[Episcopal News Service] Generations of Everett Ward’s family preceded him in graduating from Saint Augustine’s University, a historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, so he was no stranger to the campus in 2014 when he took over as interim president.
He was named to that role permanently in April 2015, becoming the school’s 11th president.
Q&A: Everett Ward
Home: Raleigh, North Carolina
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Saint Augustine’s; master’s degree, North Carolina State University; doctorate, North Carolina A&T State University
Job: President of Saint Augustine’s University
Family: He married his college sweetheart after graduating from Saint Augustine’s in 1982. Cassandra Lloyd Ward, a longtime educator and civic leader, died in 2011 of breast cancer. “When I walk this campus every day, her spirit walks with me, because we held hands and walked this campus together for four years,” Ward said.
Before that, his professional experience included serving as executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party and as the director of a state Department of Transportation program focused on transportation curriculum, research and student development at historically black colleges and universities.
Saint Augustine’s was created in 1867 by the Episcopal Church and opened its doors the following January; one of many schools that formed in the wake of the Civil War to educate black students barred by segregation from attending white institutions.
About 100 such schools are still open today, accepting students of all races and interests. Dozens of presidents of historically black colleges and universities, including Ward, traveled to Washington, D.C., at the end of February to meet with elected officials and make their case for increased federal funding to support the schools’ mission. During their visit, President Donald Trump signed an executive order moving an executive branch initiative on historically black colleges from the Department of Education into the White House, signaling the removal of a bureaucratic barrier.
Your ties to Saint Augustine’s university go far back, even back to your birth.
That is correct. My father attended Saint Augustine’s and all my relatives for several generations. And I was born here on the campus at St. Agnes Hospital, which was operated by the university as the only African-American teaching hospital between here and Atlanta, Georgia. On Nov. 6, 1958, I was honored to be born in a building that a great uncle of mine helped construct when he was a student here.
Were you raised as an Episcopalian?
No, I was raised as a Presbyterian and I am still a Presbyterian, but was educated both in Catholic schools and public schools, as well as the Episcopal school here at St. Augustine’s. So, church-affiliated education was not new to me or my sister.
Was your family particularly religious growing up?
My family’s faith was very strong, and faith was a central part of our upbringing as a family. My parents were very active at Davie Street Presbyterian Church, which is our home church and has been the church of our ancestors for several generations.
Has Saint Augustine’s connection with the Episcopal Church set it apart in any ways from other historically black colleges or other American colleges in general?
For many years, even from our founding, Saint Augustine’s was focused primarily on male students going into the priesthood. Therefore Saint Augustine’s had earned a reputation as the preeminent institution that produced African-American male graduates who would leave Saint Augustine’s and move on to seminary and become Episcopal priests. And women students were dedicated to becoming educators and teachers. So, we have long had a strong reputation of producing men and women who, at that period of time, were focused in education and service to the church. But that has evolved over the year as more opportunities have become available to young people, so now we have graduates in a host of professions throughout the world.
In Saint Augustine’s mission statement, it says the school prepares students “academically, socially and spiritually.” Do you see those three goals as equal priorities, and how does Saint Augustine provide spiritual preparation?
We have a strong religious studies program and we continue to have spirituality as a focus in our activities on the campus. Our freshmen, for example, attend chapel. We open all our events with prayer and close with prayer. Our university chaplain, who’s also chair of our religious studies program, is very active with student life on the campus. We as an institution take great pride in our affiliation with the church and the importance of spirituality for our students as well.
Pew Research Center reported last month less than 9 percent of black students attended a historically black college in 2015, down from 17 percent in 1980. Over the same period, historically black colleges and universities have become more racially diverse, enrolling more students who aren’t black, from 13 to 17 percent. Do you see that the role of institutions like your own and other historically black colleges has changed for this generation?
We certainly have a much more diverse society in America now. We have students of Latino descent, Asian descent – we have a very diverse student body. But I do think that the relevancy of any intellectual community has got to be that you grow and advance with the changing society, because we’re producing the leaders of society here at St. Augustine’s and subsequently you have to embrace diversity.
You were part of a group of presidents of historically black colleges and universities to visit the White House recently and even meet with President Trump.
At his request, we were invited for a brief meeting over in the Oval Office, but the primary meeting took place under the leadership of U.S. Senator Tim Scott (South Carolina) and North Carolina Congressman Mark Walker.
What are your thoughts on those meetings and experience?
I thought clearly that there was strong articulation with regard to support of historically black colleges and universities and the enormous contributions that our institutions contribute to American society. It was, in all of those settings, a central theme. There was an appreciation from this administration that historically black colleges would be a part of the continuous growth of American society and beyond. I think now, with the signing of the executive order by the president, we now have to wait and see how those priorities that were articulated with regard to historically black colleges are represented in the budget that will be presented, and passed by both the House and the Senate.
(Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, President Trump on March 16 released a budget proposal that, Inside Higher Ed reports, maintains funding for historically black colleges and universities but reduces spending on programs that support many students of those schools, such as work-study programs and a grant program for low-income students.)
There also was some backlash to the meeting. Students at Howard University protested their president’s participation, and Morehouse College President John Wilson Jr. put out a statement calling the meetings “troubling.” Do you share some of the concerns?
Well, I think anytime you can assemble together and have dialog about the future of the institutions that you manage on a day-to-day basis, it’s always productive. I think at this point, as I said earlier, we’re waiting to see what the budgetary priorities will reflect. So, we’re looking forward to that.
There also was criticism of comments Education Secretary Betty DeVos made that historically black colleges were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” rather than formed out of necessity because of segregation. Did you have any reaction to those comments?
No. I think sometimes not understanding history and not understanding the context for which these universities were founded, people can make sometimes misleading statements. So, I didn’t have any comment on that at all.
Racial reconciliation has been a prominent issue in the Episcopal Church in recent years as it faces its own historical complicity with slavery and racism. Do you see Saint Augustine’s playing a role in the church’s reconciliation efforts?
Oh, yes, we are as a university in full support of the presiding bishop’s priority around racial reconciliation and the Jesus Movement. And we are amenable in a way that Saint Augustine’s University can be a part of serving as a catalyst or platform where dialog can take place and intellectual exchange can happen to advance stronger race relations in the nation. We are in full support of that, and I commend the church for its efforts to have an open dialog about the future.
Saint Augustine’s is turning 150 years old. Any thoughts on what the university will look like in another 150 years?
Another 150 years, we see a very active academic and intellectual community with innovative programs. You know, everything is moving to distance learning now. We see expanding, of course, distance learning and adding graduate programs. We certainly see an expansion on our original founding with regard to religious studies, making sure that we continue to introduce young scholars who are interested in the Episcopal Church to prepare themselves here and then move on to seminary. And Saint Augustine’s is currently in a food desert, so building on the legacy of St. Agnes Hospital we see ourselves as a health catalyst to provide training and opportunities around health disparities and issues regarding health as well.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.