Dwuan Warmack says his focus as president of Harris-Stowe State University is hard to forget, because it’s young men just like him.
At Friday’s formal installation in the position that he took over last July, Warmack noted that he didn’t have the best grades or the highest test scores in high school. “All the indicators said I wasn’t college material,” he told a crowd of friends, family and colleagues at the festivities, which included tributes, a bit of history and a video explaining to his young daughter why he wears a bow tie.
He added that people saw in him what he didn’t see in himself and pushed him to succeed. Now, as head of the area’s only historically black college or university, he says it’s time to give back.
“Our mission is to serve an underrepresented population that is in large percentage low socio-economic, first-generation,” Warmack said in an interview after the inauguration ceremony. “Sometimes, that’s the voice unvoiced. So my job is to make sure that population has a voice and that their voice can be heard.
“I think Harris-Stowe has taken a chance on finding diamonds in the rough and provided them an opportunity that allows them to be successful.”
Opportunity was a major theme of Warmack’s address as well as in a number of testimonials by others. They all stressed that access to higher education can improve the quality of life for young black men in particular, a group that is too often overlooked.
Warmack, 38, is one of the youngest college presidents in the country. He told the crowd on the Harris-Stowe campus that he had had a comfortable career in higher education before he heard about the opening in St. Louis, and he saw the job as a chance to help others as he was helped.
“The work is good,” he recalled thinking about his positions in predominantly white institutions. “I’m making good money, but I’m not doing what I’m called to do. I’m not serving the population I’m serving.”
In the interview, he added: “This is now just paying it forward. This is not work for me. This is a ministry for me. I think because I’ve been blessed with so much, it’s my opportunity to give back and to ensure that others that need an opportunity get it.”
Warmack actually began his duties at Harris-Stowe last July 15, just a few weeks before Michael Brown was shot to death by a Ferguson policeman. Since that time, Warmack has worked to make the campus what he calls an intellectual think tank for problems and issues that affect young black men. He noted that 40 percent of the school’s students come from Brown’s north county area, so that was one very direct responsibility he felt.
“We wanted to make sure our students are safe,” he said, “and safe holistically. We know they are safe here on this campus, but also when they have to go back to their community, where their parents and family live.”
Beyond that, he added, he wanted Harris-Stowe to take a wider look at the problem.
“The second piece was, how do we become change agents in the community,” he said. “It was never a case of who was right and who was wrong, but creating a safe environment for individuals to engage in meaningful dialogue, solution-based, to ensure that this community heals.
“Going forward, we want individuals across the country to know that Harris-Stowe is a place, if you want to come talk about race, class, gender, all of the isms, that this is a safe place to do that that will have solution-based outcomes.”
Warmack spelled out a vision for Harris-Stowe that includes more programs, academic excellence, stronger fund-raising and a higher profile for a better image than what he says the public often hears and sees.
“It’s important that we tell our story and not let others tell our story for us,” he told the audience. “We are needed in this community, and I ask that everyone that’s here be a supporter, be our voice at the table.”
Are black colleges still relevant?
Many of the themes sounded in Friday’s inauguration echoed sentiments that were part of a forum Thursday night on the relevance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in today’s landscape of higher education.
Warmack was joined by three other presidents of HBCUs to debate a question whose answer they said should be self-evident: Should HBCUs continue to exist? No one asks that about other institutions that cater to a special segment of the population, the presidents said, so why should they ask it about black colleges and universities?
The real issue, they added, is how well their institutions are serving students who often are overlooked or excluded elsewhere.
“A lot of universities pride themselves on how many students they weed out,” said Kent Smith Jr., president of Langston University in Oklahoma, “and how selective they are. If you want to do something about African-American minorities, talk about how many students you let in….
“We have to stop allowing us as HBCUs to be discussed in a negative way. I think we have to be more direct with people to teach what is happening.”
Kevin Rome, president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, added:
“We’ve been in this game for a long, long time. And we’ve been doing it with less resources. We’re not happy about it, but it will never stop us from reaching our mission….
“I will not be satisfied until Harris-Stowe and Lincoln University are treated the way we deserve to be treated. We are a state university. We produce graduates. We conduct research. We deserve to be treated the same as other state universities are treated. I believe people treat you the way you act. If you act small, they will treat you small, and we can’t afford to be small.”
Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Florida Memorial University, said that before Harris-Stowe reacted to Brown’s death in Ferguson, her campus dealt with the death of Trayvon Martin and played a critical role in discussions about race.
“You might imagine the pain that many of our faculty, students and staff felt as we went through that,” she said, adding that schools have to “teach students to be culturally aware and effective advocates.”
All of the presidents agreed with Warmack’s assertion that HBCUs need to do a better job of letting the public know about the job they do. They said they are putting more time and resources into media, including social media, to tell their story.
“Media is critical to what we do,” Smith said. “If nothing else, 18 to 22 year olds understand branding.
“If anybody says it’s not, let something negative happen and watch enrollment drop.”
And Artis said everyone needs to know what a good job the schools are doing under difficult circumstances. Noting that many of her students have three strikes against them – poor academic preparation, low income and no family history of higher education, she said:
“Harvard has a 96 percent graduation rate. Given the students they get, they ought to be closed for losing 4 percent.”
Rome summed up the situation this way: "Many people assume you went to an HBCU because you couldn’t go anywhere else. People don’t come here by default. They come here by choice.”