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New president has a vision for Howard University at a time of major divides

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Howard University in Washington, D.C., has been an incubator of great minds since its founding in 1867, minds like the late actor Chadwick Boseman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: I heard on the radio somebody call it Wakanda University.

MARTÍNEZ: Vice President Kamala Harris.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Look, we were in Toni Morrison's where she wrote, you know, in that room that we were in.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, yeah - and Toni Morrison.

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TONI MORRISON: The criteria for excellence had nothing to do with color. It had only to do with talent.

MARTÍNEZ: Ben Vinson III began his tenure as president in September. He spoke to our colleague Michel Martin about his vision for this historically Black university at a time of major divides in America. He thinks Howard can heal some of the fissures in American society.

BEN VINSON III: It goes back to its founding as a way to really ensure a path for recently freed slaves to become more, to help complete some of the promise that America has offered in its most idyllic sense. And Howard has been with our nation at crucial moments, so from that moment of uplift from slavery into the moments of the glorious Harlem Renaissance.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So you've got this sort of interesting dichotomy, you know, kind of an outsized role in the culture on the one hand, but being asked continually to do more with less. And I'm just interested in how you navigate those dual realities.

VINSON: Well, it's an unfortunate reality that - of America and our history again. As these institutions were born, they often didn't have the endowment and the support and the continued support that has nourished other institutions throughout the United States. So that has created, I would say, a degree of scrappiness, of energy, I think, of creativity. The Biden administration has recently discussed maybe, overall, a $7 billion investment. We've seen philanthropic support. This is a pivotal moment because, quite frankly, these are investments not just in us as institutions, but it's in our mission, and it's in our ability to have delivered, helping to create greater uplift.

MARTIN: You also, though, arrive at a time when people have actually been making physical threats against HBCUs. And there's also the street crime aspect of it, students actually being attacked right outside sort of the gates of the campus. I'm just interested in how you think about that.

VINSON: When you send your child to college, one of the things that's important is making sure that they're as safe as possible. And our commitment at this university and at all universities that I've been at is safety is a top priority. First, for us here at Howard, involves a tight partnership with Metropolitan Police Department, doing our best working in league with them, being in constant communication with them.

MARTIN: Do you think that you are taking this post at a time when in some parts of the country, in fact, many parts of the country, there's an effort to sanitize American history, particularly when it comes to issues of race and the presence of African Americans as part of the American story.

VINSON: First of all, I'm a scholar myself, of the Black experience. These things go to our core. We are - our motto is truth and service. And our scholars are dedicated to research that uncovers truth, however difficult or contrarian that may seem to other viewpoints. Our scholars will remain committed to that pursuit of truth and exploring all recesses of the Black experience, the implications of disparities, of inequity. These are things that have been part of us. We clung to those tenets of truth, and that's something that we will remain committed to as an institution.

MARTIN: Ben Vinson III, the 18th president of Howard University. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

VINSON: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATHLETIC PROGRESSION'S "WHITE CRAYON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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