Good morning, Howard University!
I want to thank everyone for being here today.
I feel so incredibly fortunate to see so many dear faces gathered here in assembly.
First and foremost, I must thank my family for accompanying me on this journey. My loving wife and lifelong partner Dr. Yolanda Fortenberry. My amazing kids who bring me so much joy, Allyson, Ben, and Brandon. The four of you are my constant inspiration and my endless source of joy. I carry you wherever I am.
My amazing parents, Mr. Ben Vinson Jr. and Dr. Lillie Vinson. You have constantly been my rock and compass, anchoring me always and encouraging me to achieve. Thank you for a lifetime of nurture. To my incredible Aunt Pearl, Mrs. Annie H. Parker, to my mother-in-law, the tremendous Mrs. Verga Fortenberry, to my friends and family in the audience simply too numerous to count. Thank you. My labradoodle back at home wondering where we are, Sully.
To our Board of Trustees, shepherded by Dr. Laurence C. Morse. Thank you, first for entrusting me to lead this institution into the future, and equally for your support as I’ve transitioned into this position over the last couple months. I look forward to collaborating with you, individually and collectively, over the years to come. To the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the rest of the Howard University community, thank you for welcoming me with such open arms.
And last – but certainly not least – I must acknowledge the immediate past president of this historic university, a man who has been nothing but courteous with his time and knowledge. A person I am glad to now call a friend, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick. Dr. Frederick, I thank you for our conversations, but maybe most important for your service to your alma mater, for guiding this historic university to an incredibly strong position. I do hope to fulfill the great legacy of this presidency, a select group of which only 18 of us have been members thus far. To you, Wayne, and to all our past presidents, thank you for paving the way for the past 156 years to a better Howard, a better America, and a better world. I salute you.
Okay, let’s begin.
As I sat down to start writing this speech – and I confess, I sat down many, many times over the past several months, starting over and over and over again, sometimes waking in the dead of night. With so much going on in our world, and the great challenges facing higher education, I deliberated how to tackle this talk.
A speech addressing the grand challenges of our time?
Or maybe bulleted vision points and concrete roadmaps into the future?
I finally settled into the theme: why here, why now? What exactly is so special about this place – so compelling – that Howard is an irresistible force for higher education, and for our society?
You see, there is magic at work at Howard. It has been since our inception more than a century and a half ago. I have been asked many times, even by the presidential search committee: why Howard, why me, why now? The answer is actually quite simple, embedded in that famous call-and-response slogan we chant here at the mecca.
H-U! [audience: you know!]
Howard family: you do know. We all know.
Howard has always been about bringing out what we as a people always knew we had – what we’ve had from within. Innate genius, ability, talent – too often left unfinished, and unfulfilled.
When Howard was chartered in 1867, against the backdrop of a post-civil war America, the statement was heard loud and clear. Its foundation created precious time and opportunity to finish and polish the untapped raw potential of a people, right here, on these grounds.
That’s why the walls matter, why we revere every building, every stone, every tree on the yard, every shadow, every legend of this place we love.
Just how much history is housed in these walls? If only they could speak today. Baked in every brick is the spirit of our ancestors. Adorning every rooftop is a dream, an aspiration, lingering high for us to reach while we are here – and guiding us as we depart. The giants who have graced this campus are too bountiful to count, and there are many, many more in the making – in every single student, every faculty member, and every member of our staff.
Howard University: this is our treasure. It is why the legacy must remain strong here, dearest Mecca. Because legacy captures every essence, it serves as an iron anchor, to steady us today, for a more glorious tomorrow.
H-U! [audience: you know!]
We do know, our ability, our strength, our perseverance during even the toughest times. Others must know who we are. They must know why we fight, why we persevere against untold hardships and have done so for centuries old: toiling through slavery, through a failed reconstruction, through persecutions untold and unimaginable, to achieve civil rights, equality, and enfranchisement.
This journey, we recognize, is yet incomplete. But at Howard, we recharge, and get stronger step by step.
H-U! [audience: you know!]
We have many visitors today. I hope you leave knowing, what we’ve always known.
You see, we know ours is an American story; a quintessential saga, an American journey whose essence fuels and inspires an entire diaspora. And we know we are proud because on the foundation, that is our iron legacy, we build the strength for better tomorrows.
We do know, dearest Howard. We absolutely know that everything we do means more. Each step in our journey, 156 years long, has been transcendent because at Howard, our footprints exceed our presence.
Howard, what I mean here, is that every time we plant our foot, we touch the lives around us in immeasurable ways. I know and you know that everywhere we show up is an opportunity to educate, teach, and learn. It is an aspect of our mission that I have been observing with care since I officially arrived two months ago. And I see clearly now, how every move is our opportunity for greater impact – every moment, every day.
We competed against Northwestern University in football a few weeks ago, and I was struck by what that game meant. There was so much more to our presence in Evanston than the game. While our student-athletes were fighting valiantly in the name of Howard on the field – almost shaming Northwestern on their home field during their homecoming, I might add – as the battle on the gridiron raged, there was another buzz in the air. So much of what was happening surrounding the event signaled profound understanding and change.
Northwestern took the opportunity of our being there, to recognize its own African American tradition and heritage, from its earliest alumni to its more recent students. And the game was televised nationally for all to see: my wife caught the game in Cleveland; my mom watched here in D.C., even a colleague in British Columbia, Canada was watching and sent me an email after the game about how impressed he was by our noble and valiant performance.
Meanwhile back in Evanston, the tailgate drew alumni from HBCUs across the nation to celebrate together. The Divine Nine was in force. Because we were there, they were celebrating a rich tradition of Black excellence that was seemingly unconnected from Northwestern itself. At halftime, our Showtime marching band showed up and showed out against Northwestern’s band. Watching the game and the halftime show with my sons, I saw them beam with excitement at all that was happening before their eyes. I, too, could not have been more proud.
What I am getting at, is that where Howard goes, legacy follows. Wherever we show up – what we stand for, and what we have represented for years, opens opportunities to begin necessary conversations, new conversations, and maybe to even engage in healing social wounds. People see a better, fuller world – a more complete world, because we show up and are present. On one level, that is the meaning of Howard. And the examples are too plentiful to count.
Now, whether we show up in groups, or as individuals – be it in swimming, tennis, golf; performances or in our clinics; or in the jobs we graduate into, the graduate programs we enter, the communities we reside in – when we, when Howard is there, conversations change. New angles of possibility are opened. A yearning for greater inclusion enters the room. And with it comes the potential for powerful, necessary, urgent change.
Let me return to a point. We don’t just show up. We show up to excel and achieve. That cold day in Evanston, for instance, our drum major Ian Claville, a junior mechanical engineering major from Newport News, Virginia by way of Baton Rouge, he was on fire on the field. While he should’ve been noticeably exhausted afterwards – I know I would’ve been – I saw him leaving the field still blazing with intensity, his face transfixed. He extended his perfect performance those extra few minutes, because he was interested not in just completing his task, but in absolutely mastering it.
Our athletes were disappointed they did not win that day because they fully expected to do so. They were prepared. That undeniable grit. That sky-high expectation running through the veins of each student every day, and in every way, was fostered here. And that mindset isn’t limited to our football team. You see it the collection of buildings across the yard and in the valley, on west campus. Thirteen thousand bright minds, and still counting, who’ve chosen Howard to launch their lives into making the world a better place.
Assembled guests. Assembled Howard family, and friends: this is why the way we teach, the way we learn – this is why the Howard way matters. Through what we do, we can guide future generations, and instill in them the confidence to succeed in anything, along with the power, training, and backing to do so.
That is why when our alumni graduate, they feel so prepared to step into law school, business school, their professional careers, or anything else they set their minds to. I have spoken with just enough alumni now to know this firsthand, and I’m eager to learn more.
There are many stories I can draw from. But let me bring just one to your attention, because I think it speaks to us as a whole. I received an email a few weeks ago from Zakiyyah Salim-Williams, a 1998 graduate. She was the first in her family to go to college. She came to Howard from a small town in California. She didn’t know a lot about Howard before she applied. But she was inspired to do so when, as a senior in high school, she stumbled upon a magazine article that had a list of books a Black person should read. She noticed that most were written by Howard authors. Ms. Salim-Williams would go on to law school. When she wrote to me, she reminisced on how when she first set foot on campus she felt “a sense of awe, that she was walking in the footsteps of greatness. She told herself when she didn’t understand something, or felt lost, that “Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall once walked the same footsteps of this great institution. When things get difficult, you too are following in a rich tradition of excellence.” She said to me: “as I now take on some of the hardest challenges of my legal career, I remember my days at Howard and think of all the hard problems the alumni of the school had to tackle over the course of their lives.”
From experiences like this that define our distinguished alumni, and from what I see every day at this University, I know that when your dormmate, or when the person at a front desk asks you how your day is going; when they ask about your exams and how you performed, it pushes you to keep going. I’ve seen the smiles from the receptionists at the cafeterias in Blackburn and the Annex. I’ve heard about that extra motivation from professors all across this campus. I’ve watched Dean Bernard Richardson and his phenomenal prayers speak to the soul of Howard and our heritage. I have talked with alumni who mentioned that, learning just that extra slice of history about the Black experience that they never knew about, has been something they’ve carried throughout their lives. It has helped mold them and guides them.
That greeting, that nod on the yard, and the conversation, unity, and fellowship that follows – just crossing the Yard, which is the center of our campus can be empowering; especially when you need it the most. Sitting under the trees of the yard, whose roots we water and care for. Day upon day, this routine, inside and outside the classroom, builds you beyond who you are, so that when you depart these grounds, you are ready for the world in ways you have never been before.
And if one falls short? We lean back on resilience, the resilience of our ancestors, to achieve another day, perhaps attempting to do so creatively in other ways. Innovation is born at Howard. And this is why we need to be strong. To provide the kinds of experiences we instill requires an unimaginable core strength.
We can’t do what we do, and instill what we instill from a position of weakness. We can’t do what we do and be who we’ve always been if we are inhibited from within. That is why we must work together, not apart, because working together multiplies our strength.
Our mission, Howard’s mission, is intertwined with our journey. How we fulfill our mission is ultimately up to each and every one of us.
Taking this into account, I once again ask: why me, why here, why now? I am here as a conduit and a guide for our collective spirit and vision. I am here to steward our legacy forward. And I see more amazing treasures for us just ahead.
There are so many institutions where you can get an education, and a good one. But I am reminded today that we are also doing the work of uplift. People come to the Mecca for uplift. That is why we are assembled here today: uplift of the race, the nation, and the world. For that work, the stronger you are, the higher we soar. That is why we need Howard university at maximum strength.
Now, the work of uplift looks different. Yes, we need to be strong in traditional areas that characterize a top-tier, comprehensive, modern university. With that in mind, you will hear me over the next several years talk often about increasing our research, scholarship, and creative works. About hiring world-class faculty and cultivating the overall faculty experience, bolstering our students’ academic and social experiences, strengthening our finances, our internal processes and fundraising, elevating our connections to the local community, and emphasizing our compelling need to deepen our roots within the African diaspora.
You will hear me ask us to seize opportunities in artificial intelligence, address health disparities, combat climate change, interweave strong humanities and social sciences with our world-class stem instruction to address the complex challenges of our times. You will hear me encourage us to think about new horizons and implications of the law, entrepreneurship, social justice, social responsibility, medicine, and to spotlight the unique touch we offer in the arts and in communications. You will hear me challenge our faculty every day to use their knowledge to address our world.
Yet, I recognize that fortifying these areas is simply a beginning. That is what makes Howard University different. Because behind strengthening each area, our vision encourages us to hold onto our purpose for the work; to hold that purpose true, steady. You see, it is not always what an institution does that can produce the type of uplift Howard is historically known for. Rather, it is why we do it that generates new questions, that sparks creative innovation, that spins different insights, that encourages profound solutions, and that spurs answers. This is the Howard way.
Purpose-driven research, purpose-driven coursework, purpose-driven community outreach – this is the road to uplift. Building up strength in traditional areas, but clarified with the power of purpose helps us gain the maximum strength we need for achieving maximum impact in our world.
I believe, in fact I know, that our best work is not done in isolation. If we do the work of uplift only within our walls, we fall disappointingly short of our full potential. We must complete this work both within and outside of Howard, and do so with friends. Our 106 HBCU brothers and sisters, plus the scores of universities in higher ed, all have a role working together. New and old friends here and abroad: in industry, in the private sector, in government, new-age philanthropists seeking ever-greater social impact, we are all partners, moving in the same fast lane, driving in the same direction.
Gathered colleagues and assembled guests: I want to leave you with this: in March of 1867, we were born to lead. we were born to be an engine of change and a force of good. I am mindful of these tasks today. I recognize that education without purpose does not forward our humanity. I know that purpose is easily lost amidst the cacophony of issues that swirl around us every day. But we must not lose it, because it is part of the essence of what we do here at Howard.
It underlines the Howard way and keeping it centered will help us achieve maximum strength in all we do.
Now, I’ve been working on this call-and-response diligently the last two months, as you surely can tell. I think I’m getting better. But let’s see if I can get a little help from some friends.