Ronald Alan Norwood

In a May 11 op-ed that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a “guest editor” launched a savagely racist rant, attacking Harris-Stowe State University, President Dwaun Warmack,  Harris-Stowe’s Board of Regents, and Harris-Stowe’s administration, faculty and staff.

Among the many falsities, distortions and outright lies contained in the piece – what is referred to in the journalistic trade as a “hatchet job” – was the suggestion that Harris-Stowe degrees are worthless and inferior, Harris-Stowe graduates are unemployable, Harris-Stowe is a “failing institution” and “academic shipwreck,” Harris-Stowe’s receipt of state funding constitutes state-sponsored malfeasance, Harris-Stowe administrators are incompetent “charlatans,” Harris-Stowe professors are bullied and “shell-shocked,” Harris-Stowe-sponsored community events constitute wasteful “pomposity,” and Harris-Stowe should be defunded by the state.

Given the current political climate, I was not surprised that such racially vile disdain exists for this proud historically black university in certain segments of this community. However, I was disheartened by the lack of immediate expressions of outrage and firm support of Harris-Stowe by many black social, political, business and religious leaders in our community (although a handful of these leaders have stepped up in support). 

While the university has debunked this attack and others through op-ed pieces appearing in the May 18 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (“Harris-Stowe deserves broad-based community support”) and in the May 24 edition of The St. Louis American (“Harris-Stowe has a right to exist”), Harris-Stowe desperately needs black leaders from all sectors to speak out in denouncing such blatant, race-based attacks on this transformative HBCU.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These types of unjust, baseless and racists attacks on this long-standing institution — an institution that in part was sown from the seeds of racism in Harris Teachers College’s refusal in 1857 to admit black students — are a threat to the entire Black St. Louis community, and demand the sternest rebuke by each and every one of us, particularly black leadership in this community.

At this critical juncture, when overt racism is back in vogue, and when Harris-Stowe’s upward trajectory has it positioned to be a premier, St. Louis-based institution of higher learning and an educational haven for many at-risk individuals looking for economic advancement, nothing less than full-throated and unequivocal condemnation by black leadership at every level is required – and the time for that leadership response is now.

Now is the time to protect this 161-year-old institution that over the last four years – under the leadership of President Dwaun Warmack and the Board of Regents, and through the hard work and dedication of committed administrators, faculty and staff – has increased full-time-equivalent enrollment by nearly 20 percent; increased overall degree production by 34 percent; increased 2017 fall-to-spring retention to its current rate of 90 percent; increased majors, minors and certificate programs by 201 percent; and increased applications for the 2018 class by a whopping 814 percent.

Now is the time to rally around an institution that is making radically transformative changes that include: Harris-Stowe being awarded the highly competitive $5 million Louis Stokes Alliance Minority Participation grant, serving as the lead institution in alliance with Washington University, Truman State, Lincoln University, and the St. Louis Community Colleges; and Harris-Stowe forming collaborative partnerships with, and obtaining financial contributions from, visionary corporate citizens like Verizon (which awarded a total of $699,000 for the Innovative Learning Program), Emerson (which contributed $500,000), Wells Fargo (which awarded $250,000 and sponsors the Well Fargo Finance Education Center that houses a live trading floor at Harris-Stowe), the Steward Family Foundation (which contributed $250,000), and a soon-to-be-announced $250,000 corporate donor (for a summer bridge program for high school seniors transitioning to college).

Now is the time to demand that such amazing progress by this proud HBCU should not be thwarted by nickel-dime, penny-pinching politics, or be distorted by skewed academic data or shallow media coverage, that the reputations of black, highly degreed educators and administrators not be tarnished by racially pejorative labels of incompetent, “charlatans,” and failures, and that university staff – who work daily to provide an environment where college students, the majority of whom are people of color, can learn, mature and thrive – are not marginalized and demeaned for staying committed to the important mission of this great institution. 

But most importantly, now is the time to stand united in the defense of Harris-Stowe students – many of whom have been shunned by or priced out of other educational institutions – in support of their efforts and dreams of receiving a college education, to become that vocal mouthpiece Harris-Stowe students need now, and to fight now against the devaluation of the invaluable value those Harris-Stowe college degrees can bestow, not only on Harris-Stowe graduates but also on the entire St. Louis community. 

Harris-Stowe students should not be tasked with shouldering such a heavy cause, which is exactly what 18-year-old, Harris-Stowe Presidential Scholar Azalia Andrews boldly and eloquently did in a May 24 Post-Dispatch op-ed (“Harris-Stowe is not a school for mediocre students”). Instead, black leaders should be taking the lead now by doing exactly what this young, black student leader has vowed to do:  “I have made it my duty to swiftly cease any negative notions made regarding [Harris-Stowe].”

If not now, when? If not this worthy cause – supporting committed educators educating those diligently seeking higher education – then what cause? As chairman of the Harris-Stowe State University Board of Regents, I implore all black social, political, business and religious leaders in our community to unequivocally denounce these attacks and whole-heartedly defend Harris-Stowe’s quest of providing quality educational opportunity for all. Such immediate, strong, unified leadership can help make the “Wakandan” fiction of self-reliance and self-determination a reality for the St. Louis Black community.  

Ronald Alan Norwood is the chairman of the Harris-Stowe State University Board of Regents and a partner at the Law Firm of Lewis Rice.

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