BY JENISE GRIFFIN MORGAN
Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) has had its share of trials and tribulations lately, but its president, Dr. Edison O. Jackson, is steadfast in his belief that the small, Daytona Beach-based historically Black institution can overcome recent events and become one of the nation’s top research universities.
For months, B-CU and Jackson have been hammered with questions from its alumni, board of trustees and local media about a costly dormitory project; shootings in which students received non-life threatening injuries; the sudden departure of its fiscal affairs chief; and a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former student who wasn’t allowed to try out for the school’s dance team because of her weight.
And last week, tragedy struck when 22-year-old Damian Parks, a student from Miami, drowned while swimming in the ocean in Daytona Beach. Parks will be funeralized May 2 in Miami.
Just days prior – on April 14 – the president had an exclusive interview with the Florida Courier in his office to address questions about B-CU’s fiscal matters, being open to stakeholders, security, the future for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and public access to the B-CU campus.
An April 17 story in the Florida Courier addressed the $72 million dormitory project, transparency and security.
In the interview, Jackson, B-CU’s eighth president, also focused on his effort to move the university founded in 1904 by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune to the next level.
A great match
“Bethune-Cookman is a wonderful place, and it had so much potential that was not being cultivated and so it was a great match for me – who I am, where I’ve been and what Bethune-Cookman University is all about,” Jackson said about his decision to come to B-CU.
He remarked that sometimes when a president is selected, there’s a mismatch between the personality of the one chosen and the university.
“I felt that it was a good match between the two of us, and I saw what could be – the possibilities of moving this great university to the next level in terms of its development.’’
“I’ve coined the phrase, which is a vision statement, that we’re moving towards becoming a great small research university that happens to be an HBCU,” he said.
“Our students don’t just live in the African-American community. They live and work on the world stage and we want them to be able to compete successfully within the larger context of living in America or abroad.”
During Jackson’s presidency, enrollment has increased steadily. In the fall 2014, B-CU enrolled 4,045 students; 3,787 enrolled the previous year. In addition, the 2013-2014 retention rate of students was 66 percent, up from 63 percent in 2012-2013.
“While most institutions are losing enrollment, we’re growing and have grown for the past few years,” Jackson said, specifically pointing out the 6 percent to 7 percent increase in Black males three years in a row.
Jackson came out of retirement in May 2012 to become B-CU’s interim president, replacing Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, who retired after seven years. Jackson was appointed as permanent president in May 2013 and committed to serve a three-year term.
This is his third presidency. He previously served as president of Compton Community College in Compton, Calif., and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
More programs, faculty
Jackson cited recent improvements, including:
•Expanding the School of Business to the College of Business and Entrepreneurship. The expansion enables the university to offer more concentrated areas of study and encourage and foster business owners.
•Creating the College of Health Sciences, which will include a master’s degree in physical health, a doctorate in physical therapy in conjunction with Florida Hospital, and a master’s in nursing program.
•Partnering with Volusia County Schools, which includes a mentoring program for students at elementary schools located near the campus. Next month, B-CU’s School of Education and its Community Initiative K-16 Department will receive the Florida Education Foundation Commissioner’s Business Recognition Award.
•Requiring all B-CU students to take a course in entrepreneurship prior to graduation. The idea is to introduce them to entrepreneurship whether they decide to start a business or not.
•Increasing foreign language requirements to help them be more competive.
•Adding 15 new faculty members.
“We had to recruit them,” Jackson said about the new faculty. “You want the university to be attractive to scholars and we’re gaining that kind of reputation.”
The censure list
The president is working to remove a blemish from the past relating to faculty.
In 2011, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) put B-CU on its list of “censured administrations,” which means that conditions for academic freedom and tenure were unsatisfactory at a college or university. B-CU is still one of only 53 institutions nationwide on the censure list.
“We’re working with them to get off that list. It has not impacted our ability to recruit outstanding faculty members,” he said.
Jackson said faculty members in the past complained to AAUP and the university ended up on the list.
One problem Jackson said he found when he arrived at B-CU was that people “thought they were constrained by policies, traditions and practices and don’t dare step out there and be innovative and creative but stay in your lane. And I saw so many individuals with so much talent and they were demoralized because their strengths and talents were not being used to strengthen and build this great university,” he explained.
‘Balm in Gilead’
Jackson says he is also trying to create an atmosphere of service on the campus.
“It was a challenge because the word on the street, if you will, was we didn’t treat our students well as far as customer relations and make them feel they are somebody, make them feel wanted, and we still have not succeeded as I want us to succeed,” he shared.
Two consultants were brought in to help implement protocols and provide training.
Jackson, who often peppers his comments with Scripture, noted how B-CU should be “a balm in Gilead,’’ a help for students who are hurting.
He noted that some students arrive on campus “having come through some very difficult times. … We talk to students sometimes and they say, ‘I was at my wits’ end. I was ready to commit suicide. We don’t know which one we’ll meet in the course of a day.’’
He also stated, “We want students when they graduate from Bethune-Cookman University to say that ‘I was treated well.’ ‘’ He hopes that in the future, when recent graduates receive letters to donate to B-CU, “they won’t put it in the trashcan because they are so angry and unhappy with the experience they had at Bethune-Cookman University.’’
Like other HBCU leaders, Jackson isn’t pleased with some of President Obama’s policy changes on education.
In 2011, the federal government stiffened the credit requirement to receive a Parent PLUS loan. Some HBCUs experienced a drop in enrollment because parents could no longer qualify for loans to help send their kids to college.
Last year, the government eased requirements but not after significant damage. For example, in a two-year period, Clark Atlanta University’s enrollment dropped about 13 percent.
Jackson said B-CU had invested more money toward scholarships that replaced the gap left by the PLUS loans, adding that for the past eight or nine years the university has been operating at a surplus.
“We are in some ways the unusual kid on the block,” he remarked, adding that the initial decision to tighten the credit criteria was unnecessary. “I’m not sure that some of our small institutions will survive because enrollment is the key for private institutions and most of them are not experiencing the growth we’ve experienced here.’’
He also is concerned how the Obama administration’s proposal for free tuition at community colleges will impact HBCUs.
Are they going to allocate more money or will they take from the pot that already exists? “If that’s the case, some of us will lose, he responded.
Jackson added that the change on the community college level should not be made at the expense of baccalaureate degrees.
‘Called to serve’
B-CU’s founder left a profound “Last Will and Testament” written shortly before her death in 1955 at age 79.
When asked about his legacy as it relates to B-CU, Jackson stated, “God called me to be a servant and that’s what I’m doing. I didn’t come to be served, but to serve. And I’m mindful of how blessed I am and I understand that you want to leave a legacy of achievement but also love.
“It’s a spiritual journey for me… I love this place. … I see so many possibilities and this institution will survive in spite of all of us because God has ordained it to be. Nobody could have survived the challenges that our founder encountered.’’
When he leaves B-CU – and he doesn’t have a time frame – his plans are clear.
He will return to Virginia to his home on the Potomac River. Jackson was born in Heathsville, Va. He has been married to Florence Evora Jackson for more than 50 years, and they have two children and three grandkids.
“I didn’t want to be a pastor of a church,” he added about his own legacy. “I wanted to help these young people to be transformed … ‘Enter to Learn and Depart to Serve’.’ It’s simple, but very powerful.’’