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Conversation #47: Anne McCall on the Future of HBCUs

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Anne McCall

A conversation with Dr. Anne McCall, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana, on the future of HBCUs.

Prior to coming to Xavier, Dr. McCall served as Dean of the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University, New York’s top-ranked public university. Dr. McCall has also served as Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Denver and as Associate Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Science at Tulane University. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in French and in German with highest distinction from the University of Virginia and the degree of docteur ès lettres from the Université Strasbourg. An authority on the work of the 19th-century French novelist, playwright, and memoirist George Sand, she is past president of the George Sand Association and has authored and edited books and published more than 25 scholarly articles on nineteenth-century French literature and related topics.

(At the time of this interview, Dr. McCall has been in her current position as provost for less than two months, so we are especially appreciative of her time.)


J. Todd: …today I’m speaking with Dr. Anne McCall, our Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Prior to coming to Xavier, Dr. McCall served as Dean of the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University, New York’s top-ranked public university. Dr. McCall has also served as Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Denver and as Associate Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Science at Tulane University. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in French and in German with highest distinction from the University of Virginia and the degree of docteur ès lettres from the Université Strasbourg. An authority on the work of the 19th-century French novelist, playwright, and memoirist George Sand, she is past president of the George Sand Association and has authored and edited books and published more than 25 scholarly articles on nineteenth-century French literature and related topics.

I should note that Dr. McCall has been in her current position at Xavier as provost for less than two months, so we are especially appreciative of her time.

Dr. McCall thanks for speaking with us today…

Dr. McCall: Thank you for having me.

J. Todd: Let me start the conversation by emphasizing the transition you made this summer; you came from Binghamton University a large, state school, a majority institution, to Xavier, a small liberal arts university, a school that is both historically black and catholic. I guess my first question is why, what do you see yourself accomplishing here, what do you hope to accomplish at Xavier?

Dr. McCall: Great question. So, I come from Binghamton University, in fact though, Binghamton University is the only public institution at which I’ve worked. I was raised entirely at public institutions, but all of my positions up to going to Binghamton University were in privates, very different kinds of privates, and none of them were HBCUs. But one of the things that was really interesting about working at Binghamton was that it allowed me to see better, yet, what it is that we can do in the privates that is a little more challenging to do in public education, and so to focus my efforts in that way. The HBCU identity and catholic identity of the university are additional draws because working at an institution that has dedicated itself, since its founding, to the education of African-Americans, and all of this undergirded with longstanding values and a tradition of attention to the spirituality of students is very attractive to me. If I’m thinking specifically about Xavier and not about simply leaving from a large public to a small private, first thing I would say is, again, the mission. We’re very mission-focused at the university, its one of its most compelling points. There are not many universities or colleges that are so clear with themselves about what it is that we do and why we do it, and the expression that we do the things we do in order to contribute to a more “just and humane society,” I see that lived out every day and I see people thinking about that in their work every day, so that’s extremely attractive. The record of Xavier is astonishing, we say it to each other in a certain kind of way but I think we’re so used to it here that we take it for granted. The record of Xavier’s students, the work of the faculty, the commitment of the staff and the administration, all to this mission, is extraordinary and it’s an honor to be working with people who have done so much together already. And then I’d say the third part of the real draw for this particular position at this point in my life would be the plans that the university is developing and rolling out now. You know, Dr. Norman Francis is such a hero [with an] incredible national and international reputation; nobody will ever be Dr. Francis, nor should they be Dr. Francis because he’s one of a kind. At the same time, the arrival of Dr. Verret, I think, is important and really perfect in its timing for the university relative to trends in higher education; so having the opportunity to work with him is really an amazing opportunity for me. Being at a university that’s going through such a major transition is in some ways a treat; I know that  may sound a little bit bizarre but, we’re reviewing everything right now: what do we do and why do we do it, who’s here to work on the next phase, how should we be focusing on it… The strategic plan, that began under Dr. Francis and is continuing now is, I would say, the most thoughtful, action-oriented plan I’ve seen since becoming a faculty member anywhere, since graduating, since getting my PhD.

If those aren’t good enough reasons, I would say, I’ve been a neighbor to Xavier for many, many years, obviously: the early part of my career was at Tulane, right up the road, and then my son went to Jesuit on Carrollton, I drove by Xavier all the time and I didn’t just drive by it, I stopped in for programs, for talks. I worked with some faculty actually, in 2006, on, I think it was an NEH grant; I’m not sure, to work on developing a women’s studies program. So, obviously I have so much to learn here but, it just felt right coming in. I’m thrilled that I was chosen and I have this opportunity.

J. Todd: Excellent, thank you. Well if we could use Xavier as a Launchpad, and I think you kind of alluded to this already, talking about it in particular but then also about the kind of school it is in more general terms, I’d really like to hear today, your thoughts on the future of both the liberal arts school and historically black university; we hear a lot, in recent years, people writing about, questioning the need for those kinds of schools. So, what would you say to somebody who questions the relevance of a school like Xavier in the 21st century?

Dr. McCall: Right, so, if we were to say “why is Xavier still relevant,” I would say Xavier is even more relevant today, in some ways. It’s a paradoxical position of liberal arts colleges, which majority of our students are undergrads, and historically black colleges and universities; some people say we don’t need them anymore but at the same time, both are experiencing gains in reputation and recognition so, it’s a paradoxical position. Liberal arts colleges come under, I would say, a lot of political attack in America; and yet in the very countries that export a fair number of engineers, natural scientists, and physical scientists to America, we have the growth of liberal arts colleges and universities. So, whether you’re looking at China and India, or other countries all around the world, you’ll see that our model of liberal arts education exports extraordinarily well. So, we have a financial issue in America of how can these institutions support themselves, and we have maybe a crisis of identity relative to straight-up professional education, but in truth, one of our most important contributions to modern society around the world is liberal arts colleges. So, as far as that goes we need to know, what we do and why we do it, what we can do better than different kinds of educational structures, and dive into it, make sure we do it well, which we do here at Xavier; and then make sure we tell our story well. And probably, most colleges and universities around the country haven’t done such a great job, and we as a faculty core have struggled to connect with the public on what it is that we actually do how we contribute. The track record of HBCUs is stellar; and again, this is a story that needs to gain more traction nationally. The percentage of students who graduate from HBCUs who go on to, obviously medical school like our students, or pharmacy school, and beyond – who go on to get PhDs in any area, be it STEM or non-STEM, is completely out of proportion to the percentage of African-American students who are going to college. So we know, from experience, that something really special is happening here. And I would say today, 50 years after some of the most famous civil rights legislation, I think it’s pretty apparent, around the country, that we’ve hit a plateau and in fact, we’ve probably gone down in many areas of inclusion and opportunity in the country and we’re at a point again where I think there’s a general sense, I hope so, of we haven’t made the progress we had hoped to make, there’s to be done, and HBCUs are particularly well positioned to be places where dialogue and the production of knowledge and communication around the issues of race, inclusion, opportunity, should be had. We have the knowledge, our students, faculty, and staff have the experiences, so we need to claim that space.

J. Todd: So, do you have some specific ideas on how you see a school like Xavier, small liberal arts, an HBCU, or both, really kind of specifically changing for the 21st century?

Dr. McCall: Well first of all, we’re 16 years into the 21st century so we better be already participating in it pretty well. I think most liberal arts schools, and this would hold for a liberal arts college that’s also an HBCU, need to push very thoughtfully, the relationship between education and career development. We either tend to shy away from the conversation, with some sort of discomfort, or it goes straight to a very pedestrian job preparation-type discourse. And the beauty of liberal arts education, of course is that our students are able to develop in all kinds of areas that they might not have imagined otherwise, and that their careers are not necessarily their majors and that’s actually okay. There are plenty of studies that show that liberal arts majors excel in a whole variety of fields, but they need to get some professional experiences in order to push that, to show that competence and that readiness, and they also have to apply for the positions, and my experience talking with business leaders frequently is that they actually just don’t begin to apply. So we will be developing even more programs than we have now and promoting them more vigorously with our students; connecting with our alumni for externship and internship opportunities; bringing in alumni for lunch and learns with our students; having more site visits to major companies around town; helping our students to become more aware of the richness of opportunities that are available out in the world for them.

I also think that liberal arts colleges, and ours in particular, need to be, and luckily we are, a place where the science of pedagogy is taken seriously. In institutions that have a particular focus on teaching, we need to think, and we do at Xavier, about how it is that students learn better, what it is that provokes better results than you might otherwise have, how might we reach particular students who might not otherwise either get hooked in to what we’re teaching or achieve the mastery that we’re looking for. One of the strengths of Xavier is that we’ve always focused on this and changing, perhaps, the focus of professional development for faculty in order to do different things, but always thinking about how can we reach our students better, what will yield those results. Liberal arts colleges have been the seat of this, and I think our dedication toward students has made that a particularly compelling part of what we do.

Lastly, I would say, liberal arts colleges can be leaders in intellectual program development; we often associate those with large research institutions but in fact, I think many of us have the experience that when faculty are getting their primary professional gratification by teaching grad students, we often tend to a more conservative approach of reproduction. It doesn’t have to be that way, it’s not always that way, but it frequently is that way. When we’re teaching primarily undergraduates, and I’m taking pharmacy out of this for a second but don’t think I’m forgetting pharmacy, but when we’re thinking a little bit more about developing a student who might go on in a very different field, I think that faculty are more prone to reach out and look at the complexity of knowledge and feel comfortable that the student isn’t in a particular field so much as learning about an issue from all of the different perspectives that they can grasp at a time. HBCUs are such an important part of the fabric of American education, they are going through as a group, or we are going through as a group, a period of challenge. The question is asked, have they fulfilled their function: in some ways that question resembles some of the questions from the late ‘70s about women’s colleges, and I think if you look at what happened in the world of single-sex and coed education, you have a period where there was a movement away from and then there was a return to thinking very carefully about what it meant. In that process, some stopped being single-sex, some went under, and some really hit the point right where they needed to be in order to be viable and have an authentic mission. So, if the population of African-Americans in America is declining by percentage of the total makeup of the population; the fact is, number one: African-Americans occupy a certain place in the population, however, in order for the university to thrive we want to be more welcoming to other populations that would be well-served by Xavier. I think that the president, Dr. Verret, puts it very well when he says that “if mother Katherine were alive today, she would recognize in New Orleans and in fat, throughout our country, other populations that should be on the list of the underserved, and for whom a Xavier education would be an incredible gift.”  For some people that’s a hard shift to make and I can understand that; Xavier plays and will continue to play such an important role in the education of African-Americans, that it’s a little bit hard to imagine being both at the same time; but I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. I think it’s because we are an HBCU that we can reach out to other populations and welcome them in. We know at Xavier, Xavier University knows, what it is like not to be recognized, not to […] have the same opportunities as other people; and so that experience, as a people and as a university, makes us a perfect place actually, for some diversification that will provide the financial viability, and it’s also good for our students. I was talking with a student just the other day and she said how happy she was to come to Xavier, after going to high school at a school where very few people looked like her, and how much more relaxed she felt and able to work, and she had a 4.0 at the end of her first year as a pre-med so she was definitely working. She also said though, that relative to students she knew at other HBCUs, she felt very lucky because she had Latinos in her classes and there were students from other communities to; so again, because we’re an HBCU we should be able to do this really well.

J. Todd: And… what else do you see really needing to change in the classroom as we continue through the 21st century, or do we need to move outside of the classroom with more of our teaching?

Dr. McCall: So, everything’s happening at once, it’s not at all linear, if it is I can’t figure out what line would be taking you to where. I think, I hope, that we’ve gotten over the just fad of technology, technology for technology’s sake, to realizing it’s a tool for us. So if it’s a tool, and really we should talk about technologies in the plural, then we can think about, what are they more useful for, where do they work and where do they work less well, where is learning enhanced and where is it lessened. And so, I think its learning, where it is and how it is that students learn better, then that can drive what those classrooms look like, and indeed if people will be learning in a classroom or someplace else. I think, year in year out, Xavier students give extremely high, A to A+ marks for the faculty, for their relationship with the faculty, and what they’ve gotten from it. Now think about this, they’re not talking about, necessarily, one teacher or one professor, they’re talking about the faculty as a core; if we think about that, that includes the lecture classes, that includes the small seminar classes, that includes the classes in between, studio classes, labs, directed readings, etc. That panoply of choices includes so many different things that I would be loathed to say that there’s one way of approaching, even though that probably means you think I’m not answering the question. But what is certain is that faculty need to continue to think about how they do what they do, and we do that at Xavier. The “CAT + FD” is a core unit on campus that provides opportunities for professors to explore, experiment with, develop their profiles, and it’s key; what’s absolutely sure is that we better not get stale because we’ll be outflanked.

Last thing I would say about that is there are programs that would be great fits for us as an institution that we don’t have yet; there are courses, perhaps integrative learning classes, certain kinds of team-taught courses that we haven’t yet incorporated into our curriculum, other than as sort of special offerings. My sense of things is that they should be much more central here; again, we’re small, we can organize this much better than an institution with 20-70,000 students in it at the same time. And so I think we should model that relationship to the complexity of knowledge, respect for peers who bring something to the table that we can’t, and also the sense of continuous learning for students. One of the great things about the research grants we have here that are so important to our development, is most of our research grants at Xavier are very focused on developing the students as scientists and scholars, as well as the faculty. And similarly to CAT+FD, this same kind of work is occurring in other formats, in the labs, in the library; and I think it’s that the fundamental mission of developing the minds of our students that will drive this.

J. Todd: We’ll wrap up with one last question […] do you see yourself, obviously not this year but maybe down the road a bit, having some time to teach a class here at Xavier?

Dr. McCall: So the pace of the work right now, especially with the transition and the strategic plan, I would have to say that I’d be giving short shrift to our students, and that would be giving my full amount. There’s only so much inside and there are only 24 hours in a day; I would love to teach and actually I think there may be some team-teaching opportunities, or perhaps some low credit bearing courses, I would love to teach. It would be such an honor to teach our students.

J. Todd: Do you have any other final thoughts, any concluding remarks?

Dr. McCall: This is one of the most thoughtful and dynamic institutions, not only that I’ve ever taught at, it is, but that I’ve had any kind of association with. And I think that, if were to be so bold, I would say the biggest weakness of Xavier is the modesty with which it’s done its work over the years. There is an extraordinary story to tell at Xavier, the university has always let its graduates tell that story, and let’s be honest, that is the truth of the university if students come out on the other side and can lead successful, meaningful lives. But I think that the world should know about what’s done here, both because the work merits that kind of attention, and because we can serve as an example for others…

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