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Education has become as much about logistics as instruction during the COVID-19 crisis, and Harold L. Martin, the chancellor of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, has spent the summer months immersed in planning to make returning to campus as safe as possible for the school’s student body, faculty and staff. With more than 12,500 students, NC A&T is the nation’s largest historically black university and under Martin, it has become one of the top producers of African American STEM graduates in the country.
Demand for the school’s STEM graduates has increased so much in recent years that the school has added multiple job fairs to handle the influx of recruiters from big tech companies.
Classes started Aug. 19 with a hybrid model. About 70% percent of students returned to the Greensboro campus for a combination of virtual and in-person instruction, in classrooms outfitted with plexiglass protections for professors and socially distanced seating. Football and other fall sports have been canceled. Martin, 68, joined TIME for a video conversation about the school’s safety protocols, what it’s like to lead an institution with a rich history in the civil rights movement during a period of national protests against systemic racism (the Greensboro Four, who began the historic 1960 sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, were all freshmen at NC A&T and are known locally as the A&T Four), and the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice presidential candidate.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your reaction to the selection of Senator Harris, a graduate of Howard, another historically black university, as Joe Biden’s running mate?
Senator Harris embodies so much that is important and worthy about historically black universities, and it is truly a historic moment to see one of our graduates included on the Democratic ticket. We join our friends at Howard in their celebration of this extraordinary development. Having experienced the history-making presidential campaigns of our own alumnus, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in 1984 and 1988, we know well the national significance of such an electoral event and how it can help many Americans to see HBCUs in a new and perhaps different light.
Make the case for an African American student attending an historically Black university versus a predominantly white institution. What is your argument to the parents and to prospective students?
It’s the same argument I gave myself when we spoke to both our boys who are both overachievers academically: that we want you to go to a university where you will have access to the very best faculty and the best friends and the best experiences to grow personally and professionally. And never have compromised in any way, shape or fashion your preparation for your career or for your profession or for access to America’s top graduate and professional schools. We can demonstrate that time and time again, there are very few universities in America that do what we do as well as we do it for African American students.
How have HBCUs fared under the current administration?
HBCUs have fared well in federal funding over the past three years. Title III support has increased. $85 million in annual STEM funding for HBCUs was made permanent and year-round funding for Pell Grants was approved. Passage of all of those reflect positively on the president and his administration.
Yet when you see the President tweeting “my Administration has done more for the Black community than any President since Abraham Lincoln” how do you respond to that?
Well, I’m insulted quite honestly. I’m sort of appalled by the notion that one would make such a claim.
So you don’t agree?
What do you think of his leadership at a time of great social unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
I think he tends to inflame situations and tends to divide versus providing a voice that is healing for our nation on the heels of COVID-19 where there’s been evidence of so many missteps by the Administration.
But you are optimistic?
Probably as optimistic as I’ve been. I do feel it’s in a different moment. The corporate boards I serve on, we have a very different conversation with our board members about what this means and how we must rethink the way we do business. I spend enormous amounts of my time engaging with our students, and I believe because of the great history and traditions of our university as an institution actively involved in social change over the decades, and because of my own experiences growing up in America, as an African American individual, overlapping into periods of segregation and Jim Crow, my experiences tell me this feels different. This is more than just about police brutality. This is also very significantly about disparities in America that are embedded in racism through education, health care, unemployment, wealth, et cetera. And no matter how you cut it, we’re not going to get out of some of these deep-seated race-based disparities until America comes to grip with our racism.
Where do you start and what changes do you feel are most important to make?
If I look at most people in America, those who have not come from wealth, education has played the biggest part in transforming those individuals’ lives, including my own. And as a consequence I would say that education is one of the most critical investments we can make in changing the outcomes and trajectory for young people in America.
Previously, as dean of engineering at NC A&T, you raised the admissions standards, turning your school into one of the top producers of African American STEM graduates in the country. How has corporate America responded?
It is a great point of pride for us. The number of corporations and agencies that have come to our university to recruit our graduates over the last five to seven years has grown in record numbers. We have built very strong relationships with Apple, Intel, Google, Facebook, Twitter, for example. Amazon. Silicon Valley recruits our graduates in record numbers, along with a host of organizations and state agencies and federal agencies from around the world.
On the whole, how is corporate America doing? It is a force for good?
It’s a mixed bag. I believe certainly in the most recent few months following the unfortunate murder of George Floyd for all the world to see, there’s a higher level of consciousness around having more meaningful conversations.
I understand you’ve been outspoken with corporations and organizations that have a history of funding predominately white institutions and have recently become more interested in your graduates.
I shared this with my corporate colleagues and CEOs of these organizations. ‘Look, you can’t continue to come to the table and drop a dime here and a dollar there.’ ‘Or multiple dollars there.’ You’re trying to get access to our very best resource, and we have to make big investments to make that happen.
So the conversation is essentially, if you want a table at the career fair, you have to be more of a long-term partner with us?
That’s exactly right. We’ve been very clear about building relationships for the long-term.
So have you seen a demonstrable increase in internship offers and support?
We have seen significant increases in internship opportunities for our students. And we’ve seen significant increases in corporate contributions and foundation contributions.
I understand that your institution also graduates a number of students that end up being officers in the military.
Over the years, the military has been one of the leading organizations in America that has valued diversity. It has not all been perfect by any measure, but it’s been one of the leading organizations that has provided advancement opportunities for people of color. Our ROTC program has become an incredible source of pride for our university. It serves as the hub for all ROTC programs in the region. We attract exceptionally talented students who are engineers and health care providers who are graduating and they’re being commissioned at commencement. And they’re going off to serve America.
You received a Phd in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech. What was your dissertation on?
My PhD dissertation was a highly theoretical model representing computer systems that were framed as a mathematical model, and if they were interconnected in such a way that these interconnected computers would communicate like cells in the body. Whether I wanted to remain engaged in research and teaching graduates being engaged in scholarship, or be pulled away into administration, that was really a tug-of-war for me.
Students are back at campus. Despite all the safety precautions, I know recently you’ve felt “guarded reluctance” and have made the case against opening. What is your current feeling?
Guarded but comfortable.
UNC Chapel Hill, part of your same system, just abruptly moved classes to virtual after an outbreak of COVID among returning students. Can you tick off some of the things you are doing to keep your students and the university community healthy and safe.
All of our students who are returning to the campus have been checked for symptoms as they move into the residence hall .
We obviously are requiring masking. Safe social distancing. We have a high intensity cleansing protocol on a daily basis and a daily morning ritual of self-assessment, of all students who are living in residence halls. And each of our classrooms was reduced to about 30% occupancy.
How are you accommodating faculty and staff that are reluctant to come back to a classroom setting?
They can apply to telework. We’ve been very generous in providing those employees the opportunity to tele-work.
What percent of your faculty do you expect to tele-work?
About 60% of our faculty will be tele-working this fall.
I understand you ordered lots of masks.
We’ve ordered a million masks. And then we’ve ordered somewhere around 30 to 40,000 branded cloth masks. All students, faculty and staff will get at least two of those.
What’s been the initial reaction from the student body to the health protocols, including canceling your historic homecoming, which has been dubbed the greatest homecoming on earth?
Our students are responding overall. They are 18, 19, 20 year olds, though, and so we have to continue to remind them of the expectations, quite honestly.
Your institution has a storied history in the Civil Rights movement. What is it like to lead this historic institution at this juncture in American history?
It is an inspiration to me. In every conversation , it’ll come up. We can’t compromise what we do.
BUSINESS BOOK: Good to Great by Jim Collins
AUTHOR: Isaac Asimov
EXERCISE/STRESS RELIEVER: Walking and working out in home gym. And golf, schedule permitting.