Alabama A&M University President Andrew Hugine recently issued a lengthy statement on the April campus visit of Min. Louis Farrakhan. In sum, Dr. Hugine distanced the university as a welcoming host for the visit, put the students in any potential line of criticism and scrutiny for the invitation, and tied the package up with a paper-thin promotion of free speech and diverse perspectives.
"As President of Alabama A&M University, I want to state emphatically, that this administration did not extend an invitation to Minister Louis Farrakhan," Hugine said in the statement. "The invitation was extended by student organizations on the campus consistent with university policy and procedures.
"Other than the provision of these facilities, the University is not sponsoring or funding this event in any way. The views which may be expressed during this upcoming event do not reflect or embody the views of Alabama A&M University." (Huntsville Times)
Perhaps it was a necessary way to preempt raised eyebrows among state legislators and alumni who may question the minister's visit. Perhaps it wasn't Dr. Hugine's call to make. In either case, Alabama A&M giving the cold shoulder to an iconic figure in Black history amplifies echoes of an HBCU culture that once pushed away from difficult talk on civic and social debate.
Pick any HBCU community. Behind its outward legacy of student and alumni advocacy for civil rights you'll find tales of administration that levied suspensions, expulsions, and made life generally rough for the most visible student protestors and organizers. From Alabama to Georgia, Tennessee to Florida, Washington to Baltimore; scores of former students were morphed from student activists lustful for change and empowerment into dulled and embittered alumni who felt orphaned by a supportive campus family in the effort to improve community for Black Americans nationwide.
To be fair, its understandable why HBCU administrators would have viewed activism as a necessary casualty in the war for equity and mass opportunity for their students. The leaders of yesteryear were not totally blinded to the need for progress, and if they held the belief that the scales of justice could be tipped through education and assimilation, why risk the brilliant prospects of an entire student body when a few rabble-rousers could be easily silenced?
When stirring discontent compromised life and stability for so many community steeped in the struggle, it's not difficult to see why presidents and chancellors 50 years ago chose self-preservation as the first and often only starting point to self-empowerment.
But in 2012, it's puzzling that an institution seeking to give its students the most robust representation of the world in which they live would so publicly shrink away from controversial campus guests. HBCUs around the nation regularly host politicians who openly campaign to cut their funding, merge them with predominantly white institutions and diminish their enrollment.
Their leaders play the political game and embrace the enemy.
Colleges and universities of all kinds regularly host speakers that live for political and social divisiveness. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in 2007 offered one of the most passionate and scathing welcomes in any university's history to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He was an invited and received guest of the university's leadership nonetheless.
Min. Farrakhan is widely known for hateful remarks and ideology. His legacy is peppered with vitriol against nations and their people, and fortified with examples of black nationalism that are without peer throughout African-American history.
He is no different from any rapper that has graced the AAMU campus or nearby arenas to perform for homecoming.
Farrakhan will forever carry the burden of his racist rhetoric, but few can question his leadership in a religious movement that has empowered millions of Black people to economic empowerment, social justice and community building. The Winston-Salem State alumnus' work to expand black entrepreneurship and speak out against poverty and poor health conditions for black people and people of color around the world places him in elite company with countless theologians and civic leaders leading the charge for black advancement.
Min. Farrakhan is and will remain a significant figure in black history, deserving the kind respectful acknowledgement befitting of a person who helped shaped the Black American experience for better or for worse. The students at Prairie View A&M recognized this fact, and their administration wisely kept divisive commentary about him silent during his visit to the campus in 2011.
Alabama A&M students should be commended for expanding the hearts and minds of their campus community through their invitation to Min. Louis Farrakhan. How sad that their intent to elevate minds and perspectives has been reduced by the fearfully limited cultural focus of their administration.