This story is a part of the series “Presidents Corner”. These posts are about the unique experiences, vision and leadership styles of each president at our nation’s 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
It was a pleasure to chat with President Kevin Cosby. He is the president of Simmons College (Kentucky)–the 107th HBCU, one that has the newest designation but has been around for a long time. In 2005, Dr. Cosby was named the 13th President of Simmons College. He is also the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The congregation has grown from 500 to approximately 14,000 members, and has been recognized by Outreach magazine as one of the 100 largest churches in America (2010) and Emerge magazine as one of six “super churches” of the South.
We talked about how he has saved nearly a million dollars by refusing a salary, his advice for aspiring college presidents, his vision for Simmons College, who he supports as the next president of the United States and how we can strengthen Black institutions.
Robert: In the eleven years of your tenure, you have refused more than $800,000 in salary from Simmons College. What is your reasoning for doing such?
President Cosby: One, it was a very practical reason. The school needed the money. Secondly, it was a matter of exercising leadership and modeling the type of sacrificial leadership that I wanted others on my team to practice. I knew that if people were willing to support this for the sake of the institution we could reconstitute Simmons. It also granted me the moral authority to call upon others to sacrifice.
Robert: Someday, I want to be a college president at an Historic Black College (HBCU). What can prepare me and others to take on such an honoring position?
President Cosby: Understand that being a college president is not about status. It is about servant leadership. If you are in it simply for the glory and the glamor, you will be greatly disappointed. Sometimes college presidents, particularly at HBCUs, don’t lead HBCUs, we carry them on our backs. So, strengthen your back! It is an awesome responsibility in and you will be called upon to make bricks without straw.
Robert: You sort of alluded to this already, however, what is your leadership style?
President Cosby: I try to lead by example. Secondly, I try to surround myself with people who have skill-sets that I don’t have. Finally, I think that leadership is about truly being passionate about the institution that you are leading and the cause that you are advocating for. This is something that you cannot fake. I am a president of an HBCU because I believe that the survival of the Black community is predicated upon us having institutions that we govern. There is no way that you can be an effective president of an HBCU if you don’t believe in the “three c’s” (Black culture, Black causes and Black control).
Robert: Very few people are both pastor and president. How do you make both happen successfully?
President Cosby: The same skill-set that it takes to pastor a historic Black church, is the same skill set you need to be a president of an HBCU. You have to inspire people! In fact, they compliment each other because as a pastor of a church I am able to tap into the volunteer base that we have at the church in order to help with Simmons. St. Stephens, where I pastor, is a large congregation, without St. Stephens we would not have been able to restore Simmons to what it is right now.
The purpose of the church, which is the mother of all of our institutions, should be to help give birth or strengthen other Black institutions such as Black businesses, Black schools, Black families and Black media. If you add the Black church, there are only five Black institutions. The Black church should strengthen them all and our church has done so for years.
Robert: What is your vision for Simmons College?
President Cosby: We must continue to grow, add more departments, not just be a self-perpetuating institution but a serving institution that serves the interests of the Black community.
We have to advance the African-American community. This is more than simply the grass-tops but the forgotten grassroots. HBCUs are very powerful because they teach the unteachable and reach the unreachable. While majority of White schools tend to reach out only to the grass-tops in the Black community, the grassroots are left to go to community colleges. This is not a knock on community colleges at all. HBCUs have a “whosoever will–let them come” policy–open enrollment. You may start at Simmons at the “academic bottom” but that is not where you have to stay. Through hard work and the wrap around services at HBCUs we are seeing students maximize and tap into capacities that remain dormant and they are being introduced to their undiscovered selves.
Robert: Wonderful! As we know, the next president of the United States will be crucial in an increase or decrease in HBCU funding. With that being said, who has your support and why?
President Cosby: Right now, I’m leaning more towards Bernie Sanders. I like what he is saying in terms of economic justice. I would like to hear more about his position on HBCUs. From the best of my knowledge, Hillary has not said much on HBCUs–similar to Bernie. However, for the Black community I am in favor of a president who will help to strengthen Black institutions. Black institutions are underfunded because Black people historically have been deprived and robbed of wealth. Wealth has transferred from Black pockets due to 240 years of slavery and more than 100 years of semi-slavery–forced to work menial jobs in which we were not recipients of the wealth that we created.
We are not immigrants. We did not come over to the United States looking for a better life. Blacks were stolen and brought into the United States in order to give other people a better right. You cannot compare what immigrants experience with what kidnapped people who were forced to work in labor camps in the South experience.
Wealth is passed down through generations and my generation was the first one that has been able to build any wealth. This is the reason that our institutions are underfunded, not because we are inferior to others, it is because of White supremacy and racism. You don’t correct this by merely saying “I’m sorry!” and passing a few laws. You have to address the years of deprivation that African-Americans have faced which results in our institutions being underfunded.
Robert: How do you all teach students “to become productive citizens and agents of change in society”?
President Cosby: It’s by knowing yourself and knowing your history. This is not taught in majority schools. Blacks are given fraudulent history. In fact, this is true about all Americans. By teaching your history, your culture, and reprogramming Blacks of internalized self-hate and having them fall in love with themselves. This will help them continue to advance institutions that are advancing their interests–this is what all HBCUs must do. Blacks must have a conciousness of advancing Black insitutions like Mormons have a consciousness of advancing their institutions. Almost like Catholics who go to Catholic schools. If a child goes to Catholic schools for six years, they will be Catholic for the rest of their life.
The reasons why sheep dogs protect sheep and not advance the interests of dogs because when the sheep dog was a puppy, it was raised by sheep. It was read sheep books, went to a sheep school, celebrated sheep heroes and went to a sheep church. So, although it was a dog, it really was a sheep in terms of it’s consciousness.
This is what has happened to African-Americans. This is why all of the blue-chip African-American athletes are playing for White colleges. They’re making wealth for Whites. What if all of these athletes had a Black consciousness and played for HBCUs? This means that wealth would come to HBCUs. Wealth would come to our community. However, we are sheep dogs.
Robert: Wow! Any other comments?
President Cosby: I commend you for what you’re doing. If we don’t build our institutions, the Black community is in serious trouble. This is what Simmons has done. There is no school in America that has done more with less in such a short period of time. We are the fastest growing college, Black or White, in the state of Kentucky. The only college that lost it’s campus in 1930 and decades later secured the same campus. This is unheard of and the buildings are in mint condition. What is going on at Simmons is incredible. HBCUs are in decline, however, Simmons is ascending. We face the same challenges as other HBCUs as far as resources and etc.