Tuajuanda C. Jordan
LBRN 15th Annual Conference
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
January 21, 2017
Leadership – The Journey Is More Important Than the Destination
“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.…
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”[i]
Profound words from a man who evolved to become one of the greatest leaders of modern times, perhaps in the history of humankind. Who was this man? How did he get to where he ended it up? Did he always know that he wanted to be a civil rights leader? Did he aspire to become a martyr? I don’t think so. I have read quite a bit over the years about Dr. King and, needless to say, it has not been “all good”. Here are some things a colleague relayed about him recently:
As a Black Baptist preacher in the South during the 1950s, and despite the dismay of many of his fellow clergymen, he relied on Bayard Rustin, an out gay black Quaker to teach him the practical uses of nonviolence and virtually everything about how to organize during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King skipped two grades in high school, entered Morehouse at age 15, and while in graduate school, plagiarized some of his dissertation before authoring five life-altering books everyone should read at least once in their lifetime. He smoked cigarettes, shot pool, was a jokester, had a voice twice the depth of his height. He called Coretta his Waterloo and vowed to marry her almost immediately following their first date, but notoriously cheated. And yet, God still used him to cripple state- and federally-sanctioned segregation all before being assassinated at age 39.
Now, is this all true? I don’t know, and I should have found the time to check it out before it was released it into the stratosphere. I know. But, that isn’t the point. The point here is that this man who is revered by many was, at the end of the day, still a man. A man who, in spite of himself and life’s circumstances, was able to do things that helped change the course of America.
Why am I talking about Dr. King? Maybe because I have always been intrigued by his ability to use words, not just words but his unique oratorical style; his ability to draw you in, to speak to your soul, and call you to action. Powerful.
When I was a college student many decades ago, I attended a small historically black college in Nashville, TN, Fisk University – the place known, at the time, for producing the highest number of African Americans to go on to earn a PhD in chemistry than any other institution; the place that groomed WEB DuBois; was the beneficiary of the teachings of Arna Bontemps; and nourished the creative genius of Aaron Douglass – what a history! But, I digress.
When I was a student at Fisk, the university had a student run radio station, WRFN – Radio Free Nashville – that I listened to periodically. I remember listening to my first full-length opera, totally in German, broadcast by that radio station. I recall becoming totally absorbed in the jazz spewing forth from that station, playing the likes of Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie – the music my Dad played on the record player when I was growing up, but I didn’t learn to appreciate until I was able to listen to it in my own space. WRFN barely had enough power to reach the outer skirts of Nashville, but it seemed that the campus stood still when it broadcast Dr. King’s speeches on his birthday. Mind you, this was well before Dr. King’s birthday became a national holiday.
I remember one day sitting on the floor in my dorm suite working on spectra that had been assigned as homework in my molecular spectroscopy class. I am not certain how many speeches I listened to that day, but at some point, I realized that this man, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a phenomenal orator and that I needed to record some of those speeches. So, I ran to get my cassette player (does anyone know what that is?), found a blank cassette tape, and started to record the speeches that were being broadcast. In the old days, you had to know how many total minutes could be recorded on the tape and as you approached the last few minutes on a side, you had to flip over the tape before it ran out, otherwise you’d miss part of the recording. Well, I was listening to the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech[ii], and he got to the point where he had really started to hit his groove, and the recording goes “…that one day CLUNK…crap”. I had gotten so engrossed by the rhythm of the words that I’d lost track of the time! The “CLUNK” was me setting my coffee cup on the cement tile floor before I hurried to turn over the tape. The “crap” was my expletive. I obviously missed a few sentences of the speech because my recording picks up on the “B” side with “I have a dream today!…”. What?? What happened between “one day” and “dreaming”?? I’d missed it on the tape. Good thing there were others who had better recording acumen than I. Otherwise, the world may never have been able to recall those inspirational words on that important day!
There were three speeches recorded on that cassette tape: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, “I have a Dream”[iii], and “Drum Major Instinct”. The quote I read at the beginning of this presentation was taken directly from the speech he made in Atlanta, Georgia, exactly two months before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The speech gained national, and I daresay, international significance because a portion of the “Drum Major” speech became his eulogy. How prophetic.
This evening, I began my remarks with this story because at this point in my life, for over a decade actually, those profound words haunt me. They force me to stop, take a moment, and reflect on my life. There are times when I have had what I categorize as brushes with death. They usually happen when I am in a motor vehicle and at the last second, there is an intervention, I am inclined to say a divine intervention, that occurs that redirects the perceived danger. It is at those times that I am reminded that there is a reason for my being in this place at this particular time, wherever the place may be, whatever the time is. These events remind me that I must always work to do my absolute best with what I have to address whatever situation has presented itself because, as us old folks say, “tomorrow is never promised”.
When I was offered the position of president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I was both surprised and humbled by the tremendous honor bestowed upon me. After I got over the shock, I said to myself, “Who would’ve thunk it?”
Who would have thought it, indeed.
If you look at my humble beginnings, I was not supposed to have a doctorate in biochemistry, a degree earned at a large, land-grant institution in the Midwest – a place where when I walked the main thoroughfare through campus, the members of a white fraternity would shout racial epithets and sexually explicit remarks at me; a place where, when I started, I was the only female and only person of color in a lab of five white males. I was not supposed to be hired by a major philanthropy to create a unique and all-inclusive science education program in the immediate years after Hurricane Katrina displaced me, a single mom with teenaged twins, from our home in New Orleans. I was not supposed to be a college president of a majority institution, an institution that was the first public, liberal arts honors institution in the nation. Yet, I AM. And, I feel in my spirit that my work is not yet done. What have been the milestones? What have been the lessons learned?
Many who know my story, know how I got to Fisk University. First, you need to know that I initially had no intention of applying to Fisk. Since my parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t know how to choose a college. So, I applied to the schools of the football teams I liked: USC, UCLA, and Penn State. One day, I was waiting to see my guidance counselor, and on the table outside her office, I saw a little brochure about Fisk University. I hadn’t heard of the school, so I opened up the brochure and started reading. It told the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of students who toured the country and later the world at a time when the school was in dire financial straits. All the money those students raised was sent back to the school. I said to myself, “There must be something special about a place where the students would go out and raise money and send every dime back to the school.” That’s a special place. I was intrigued by the story, and I applied. When my Dad drove me down to Nashville from Maryland to attend Fisk, and I stepped out of the car onto the hallowed ground, I knew that place was special and that I was supposed to be there. It is that place that transformed my life.
My Speech Communications professor, Dr. GI Ford, told me to apply to the Minority Access to Research Careers – MARC – Program. I didn’t know what research was, but I knew 1) that many of us students were terrified of Dr. Ford, and when she told you to do something, you didn’t question it, you just said “Yes, Ma’am” and 2) if I got into the program, it would pay my tuition and give me a stipend, thereby relieving the financial strain my family was under to support me in college. In exchange, all I had to do was a) keep my grades up, b) do research (hmm, not certain what that was about), and c) get a PhD in the sciences. A PhD? I didn’t know what that was either, but I said “I can do that!” and that I did.
Enough cannot be said about the value and importance of undergraduate research. The facilities for research at Fisk were less than stellar, but doing research wasn’t about the facilities, it was about the people: seeing my professor working in a lab night and day, always available to answer questions; being in a lab with the other undergraduates fixing things, breaking things, building things; laughing, joking, talking, debating; building community and building trust; asking questions, finding answers. It was a wonderfully enriching learning environment.
I must admit that I did not realize that we were terribly under-resourced until I went to an off-campus summer research program. Nonetheless, at Fisk we were committed to our research endeavor, and we made do. If we needed capillary tubes to take a melting point, we made them. If we needed a reagent for a compound that we couldn’t afford to purchase, we found the starting materials ourselves and synthesized the compound. I remember working in the research lab during periods where the sinks upstairs would back up the floor drains in our downstairs research lab and we would be literally walking around in 0.5 – 1-inch of water for weeks still engaged in our work and building lifelong friendships and skills. One of the most important skills was learning to find a way to get a task done, regardless of the challenge, without complaining. Undergraduate research also helped enhance my problem-solving skills, improved my writing skills, and forced me to get comfortable with presenting data.
Graduate school at Purdue provided me with my first real awakening as a “minority”! Doesn’t that seem odd? It was during my first year that my research advisor informed me that I was a double minority. I was shocked! “What are you talking about?” I asked. It was then that he told me that I was Black and female – no kidding – and that in the sciences, I represented two minority groups. Really?? I had no idea. After all, I went to an HBCU and graduated with a chemistry degree. Surely, there had to be many people of color doing science! Then I contemplated my Fisk experience. Hmmm…half of my chemistry professors were African American, only one was a female. What about my high school? Upon reflection, I came to realize that my high school situation was even worse: all of my science teachers in high school were white men!
Graduate school for me was incredibly hard that first year, but I made it through. How? By tapping into my network and employing the “just-get-it-done” attitude I developed at Fisk. In graduate school, I learned the value of observation when in a foreign land. My graduate school was a foreign place to me and being an analytical introvert was advantageous. I would assess the situation, observe what others were doing, incorporate into my toolkit what I believed was good; and avoid at all cost, or at least learn how to mitigate the effects of, what I perceived to be bad. The graduate school experience also helped me develop my knack for storytelling, which facilitates my ability to both get grants and get people to buy-in to initiatives I am trying to develop or implement.
My curiosity – that manifested itself during the years I was engaged as an undergraduate researcher – laid the foundation for my success as a leader: the ability to ask probing, non-prejudicial questions, think outside the box, present a convincing argument, work collaboratively. The experience also enhanced my strong work ethic and fortified my values.
My experiences in undergraduate research led to my wanting all students to have the opportunity to engage in the creation of new knowledge and/or art. Thus, at Xavier University of Louisiana, I was a strong advocate for developing a center for undergraduate research that, within two years, evolved into a center for undergraduate scholarly and creative acts. At the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, using my networks to help me, we created the science education alliance, an endeavor that provided authentic undergraduate research opportunities to college freshmen, integrated into their required curriculum – not as an extra-curricular activity – at a diverse array of institutions across the nation. This was my first foray into thinking about the concept of accessibility.
My experiences, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, my lived-life garnered from spending my formative years in segregated Virginia, have had a profound impact on my sense of purpose, my determination to never accept mediocrity, and my pursuit of inclusive diversity. These life-altering experiences have shaped who I am and why I operate the way I do.
Here are some other things to consider as you pursue your aspirations.
Maintain a strong and diverse support system. On the slide, I list several. Family is always the most important to me as they provide the foundation upon which I depend for everything. It is important to recognize that your support network will change over time as you advance from one circumstance to another and will include “intellectual” groups, especially that which I call the “informal” ones. These groups are critical for helping you understand the politics of the environment and keeping you informed of so many systemic things. I implore you to never turn down an opportunity to be engaged in these groups.
Navigating school and ultimately your career will take a lot of effort, but you cannot work all the time. You have to balance life and living, and this requires that you manage your time well.
Stay the course. Remember this journey is an endurance test. There are no short cuts. You must be patient, persistent, and persevere. As Aristotle is credited with saying, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” And you all know that fruit that is ripe and sweet lasts only a little while.
Never lose sight of your lived experiences. It should help you in avoiding the pitfalls from your past and provide you with a certain degree of confidence in your ability to address the challenges of an unforeseen future.
An unforeseen future. Who would have ever imagined that I, a woman who went to college just so that I could have the means to take care of myself and my responsibilities (my maternal grandmother’s mantra to me), would become a college president? Who could have known that a little Black boy named after a German theologian and priest who was a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation after rejecting several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church would become a Baptist minister and a martyr who tried to live his life serving others? Who knows what you will become when it’s all said and done? You don’t know, no one does. Thus, it is essential that you take care of business each and every day. For you to continue to climb, your credentials must be excellent; your integrity, without reproach; your sensitivity to the issues of humanity unquestioned; your network of mentors, advisors, and colleagues expansive. Only with these attributes, a lot of luck, and silent prayers will you have a chance to fully engage in a lived life and fulfill your destiny.
And, so, if any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have been recognized by the Coalition of 100 Black Women for my work in science education—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have several other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Tuajuanda C. Jordan, tried to give her life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Tuajuanda C. Jordan, tried to provide enriching educational opportunities that were affordable and accessible to all.
I want you to say that day that I worked hard to create an inclusively diverse community in which all can thrive.
I want them to say that I lived my life with humility, was blessed to have been given the opportunities that I have had, and that I lived my life to the fullest.
Thank you for the opportunity to tell you a bit about my journey. I hope you agree that the journey is indeed more important than where I find myself today.
I wish you all the best wherever life leads you.
[i] King, M.L. (1968, February 4). The drum major instinct [speech]. Atlanta, GA. Retrieved from kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu.
[ii] King, M.L. (1968, April 3). I’ve been to the mountaintop [speech]. Memphis, TN. Retrieved from kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu.
[iii] King, M.L. (1963, August 28). I have a dream [speech]. Washington, DC. Retrieved from www.cfr.org.