Over the past several months, it seems that I have spent a great deal of time and energy and thought dealing with issues that affect the future of this university. We have had to deal with a budget for 2009 through 2011 that included significant reductions in allocations from the state. That meant we had to make spending adjustments that were difficult, but necessary to protect and preserve the core mission of the university which is to provide our students with an education.
We also have been working diligently on Winston-Salem State’s strategic plan for 2010-2015. That effort has created a new focus on our vision and mission for the university, with many people from across the campus and the wider community having had an opportunity to provide input into our future direction.
Then, there have been other issues and activities ranging from the decision about intercollegiate athletics to the selection of a new athletic director to the unveiling of a master plan for the future development of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. These and many more issues have filled the agendas of my staff, of the students and of the various boards, including the Trustees, the Foundation Board, and the Board of Visitors.
With all of the focus on the future, we sometimes forget to take time to pay homage to our past. Having the privilege of spending time with the 50th Reunion Class during our Homecoming 2009 celebration reminded me that we often need to take time to express our gratitude for those who came to this campus before us. As we plan for our future, we must remember our proud heritage and we should celebrate how far this institution has come since its founding in 1892.
Over the past several weeks, the message of remembering, honoring and celebrating the past has been brought home to me by two key events on our campus.
During Homecoming, we also celebrated Founder’s Day, a time to remember Simon Green Atkins. It was his determination, courage and strength that created Slater Industrial Academy in 1892 with a one-room frame structure, 25 students and one teacher. He knew that preparing African American students to teach African American children was of key importance to the future of all African Americans. He had a vision and though he faced a shortage of resources, he still managed to create a school that has stood the test of time.
In addition to being the founder and serving as president of WSSU’s predecessor institutions, Simon Green Atkins changed his community with other activities such as Columbian Heights, a new housing development for African-Americans, playing a role in the founding of Forsyth Savings and Trust Company, the first bank for African-Americans in the city, and being instrumental in starting the YMCA.
The other event that reminded me of the legacy of the university’s founding family was the J. Alston Atkins Memorial Lecture in Constitutional Law. The lecture honors the legacy of Jack Atkins, the son of Simon Green Atkins, who is someone to be admired in his own right.
Jack Atkins managed to position himself for a life of privilege and success when he graduated from law school with high honors at the age of 24. In a time when a man of color faced tremendous obstacles, he had gotten a good education and a good job practicing law. Yet, he was a soldier in the battle for civil rights, arguing a voting rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court when he was only 37. He went on to argue other cases before the Supreme Court and filed law suits that became the catalyst for actions that ultimately led to the desegregation of public education in this state and more equitable support for the HBCUs in the University of North Carolina System. Additionally, when he was needed, Jack Atkins returned to Winston-Salem Teacher’s College as executive secretary and served for 24 years.
I find looking back on the legacies of these two visionaries inspiring and, sometimes, a bit daunting. They both had visions of how the world should be and the courage to do whatever it took to help move toward the future.
We now have an obligation to all of those who came before us and were diligent in their pursuit of a better world for future generations. Today, our vision is still one of developing graduates who are prepared to be competitive in today’s world and who also have the strength and the character to help make that world a better place.
So, the lessons of the past are still relevant to the plans for our future. We need to be reminded of that on occasion so that we can celebrate the progress we have made over 117 years and maintain our commitment to the progress we need to make during the years ahead.