As I enter his office for our scheduled interview, it’s not hard to see that Edison O. Jackson is the force behind the makeover under way at Medgar Evers College, the youngest of the City University of New York’s four-year colleges. There is an aura about Jackson, a quiet strength that tells you this is a man who will make things happen, this is a man with a vision and the means and determination to see it through. He graces you with a smile. He exchanges pleasantries. He has no pretentious airs. Jackson is so approachable that it’s easy to forget he is the president of Medgar Evers College, a position he has held since 198
Turning Things Around
Don’t let his unassuming air fool you, however. Since becoming president, Jackson has turned the college named after a slain civil rights leader, and which once was viewed as a token concession to a community roiling with the currents of Black Power, into a strong member of the CUNY system. Under Jackson’s leadership, the college has moved from being a two-year institution in a dilapidated building in Brooklyn to a four-year college that is home to one of CUNY’s two accredited business schools. “We have more than doubled our enrollment and have added 10 baccalaureate programs. We are becoming a college of choice that people come to not because they have no other options but because of the experience and the environment we provide for them,” Jackson boasts.
In addition, Jackson has embarked on a drive to get more men back into the school system to obtain degrees. At the heart of the drive is a development program through which the college actively recruits males, encouraging them to sign up for college courses. Its agenda seeks to ensure that men returning to college are better equipped than when they first entered college. So far, the program has been a success. Overall male enrollment for the 2005 fall semester is up by 10 percent from previous years, male enrollment in freshman classes is up by 19 percent and male transfers are up by 50 percent.
While not exactly deprecating his own leadership, Jackson says much of the college’s success and popularity has to do with its close ties to the community. Unlike any other college in New York, Medgar Evers was founded to serve people of color. “I’ve tried to be true to that vision, so that the college is a place where people of African descent can be affirmed and realize their potential,” Jackson says. Not only are numerous community functions hosted at the college’s modern campus in Brooklyn, but the college also is a must-visit for heads of state from the Caribbean. “We are not only an educational center, we are also a cultural center,” Jackson says.
Rising Through Academia
Few would deny that the college could have achieved such success without an effective president. And, indeed, Jackson’s ascent to the presidency of Medgar Evers reveals an uncanny knack for recognizing the potential in opportunities that came his way even if he did not aggressively seek them out, and a propensity for taking chances. “Every job I have gotten has been by divine providence; that is, every job I sought after, I have not gotten. Every job I have gotten, I did not seek it but it came to me.”
Jackson started his professional life with a bachelor of science degree in zoology and a minor in chemistry, a degree that he earned in preparation for medical school. With marriage and subsequent responsibilities, he did not make it to medical school. Instead, he accepted a job as a teacher-counselor. He returned to Howard University to earn a master of arts degree in counseling, then joined the faculty at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. “They were looking for Black people to join the faculty . . . and I was recruited to join the faculty there,” he says.
Because he had made plans to enter the doctoral program at George Washington University, Jackson was not interested when he was recommended for the post of dean of student affairs at Essex Community College in New Jersey. “It was never a part of my plan to become an administrator in higher education. My life plan was to be a professor,” Jackson says. The least he could do was visit the campus, he decided. He would “take the opportunity to visit New York and take in a play.” But on the very day of his visit to the campus, he was offered the position and decided to accept it. At just 26 years of age, Jackson was in a senior administrative position in academia.
Jackson completed a doctorate in education at Rutgers University, with emphasis on philosophy and the function, role and administration of urban educational institutions. By then he had risen to executive vice president at Essex, but was astute enough to recognize that there probably was nothing more for him to do at the school. He put the word out that he was in the market for a college or university presidency, and Compton Community College in California made an offer.
After four years in California, Jackson and his wife began to look east again. Through word of mouth and recommendations, Medgar Evers came calling. Jackson discarded the first letter and the second, but the college’s board of trustees out-persisted him. With the third letter, Jackson applied for the position. Within two months he was installed as president.
The Five-Year Plan
What may have made him different from previous presidents, Jackson contends, is his willingness “to take the initiative so that we can concentrate on what Medgar can become and not look at what have historically been barriers.” For example, one of his first tasks as president was to get the college to believe in itself again and understand its own potential. “When I came here, I created a vision statement, a five-year plan that we updated after that initial period. It became a work plan for us so that everyone knew where we were going and what we were trying to accomplish,” he says. To this day, Jackson continues to update that plan and refers to it often to determine whether he and the college are on course.
In keeping with the plan, new construction is visible on campus and in the surrounding area. One of the buildings will be a student-support center with 15 “smart” classrooms employing various forms of media technology. It will also house the enrollment office, management offices, admissions, registrar, bursar, financial aid, student life, student government and a learning center. Another much more impressive building will be the science, health and technology building, a whopping $138 million facility. It will be home to state-of-the-art research labs, offices, classrooms, computer labs, a multipurpose dining facility and the college’s radio and television studios. It “will allow us to move to another level of research and get more federal grants because we [will] have the means to do extensive research,” Jackson says.
The new buildings will allow the college to increase its enrollment by 41 percent, to some 7,000 students by 2008. The college, in conjunction with efforts by local congressman Major Owens, also boasts a state-of-the-art Aeronautical Education Laboratory, designed to motivate students to take up aeronautics, technology and space-related careers. It is an integral part of a comprehensive K-12 NASA PACE and SEMAA-sponsored curriculum. Another recent addition is the Virtual Reality Laboratory program, which complements the activities of the Aeronautical Education Laboratory. “Technology is very important. I don’t think that anyone in this day and time can expect to graduate college and be competitive if they don’t understand technology,” Jackson says. “Within the last year or two, we have invested close to $2 million in terms of technology infrastructure.”
Finding the Money
Where has the money come from for such an extensive makeover? “You know how some people say the check is in the mail? Well, the check is in the bank,” Jackson jokes. On a more serious note, he reiterates his belief in the power of networking. “Part of the president’s role is to build relationships internally and externally. People see Medgar through its leadership,” he says. He has a strategy for cultivating key relationships. “I spend a lot of time building community relations, being involved in the community, going to functions, sitting on boards, speaking at events. I would say that I have been pretty successful at building those relationships, both in the political world and the nonpolitical world, so we have good relationships with the mayor, the governor, the city council, the state and federal elected officials.” he says.
Gov. George Pataki and Medgar Ever's president Edison Jackson lead groundbreaking for new facilities at the college.
Jackson wants still more for his institution. His vision is not complete, he says. “Do I want us to be better? Absolutely, because I do not believe that you can ever achieve the ultimate and one has to be careful not to rest on successes,” he insists. He argues that Medgar Evers College is creating alternative models of success for people of color. It is less about trying to be an individual role model and more about encouraging people to have a backup plan in case the sports or music deal never materializes, he says. The college is “trying to help men make the connection that college is a way out of their current dilemma,” he says.
The Next Stop
His tenure at Medgar Evers has been Jackson’s longest stay yet at an institution, but he is not yet ready to leave. “There are still opportunities and work for me to do here,” he says. In the meantime, he continues to cultivate his passion for learning and is only one class away from a master’s degree in divinity at the New York Theological Seminary.
What’s next for him? “Only God knows,” he quips. One thing is certain: If his work at Medgar Evers College is any indication, Jackson will be unstoppable once he finds out what God knows.
By Soroya Brantley