Seven presidents come together in Cleveland around higher education
Written by Connie N. Larkman October 9, 2013
There was a rare gathering of seven presidents at the United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland this week. UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black invited the presidents of the six UCC-related historically Black colleges and universities to the Church House for a two-day meeting aimed at deepening the relationship between the schools and the denomination.
"These schools are tangible proof of the UCC's continuing struggle for equality and education for all God's people, a legacy that dates back to the Congregationalists and abolitionists of the Civil War era," said Black. "It was wonderful having the university presidents with us for a few days. We now have a common focus – helping young people learn more about UCC educational opportunities."
The six leaders of higher education in attendance Oct. 7-8 included Walter M. Kimbrough, President of Dillard University in New Orleans, La.; H. James Williams, President of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.; Larry L. Earvin, President of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas; Johnnie B. Watson, President of LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tenn.; and Billy C. Hawkins, President of Talladega College in Talladega, Ala.; and Beverly Wade Hogan, President of Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Miss.
The colleges and universities represented trace their history to the American Missionary Association, an early abolitionist organization that established schools in the south to educate newly freed slaves. The AMA, a visionary organization dedicated to education and racial equality, is part of the legacy and history of the UCC -- first as part of the Congregational churches, then as part of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, and later as part of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
"The history of the American Missionary Association is very important to the nation, and the UCC should not only own this history but promote it," said Dilliard University President Kimbrough. "The work of the church today and the social justice emphasis is just as strong today as it was when these schools were formed."
"It is increasingly more important that our schools reconnect with the UCC because of the conditions of our society and schools today. These are challenging times," said Tougaloo College President Wade Hogan."The founding principles that created these institutions are still relevant today in the face of present day issues of human rights. There are still issues of peace, fairness, justice, tolerance and inclusion that divide us and impede human progress. We need a strong united voice that speaks to the transformative power of education and what it means for our democracy."
With that mission in mind, the colleges and universities are now focused on providing education for today's world and shaping leaders who are competent in an increasingly diverse context. Their student bodies are diverse in many ways. For example, at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, 20 percent of the students are Mexican American and 5 percent are white. All of the schools have students from other countries as well.
At this, the first gathering of its kind in several years, the presidents had the opportunity to meet with the UCC's national officers and members of the national staff for a conversation that reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen ties with the UCC. The group also had a chance to meet with several pastors and youth ministers from the Cleveland area, who were encouraged to learn more about the schools and their programs.
During the gathering, each of the school leaders shared that they have been recognized for high academic standards, and that enrollment numbers are on the rise. UCC leaders pledged to help lift up the visibility of the schools so that more UCC students can discover the opportunities available in studying at one of these schools.
"Hopefully more UCC churches will encourage their members and their communities to attend the schools that actively live the core values of the church," Kimbrough added. "All of these schools have strong histories in civil and equal rights, and continue to develop new programs to engage their students in this important work, work that is a ministry of this church."
After the two-day discussion, Fisk University President Williams indicated that the gathering was time well spent. "We enjoyed the time with our UCC colleagues, and the area ministers. I am hopeful that we can build even stronger and more productive ties with the UCC."