Julianne Malveaux, Ph.D, president of the historically black Bennett College for Women, leads a unique environment for developing strong businesswomen.
For many of us especially in the current economic climate—foreseeing the arc of our professional lives can be daunting. When entire industries seem doomed to disappear or be shipped, wholesale, to other countries, the ability to reinvent oneself becomes a commodity. For Dr. Malveaux, reinvention is an art.
She has always been a woman who dared to reinvent parts of herself when the times indicated she should.
As a young woman recently conferred with a Ph.D, she became a junior economic analyst in the Carter White House; later she was a journalist who covered higher education and social issues, and a regular CNN and radio commentator. Although she allows that her life was good and meaningful during those times, she confesses that she began to want to do more. “I think that once you turn 50, you start thinking about what kind of legacy you want to leave,” she says. “I wanted to touch people even more directly.”
She is doing exactly that as the president of Bennett College for Women, a historically black women’s university in Greensboro, North Carolina. Malveaux’s path to leadership at Bennett started fairly simply. “I’d been coming down to Bennett for a year as a professor of diversity,” says Malveaux. She was there at the behest of her legendary predecessor, Johnetta Cole, Ph.D. (Cole was the first black woman president of Spelman College, the nation’s only other historically black women’s university, and the only black woman to lead both that school and Bennett. She is credited with saving Bennett from being shuttered and for bringing new energy—such as Malveaux’s—to the school.) Malveaux was quickly captivated. “I fell in love with Bennett as soon as I arrived here,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea of having and being in a black women’s space.”
Founded in 1873 by former slaves who gathered in the basement of a North Carolina Methodist church, Bennett began as a coed school. In the 1920s, seeing a need to educate young women, the women’s division of the church pushed for and created a college exclusively for women as an alternative to the many agricultural and technical schools that often focused on more male-dominated fields. Bennett was the first of its kind: a place where black women could realize their vision for themselves without any negative imposition.
What does it mean for black women to attend a school where the pedagogy is shaped with them in mind? “We’re not simply an academic institution,” explains Malveaux. “We’re an oasis, an emotional support for young sisters, for young women of color.”
She has experienced the reality of a world that often still sees—and judges—race and gender before it considers a person’s potential and brilliance. “At Bennett, we see simply your humanity.” And then the college instructs and encourages accordingly.
“There are students who come here who had the grades to enter any institution in this country but chose this one because of all the other needs we answered. Then there are students who come here who are emerging scholars, and they may need more—or different—support. I’m proud to say that because we shore up their self-confidence and because we take an active role in their lives, many of the young women who began their college careers in struggle end them at the very top of the class.”
Rebel with a cause Malveaux herself didn’t appear to enjoy such a nurturing enclave growing up. She was born the oldest of five in San Francisco in 1953—a time when this nation was known more for Jim Crow than for diversity. It was also a time when the cry for change was growing louder daily. When that cry reached its crucible in the fierce black power days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Malveaux was in the mix, pushing for change alongside her friends and the city’s leaders.
“Technically, I didn’t even graduate from high school,” says the woman who holds a doctorate in economics from MIT. “I’d been sent down south after I finished the 10th grade because people felt I had behavioral problems. Really, I think I always just questioned authority. I lived in Mississippi with family for a year, finished 11th grade, and was accepted early to Boston College.”
It was 1974, and Malveaux found herself on a Jesuit campus in a town on fire about civil rights. Amid the protests and calls for qualitative change in the lives of blacks and women, Malveaux completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in math at Boston College. “I wasn’t completely sure where I was headed. Math was something I was good at, and so I did it.” But the subject did not provide enough of a philosophical foundation to support her deep need to help elevate her community. “That’s why I switched to economics for my doctorate. I wanted an answer to a basic question: how do you close the economic gap between the races and between genders?” That is the question she has explored throughout her career in politics and journalism, and as a public intellectual and the author of numerous books.
When members of the Bennett community encouraged her to apply for the presidency once Cole announced her retirement, Malveaux says, “I hadn’t applied for a job in two decades!”
Malveaux wasn’t a shoo-in for the position. The result of a search process that included 75 of some of the best and brightest scholars, her selection did not come without controversy. Malveaux is well known as a woman who speaks her mind clearly and fearlessly—not a trait always seen as an asset at a fairly conservative, small southern campus. Furthermore, history has dictated—although this is changing—that college presidents are elevated to their positions after years of on-campus life. That was not Malveaux’s path to her place in the academy.
But in her corner were many friends and colleagues, among them the renowned author Dr. Maya Angelou, a professor at Wake Forest University, also in North Carolina. Malveaux had Dr. Cole’s blessing as well. Malveaux says that Cole quoted to her from scripture: “First Corinthians instructs us that when we choose to do great things, we choose the inherent obstacles. If you never face an obstacle, you likely aren’t pressing forward.”
Regarding the reaction by some fellow academicians that the school should have selected a more tested president, Malveaux admits, “When you do things differently, there will be reactions from some that you may not like. So yes, I was disappointed by some of the comments from those who didn’t support my candidacy. But I also came to understand it, and now I’m just excited about the work before us.”
“I know now that what I bring is this: someone who is both comfortable with authority and tradition and yet comfortable being generous with the ‘onions,’ those young women who challenge that authority,” she says.
Carving out spaces Under Malveaux’s leadership, business as usual is not the order of the day. “There was a time we focused on educating ourselves so that we would be the best professors or doctors and the like. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “But we see now that many who are successful these days think outside the box and create their own businesses. And that’s how they survive when layoffs, outsourcing, and cutbacks have reset our notions of what financial security means.”
Feeling certain that she could take on the pressures of the current day, Malveaux became determined to sharpen the curriculum so young women could prepare to compete in the global marketplace and gain the skills to become entrepreneurs.
To that end, Malveaux is working with a “simply incredible” team to develop a curriculum rooted in four distinct areas that she knows are critical in this new century. “Writing is the first thing. Communication. Being unable to communicate with people effectively has gotten us into much of the trouble we see today. Writing helps you sort out your thoughts and really think through your ideas. What could be more important?” she asks. “You can have a great idea, but if you can’t tell anyone about it, does it matter?
“Writing is the way we often introduce ourselves to the world. How we communicate—always something important at Bennett—now takes on greater significance because we are speaking to so many more people,” she adds. Leadership is another focus. Malveaux wants every Bennett student to see herself as the potential change agent in her community. “That’s our history,” she says of black women. “One of activism; one of women taking a leadership role and owning responsibility for the world around them.”
The final two areas that will take Malveaux’s students into the future are entrepreneurship and global studies. “First of all, I think that we’ve always been business owners. There was a time we moved away from that, when we moved more into the routes traditional education offers. And that was great. But what we need is balance. Besides, entrepreneurship is all about the art of selling. And whether you’re selling a product or you’re selling yourself to a person interviewing you, you have to master it to get ahead.”
For Malveaux, getting ahead is tied to a woman seeing herself in a world larger than the one into which she was born. “It’s so empowering for people born here to learn that our history does not begin with shackles and chains. We need to go get out there. See the ancient Christian churches in Ethiopia with the black saints on the walls. Go to Latin America and see the Bolivarian influences. Read about Pushkin while you’re in Russia. We’ve had a long and brilliant history, and I want my students to know that. I want them and everyone who steps on this campus to feel what I felt the very first time: a sense of history and tradition, but what a sense of possibility!”
Before they graduate, Bennett students will have been exposed to critical thought leaders, their résumés will have been polished, and their communication and their writing—a waning skill in a world of text messaging—will have been shored up. They will be ready.
They will need to be. Black women, despite gains, still fight for a place in the boardroom. Bennett College is inexorably committed to providing women a room of their own so they can one day make room for themselves anywhere they want.
And despite the recession, this has been a banner year for Bennett College in its quest to fulfill this ambitious mission. Bennett recently received reaffirmation of its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges; alumnae giving for 2009 reached $1 million; and the Bennett board of trustees approved the “go ahead” to secure an HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] Capital Financing Program loan, which will finance the construction of several capital projects—including a new global learning center, an honors residence hall and guest quarters, new health and wellness facilities, and a children’s house/intergenerational center. In addition, a $3 million campus renovation is already underway. It includes upgrading the Pfeiffer Science Building, the re-adaptation of the Merner Pfeiffer Heating Plant into a new Journalism and Media Studies Center, and residence halls improvements.
Race and gender economics in practice
“The young women who attend this school leave here prepared to excel in the global market, because they leave here knowing that they have been educated in the finest tradition,” Malveaux says. “They leave knowing that their role in business is not a check mark on some list of quotas, but a real value proposition.”
But she is quick to point out that although Bennett focuses on how best to benefit each young woman who attends the school, the real beneficiaries are the people outside the school who are running businesses and other institutions. “Every pool of applicants should include graduates of HBCU,” she declares without hesitation. “Think about it. If you are looking to impact the market, you need a diversity of perspectives and life experiences to reach the broadest number of clients. You need staff who are comfortable talking to anybody.”
“If you attend Bennett, you leave not only with a fine education but also with a deeply seated confidence that allows you to interact with anyone and allows you to speak up rather than shy away when your voice must be heard,” Malveaux says. “Our graduates move forward with a spiritual center that keeps them balanced, that acts as a coat of armor in a challenging world.”
A Bennett alumna recently told the students at a gathering that after being educated at the school, she never felt intimidated. She talked about how being someplace where the whole of her humanity was embraced and nurtured had allowed her to navigate a world that was not always so accommodating.
“That’s the feeling I want my students to have 10, 15, however many years on,” Malveaux says in a voice so passionate you’d think she was mother to every young woman on that campus.
It may seem odd to hear that Malveaux—known to agitate against the status quo, known to be a rebel—is passionate about leading a school deeply rooted in tradition. But for her, it’s personal. In her welcome to the class of 2012, Malveaux reminded the community that “David Dallas Jones, the ninth president of Bennett College for Women, was known for walking up to young women on campus and asking them, ‘Young lady, what is your purpose?’”
It’s a question she has obviously explored for herself. And in her role as president of Bennett, Malveaux will continue helping young black women answer that question for themselves. DW