracy is something universities can and should do something about, McBride believes. At The New School, this involves working with the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, a non-profit organization that supports leadership development. “Working with them, we asked questions about what role we should play in civic and civic education,” says McBride.
Some have argued that universities lack right-wing scholars, which exposes them to accusations of liberal elitism. For example, in his recent book What universities owe to democracy, Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels writes that university leaders should ask themselves “why are so many disciplines suffering from a shortage of conservative faculty in the first place and what are the consequences of this imbalance.” Does McBride agree?
“I’m not sure the problem is the lack of a right-wing perspective in universities,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s the problem.”
“I think there is a wide variety of opinions at the New School among our faculty, and people who certainly have a vigorous debate with each other. The thing is, you know, progressives have been painted with a very broad, unflattering brush in this country. And that’s just not my experience.
Not: South Carolina, 1967
Academic Qualifications: BA in English and African American Studies from Princeton University; Masters and PhD in English from the University of California, Los Angeles
Lives with: Alone
Academic Heroes: Toni Morrison and Ruth Simmons, President of Prairie View A&M University
This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with leaders from the world’s top universities on how they solve common strategic problems and implement change. Follow the series here.