The same year Whitley Gilbert and DeWayne Wayne graduated from Hillman College, a fictional Historically Black College and University (HBCU) on NBC’s A Different World, I, in real life, graduated from Southern University and A&M College (Baton Rouge, LA) , where Dr. Delores Spikes served as University President. Throughout my matriculation as an undergraduate, I greatly admired Dr. Spikes’ superior administration. However, I can now admit that I took for granted her leadership. It never occurred to me that Dr. Spikes, as a “hidden figure” of Louisiana STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, must have dealt with sexism and racism along her “trailblazing” journey. She was not only the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from Louisiana State University, but Dr. Spikes was also the first woman in the United States to serve as president of a university system. Even further, Dr. Spikes went on to earn national accolades and other prominent positions in higher education.
Fast forward more than twenty years to my own position as a tenured professor (and founding program director) of theatre and performance studies at an HBCU. Now, I am intimately familiar with cultural forces affecting women’s leadership opportunities. In the more than ten years since I have been working at an HBCU, I have yet to work under a Black woman HBCU president in a permanent position. As documented by Marybeth Gasman as well as other references such as a www.hbcudigest.com article entitled, "Where Have All the Black Women HBCU Presidents Gone?"recent years have seen a severe reduction in the number of Black women HBCU presidents, many due to (premature?) dismissal, but also to retirement and untimely death.
In my position as an HBCU art professor, I simultaneously perform as scholar, instructor, administrator, fundraiser, director, advocate, performer, collaborator, etc., compounding my insight into intersectional forces at HBCUs that expect women’s service yet do not promote her into leadership positions. Not only do I face undervaluing because of my gender, but I also face marginalization due to my field of study.
Marginalizing art at HBCUs is pretty much an oxymoron since these campuses function as site- specific, cultural performance spaces, especially with regard to their educational missions and practice of Black performance traditions (i.e. performing bands, dancing dolls and choirs, Divine Nine etc.). It is precisely for these reasons, however, that HBCUs provide rich backdrops for films and television shows depicting Black coming of age stories, as exemplified by Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988), as well as film and television versions of Drumline (and others). Furthermore, HBCU campuses are perfect frames for hashing out conflicts unique to black communities such as (economic) class issues or light skinned vs. dark skinned privilege.
Art and HBCU life once again collide in BET’s newest offering, The Quad , which depicts another fictional HBCU, Georgia A&M University, as a nexus of Black life. However, unlike off-screen where women presidents are currently hard to find, “The Quad” features a Michelle Obama inspired woman president, Dr. Eva Fletcher, who is cogently played by theater, television and film actress, Anika Noni Rose.
The Quad explicitly foregrounds HBCUs’ remarkable positions as Black performance sites through the network’s website where viewers can interact with the show by “enrolling” in the fictional university. Viewers can also watch videos in order to get to know the show’s featured performers including students, an athletic director and band director, as well as Madame President herself.
Although I’m not yet sure of Dr. Fletcher’s academic background, The Quad performs meta communication in casting Rose, who is a real-life graduate of an HBCU theatre program (Florida A&M University). In doing so, the show moves toward explicit recognition of HBCUs as performance spaces where an African American woman (i.e. radical black feminist) visual or performing artist would be a most obvious choice as president.
Additionally, The Quad performs intertextually by casting Jasmine Guy as a university board member. Guy is a well- known alumnus of HBCU based television and film projects, having starred in both A Different World (as aforementioned, Whitley Gilbert), as well as School Daze.
Can the image of President Fletcher effectively provide groundwork for new possibilities in HBCU leadership? Could The Quad cause powers that be to consider a woman art professor for an HBCU president position? Of course, we can’t say for sure now. However, I, for one, am excited about the creativity that the show re-presents to HBCU’s community of alumni, faculty, staff, students and supporters.