We Honor Outstanding African-Americans
President Edison O. Jackson, Medgar Evers College
Education Update (EU): How did you choose your current career?
Edison Jackson (EJ): I have lived long enough to know that I did not choose my career; rather, it was my destiny, divine intervention.
EU: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how have you resolved them?
EJ: Over my forty plus years of experience in higher education administration, I have learned that successful leaders overcome adversity by following the Spirit. I have always practiced the notion that there are some things I can focus on; and, others that I need not deal with, because, I know that God will take care of them.
My job at Medgar Evers College, like all my previous positions, is not a traumatic experience. I do not worry about being able to carry out the role or about being secure in the position. Professionally, I believe in being prepared and in doing my part; the rest I leave in God’s hands. As an educator, my spirituality is the context, the backdrop that serves as the canvas on to which all of my life’s activities are painted. The portrait that comes forth, more often than not, is clear and in focus because of this context of spirituality.
EU: What are some of the accomplishments you’re proudest of?
EJ: As a young man growing up in Virginia during segregation, the early years of my life were defined by my ability to navigate through the maze of racial discrimination. While receiving more formal academic training at Howard University in the 1960’s I was constantly bombarded with the overt and not so overt institutional racism. During the 1980’s, while serving in the capacity of Vice President in a higher educational institution, and pursuing my doctoral studies, institutional racism became more covert, subtle, and sophisticated in its application. Having experienced racism as a young southern African American male and student in the north, I have also seen the effects of racial discrimination in my professional life.
As a professional educator, I have been defined by my awareness of the history of race in this country. Particularly, in my role as president of Medgar Evers College, CUNY, an urban undergraduate institution, my life has been considered by students, faculty, community leaders, and even my professional colleagues, as an example of success, due to my ability to disallow racism to deter me from my goal.
Though I take some pride in my perceived level of success, I understand, and fully agree that my greatest achievements are seen in three things: one, my family, two, the work I have been able to effectuate at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. In this, my presidency represents my commitment to be a leader in the contemporary civil rights movement, continuing to ensure that the underserved and underprivileged have an opportunity to live the American dream, and three, the students, those who persevere everyday, striving to continue in their relentless pursuit of educational excellence; and, those alumni who maintain their commitment to be change agents and leaders in their community.
EU: What would you describe as a turning point in your life?
EJ: My professional life has been full of blessings. However, the path that has led me to my present position was full of choices. Humorously, I live everyday reaffirming that I made the right choice; I often marvel at the events that led to my current presidency.
I became dean at a community college in New Jersey at the age of twenty-six, after being recommended for the position by my thesis advisor, who declined the offer. Although it was not my plan to go into administration, I thought nothing beats a failure but a try. With quality mentorship and hard work, doors opened for me. I went on to obtain a doctorate while working in New Jersey.
After a few years in New Jersey, I journeyed out to California, a place where I knew no one, to explore job possibilities. The venture turned into a great experience. I was soon selected as president of a college to which I had no intention of applying when I went to California. Furthermore, educational assessment had become a major issue in California at the time, and, to my credit, I had been significantly involved in educational assessment in New Jersey. With this background, I soon became an expert on the topic. In addition, based on my work with United Way of New Jersey, the California branch of United Way presented me with a service award that I had earned. This immediately provided me with a level of recognition and credibility.
Coming to New York was the last thing on my mind. My children did not like California, and my aging parents, as well as other family members, were on the East Coast. My wife encouraged me to pursue the presidency of Medgar Evers College. My experience in California had made me a very attractive candidate, and within two months of my interview at the college, I was the new president. I returned to the East and was again close to family members. In a sense, I had come back home. This decision was the turning point in my career.
EU: Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?
EJ: Beginning my career in education at a very young age, numerous individuals have assisted me in pursuit of professional success. I like to refer to these individuals as enablers, persons who are in my life temporary to fulfill a purpose. Of these individuals, to this day I can still hear their voices at critical life junctures, speaking words of encourage, or caution. One of these mentors was the Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Proctor. Dr. Proctor was my dissertation advisor at Rutgers University, and without him, I would not have earned my degree. Enrolling with considerable professional experience, I encountered classmates and professors who were intimated by my success, who also attempted to place roadblocks in my way. Fortunately, Dr. Proctor was there to protect my academic interests, and explain the difference between scholarship and schoolman-ship. Shepherding numerous individuals through the doctoral process, Dr. Proctor was more than a mentor, a spiritual advisor.
EU: What advice would you give to young people today?
EJ: As president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, it is a great honor to serve the people of the college community. The students are individuals who seek to improve their lives and the quality of life in their community through higher education. Leading a public urban institution through the challenges of today’s society is a demanding task. Guiding the predominantly African-American, female, and young adult student body, of which many have family and work responsibilities, calls for a level of sensitivity and responsiveness in leadership that acknowledges the special needs and aspirations of the population.
To be an effective leader in this environment I had to learn how to use my body, mind, and soul. My vision as a College President has always been an outgrowth of my commitment to excellence. I have learned to listen and incorporate the ideas of those around into the broader context of my vision, so that everyone is engaged in the leading of the institution. Any young man or woman who aspires to be a leader must first understand the necessity of humility as the foundation of learning. Second, young people must regain a commitment to civic engagement and community service. Leaders embody a charisma that exudes love, truth, and goodness for all. Finally, cornerstones of my success that I would recommend to all young leaders include: Learn how to encourage others; Warrant a sense of fair play, equality in all practices; Promote integrity; Affirm goodness in others; Grow in patience, and do not rush to judgment; Understand a greater and outside force is in operation within and on behalf of you and the institution you serve; Understand the correlation between timing and decision making; and, Develop wisdom to cooperate and network.#