Every college president wants to unlock the secret of how to better engage with students and to make the office of the campus CEO more relatable to their customers. At historically black colleges and universities, the job is a much easier one because students naturally come to our schools looking to connect with the wiser among us for mentorship and support.
Those of us fortunate to be chosen as mentors occasionally do too much. We curse when we shouldn’t, and we keep it a little more real than we should, hoping that straight talk makes quick work of students’ immaturity, helps them to be more trusting of our experience, and inspires them to higher planes of thinking.
But those moments can’t be caught on video, and such is the case with Fayetteville State University Chancellor James Anderson who tonight is responding to questions about joining in a conversation with students about hip-hop, which turned into a freestyle worthy of an explicit lyrics warning label.
All of us who consider ourselves in any support to students can plead guilty to this. A few of us may actually have bars like Anderson, who over his career has elevated Fayetteville State as a respected brand in North Carolina in spite of strong political opposition, with commendable gains in providing access to military and first-year students, and advancement in areas like homeland security.
But very few of us are HBCU chancellors, and while Dr. Anderson’s cypher was clearly was done without planning and with the full intent of having a laugh with students, may haunt the institution in the weeks and months to come.
Some things about this video are irrefutable. From what we can see and hear, none of the students took offense to his actions or his lyrics. Everyone can probably agree that his actions were at a minimum unpresidential and at most, because of the video and resulting coverage, professionally irresponsible; dishonorable lyrics spit with the honorable goal of connecting with young people.
Depending upon how key stakeholders in North Carolina feel about Dr. Anderson, it’s the kind of video that could go one of several ways. If you are a fan of Dr. Anderson, this is an unfortunate incident which in no way should stain years of keeping the doors open at the institution. It does little to diminish his work, makes him more attractive in the area of student engagement and retention, and shouldn’t require more than an apology and a self-deprecating willingness to accept his life as an HBCU meme.
If you don’t like him, it is the chance to highlight a moment that will live permanently on line as a disgraceful action from the leader of an HBCU in a state in the throes of unprecedented political crisis.
If lawmakers can shrug away national criticism for monitoring bathroom breaks, taking voting rights away from black folks, trying to shut down HBCUs and working to strip gubernatorial power after losing an election, surely FSU can’t afford a hot 16 drawing unnecessary fury from the bunch.
And then there is the black respectability politics of it all; comments you can almost predict surfacing among the HBCU social media congregation.
‘Of all of the schools in the world, why does one of ours have to have a rapping-ass chancellor?’
‘What if a black female HBCU president was caught doing the same thing? Will Dr. Anderson survive this, while women have been forced out for far less controversy?’
‘Rap is destructive anyway; why are our students still allowed to listen to this nonsense?’
‘Of course this would happen at an HBCU.’
There are a lot of ways this story can go, and what is scary for Dr. Anderson and Fayetteville State is that all of them, positive or negative, have merit to people who can change the future of the school almost in an instant.