By andrew Katz
COLLEGE PARK – A popular diversity officer at the University of Maryland is considering the presidency at a historically black college in Virginia, nearly six months after the announcement that his position would be terminated amid budget cuts.
The university publicized plans last November to replace Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity Cordell Black with a part-time administrator, effective June 30. The final decision fell to Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Nariman Farvardin and spawned immediate protest, including a large, November rally in support of Black’s reinstatement.
A lack of transparency and the unknown fate of the organizations he supervises were the most unsettling things about the situation, said Amber Simmons, president of the Black Student Union. Black oversees the Nyumburu Cultural Center and offices of LGBT Equity and Multi-ethnic Student Education.
“We work directly with those offices, so there was just a lot of panic about not knowing what was happening,” said Simmons, “and you’re always going to fill in the blanks with the worst-case scenario.”
As a tenured associate professor in French literature, Black, 66, can stay on the faculty or pursue opportunities outside College Park. He has turned down offers in Pennsylvania and Oregon but is considering the presidency at Norfolk State University in Virginia.
Black said he would probably write a “letter of interest” and apply when Norfolk formally announces the opening, likely in May. An uncle at the university holds a “prominent” position and favorably “threw my name into the hat” for the search committee “to give me a foot up,” he said.
The committee could not confirm Black as a candidate, as the process is in the beginning stages, said Regina Lightfoot Blue, of the Norfolk communications and marketing team.
Black has served in several positions since coming to Maryland in 1979, including as interim chairman of the French and Italian department, assistant dean in the College of Arts and Humanities and assistant vice president for academic affairs.
Over the years, he established university-wide compliance with state and federal statutes and developed strong ties with the major ethnic groups on campus.
Simmons, 20, said Black has been “a huge resource” for funding and a staunch voice for a more tolerant student body — something a part-timer would have difficulty continuing, she said.
A faculty salary guide published in May 2009 by The Diamondback, the university’s independent student newspaper, reported Black earned $163,585.51 that year. Black said his replacement would save the university about $12,000.
Sporting a gold turtle pin on his left lapel, awarded by university President Dan Mote to distinguished campus officials for their service, Black said he was told the substitute may be temporary until the budget situation improves, but that he’s still unsure why his position was axed.
“The claim consistently is budget, but then there’s some fluctuation about his need to choose his own staff or a need for fresh blood,” he said of the provost. Repeated calls to Farvardin’s office went unreturned.
Black, of New Carrollton, said his removal could not have resulted from poor performance, because his evaluations do not “show any shortcoming.”
His supporters have speculated that one reason behind the dismissal concerns the flagship institution’s dwindling African-American student representation. According to the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment, first-time black enrollment stood at 9.2 percent in fall 2009, down from 13.8 percent in 2008. During the same span, total black enrollment declined to 10.9 percent from 11.6 percent. Statistics for the current semester show the total black headcount fell to 10.6 percent.
Nonetheless, Black said, there is a “stinging irony in all of this.”
“I am almost primarily responsible for helping the provost build his record on diversity, which made him a very attractive candidate for the provostial position,” he said. Black noted he allocated funds for Farvardin, then-dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, to hire additional minority faculty.
Black has no immediate family to tie him to Maryland — he had no children during his 40-year marriage to his wife, Lola, who died from cancer in 2008 — so he will spend his time after June job hunting. But as he prepares to leave behind the quaint office with outdated green carpet and plain white walls, he does not “go away with my head hanging down.”
The Detroit native said it was the way his beautician mother and father, who worked two jobs, raised him and his three siblings that ingrained in him the importance of an education and the “drive to fight any kind of bigotry.”
Black left Michigan to study English at historically black Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., and intended to become an Episcopal priest, but during a year spent in France, “I lost my religion — maybe because of the French girls,” he half-joked.
He graduated in 1967 from Wayne State University in Detroit with a master’s degree in French literature after chronic asthma and severe bronchitis kept him out of Vietnam. Following a few brief teaching stints and the realization that there was little “clout” in the field without a doctorate, he enrolled at the University of Michigan.
After earning his doctorate in 17th century French literature in 1978, Black said he was in contention for the only two positions in his specialty: one at Stanford University and the other in Maryland.
He came to College Park after Stanford stalled on the decision and joined the university’s largest incoming class of black faculty to date, hiring, he noted, that was made possible by a federal mandate requiring the institution to diversify.
Years later when the dozen-or-so educators were up for tenure, Black said he was the only one to receive it. It was this “oversight” that pushed him into administration, where “I could have more influence over policy and prevent that kind of carnage from ever recurring,” he said.
“When I feel that a wrong has been committed, I fight to reverse that wrong,” he added. Black said his role in bringing three of them back as chairs of their former departments is one of his “most major, gratifying accomplishments.”
A dozen certificates, photographs and plaques proudly hang in his office, representing his decades-long battle against ethnic and sexual injustice. But for Black, it’s not about that.
“I don’t like calling attention to myself, but people seem to recognize the love that I have for humanity, especially for those down on their luck,” he said.
Black has always been a “champion” of the provost’s office and a leading supporter of faculty integration, said Rob Waters, associate vice president for academic affairs.
Waters noted Black’s character and staggering connections have made it enjoyable to run the Provost’s Conversations, a speaker series on diversity, democracy and higher education.
“I try to support all the initiatives he does in academic affairs for faculty and staff and he tries to support me,” said Waters.
He’s just “a good spirit” who has always “been the glue to hold things together,” added Nyumburu Associate Director Anne Reese Carswell.
Black said that once he steps down, he would prefer to remain in administration than return to teaching.
“I’m able to help many more students in this position that I am in a small classroom,” he said. “I think that would be probably the loveliest way to end my career.”