Dwaun Warmack took over as president of Harris-Stowe State University in July. A month later, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, about 12 miles away.
“It was extremely shocking, being here, trying to transition to a new city and get acclimated,” Warmack told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “For me, it was an eye-opener. But unfortunately — or fortunately — I just transitioned from Florida, and I was in Daytona Beach. I was 18 miles from the Trayvon Martin tragedy. I had some experience, from an educational perspective and institution of higher learning, (with) how do we create a space to have some meaningful dialogue around some tragedies that may happen like that in this country.”
Warmack said he has worked with students and university officials to define the role of the university, a historically black school in midtown St. Louis.
“It was important for us to take the lead and serve as the intellectual think tank and help the community heal around issues of race, politics and specifically education,” he said. The university has hosted a series of town hall forums since August.
“It’s become a place where people know they can gather, have conversations and talk about real solutions and healing,” Warmack said. “I fundamentally believe education has to be at the core of what happens. We can’t talk about race relations, we can’t talk about economics, we can’t talk about politics without creating a solid educational platform where individuals are educated and begin to make some informed decisions.”
So far, that has included expanding student access to the school’s counseling center, and establishing a mentoring program with local schools.
“The day of (Michael Brown’s) funeral, we had 50 African-American students, males, that decided to go out to Ferguson. We decided versus going to be in the limelight, we wanted to be part of the real solution,” Warmack said. “We knew those students at the Ferguson-Florissant School District had missed almost two weeks of instruction. So we took 50 African-American students to walk all of the students at Griffith Elementary School back into school. From that we’ve developed a mentoring partnership where our students will go out there (to) read, mentor to those students.”
Warmack said the university also is making changes to its curriculum, which is now focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“How do we teach civility?” he asked. “How do we teach respect? How do we teach responsibility? All of those things are key. We’ll be launching an African-American male initiative.”
The university also will create a social justice institute. “Within that social justice institute, we will begin to continue to deal with a variety of these different -isms that are out there: racism, sexism, ageism,” he said. “We have to deal with the underlying issues that are there.”
While many have drawn comparisons between the shooting deaths of Martin and Brown, Warmack said he sees differences in the response.
“In some ways, the Trayvon Martin tragedy was one that individuals had a chance to see this is real. Now this one here, the youth, more than in the Trayvon Martin tragedy, are not backing down. This is something that they’re willing to die for, and that’s an extreme statement,” he said. “I don’t think this one is going away. I think the community is engaged. It’s international and the world’s watching.”
What’s Next For The University?
Warmack is 37, the youngest college president in the United States today. He said his age helps him connect with students.
“I’m that cool president. They follow me on Twitter; they follow me on Instagram; I am on the social media. And if they need to be in touch, I’m the president that’s accessible,” he said. “My ability to connect with students on a different level and understand some of their challenges makes a world of differences.”
Warmack also has more than 15 years of experience in higher education. Before joining Harris-Stowe, Warmack was a senior vice president at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. He previously held administrative positions at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., and Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. He holds a doctoral degree in education leadership from Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Delta State.
His first four months at Harris-Stowe have focused on assessment, Warmack said.
“As a change agent, the most important thing has been to assess the climate and environment first before you go in to make any sudden changes,” he said. But change is coming.
“We’ve launched a five-year strategic planning committee, so that will chart our path for the next five years as an institution.”
Facing an “early spring” deadline, Warmack said the committee will focus on academic excellence; enrollment and retention; branding and marketing; and fundraising and “friendraising.”
Many still see Harris-Stowe as a teachers college, Warmack said. Harris Teachers College was founded in 1857 for white students. Sumner Normal School, which later changed its name to Stowe Teachers College, was founded in 1890 for black students. The schools merged in 1954.
“Teacher education is still at the core of what we do,” Warmack said. “That history doesn’t go away; I embrace that concept of being the teaching institution.”
The university offers 16 degree programs, a number Warmack would like to see grow.
“We are part of this community. We are invested in this community — been here 157 years and have no plans of going anywhere,” he said. “So my conversation is meeting with constituents in this community and finding out what is needed. We want to produce graduates that can be valuable contributors to this community. We don’t want our graduates to leave here. We want them to graduate from here (and) make contributions to the greater St. Louis community.”
After only four months, Warmack has the university’s bragging points down pat: “We’re number one in degree-production of African-American males in the state of Missouri, two years in a row, in mathematics,” he said. Among state institutions, Harris-Stowe is No. 4 for degrees for black men and women — No. 7 among all 34 of the state’s public and private institutions.
For Warmack, Harris-Stowe fills a niche.
“We are small and intimate enough where students get to know their professors. You’re not a number. You have the opportunity to know your professors on a first-name basis. Our faculty to student ratio is phenomenal,” he said. “Our cost of instruction, our tuition, is extremely affordable. When you think about being able to have that interpersonal relationship with your faculty member, to do undergraduate research with a faculty member, to produce publications with a faculty member as an undergraduate, that’s a unique niche.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.