For Adviser to Historically Black Colleges, Good Governance Is Key

Thurgood Marshall Fund

John W. Garland
February 25, 2013

John W. Garland, who is 68, is the new president in residence of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization that supports and represents 47 public historically black colleges and universities, medical schools, and law schools. Here's his story, as told to Sydni Dunn.

You can take the administrator out of the university, but you can't take the university out of the administrator.

I retired in July after spending 15 years as president of Central State University, a public historically black college in Ohio and my alma mater. With my wife, I relocated to Washington, D.C. I was relaxing and taking it easy, but that didn't last long. As I wrote in my retirement letter, I was retiring from the university but not from life.

I'm now back at work, this time as the first president in residence of an organization I've watched evolve for more than a decade, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

Institutions of every type are facing roadblocks now. Financial support for HBCUs' mission is hard to secure. It's also difficult to attract and retain the student population HBCUs once hosted. Since the breakdown of segregation, the talent that was coming to HBCUs has been slowly pulled away by other universities and colleges. I will be trying to help remedy these issues in new ways.

For the first 15 years of my career, I was a civil-rights and trial lawyer. By convincing others that my interpretation of the law was right, I learned to be persuasive. More important, though, I learned the art of being persuaded. I am willing and able to listen, and I welcome advice.

I carried this lesson to Central State, where I had to make decisions in the best interest of everyone linked to the institution. I was juggling many responsibilities, which made me realize how vitally important it is to have competent, supportive governing boards and executive leadership.

I now know this should be a major area of focus. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund has always put the emphasis on the students, and rightly so. It will continue to provide resources to help our member colleges support programs that guarantee that their students will be successful after graduation.

But I've suggested we look at the other end of the spectrum—at the leaders who secure and support those programs. Ultimately, an organization's success is a reflection of its governance. The executive powers—the administration and governing boards—should provide direction with respect to the university's mission and accept change while contributing to conversations about how to achieve it.

HBCUs have a transformative power, one I have seen firsthand. They can take students who are shy, afraid, or unsure, and in four to five years, turn them into different people who are emotionally and intellectually ready to take on the world.

My job is to develop a plan to embrace this power, while enhancing it. This isn't something I'm doing full time, five days a week. But I will help the fund chart new territory, while still taking the time to put my feet up, read the newspaper, and write now and then.