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Interview with Sydney Freeman Jr., Ph.D. from the University of Idaho on HBCUs and Minority-Serving Institutions, Higher Education Leadership, and the Importance of Mentoring for Advancing Equity

About Sydney Freeman Jr., Ph.D.: Sydney Freeman Jr. is Full Professor in the Department of Leadership and Counseling in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. Dr. Freeman is an award-winning scholar, practitioner, and academic activist. Among other accolades, Dr. Freeman has received the Carlos J. Vallejo Exemplary Scholarship Award from the American Educational Research Association’s Multicultural/Multiethnic Education Special Interest Group, delivered the Barbara Townsend Distinguished Lecture for the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and received a Mid-Career Faculty Award from the University of Idaho.

Dr. Freeman’s scholarly publications focus on leadership and faculty at minority-serving institutions and HBCUs, and issues of academic equity affecting marginalized student populations. These include dozens of articles in acclaimed journals like Higher Education Quarterly, Journal of Higher Education, and The Journal of Negro Education. He is co-editor of the collected volume Advancing Higher Education as a Field of Study: In Quest of Doctoral Degree Guidelines, which won the 2015 Auburn University Graduate School Book of the Year Award. He recently published his new co-authored book, The Seminal History and Prospective Future of Blacks at the University of Idaho.

Alongside his role as Professor, Dr. Freeman is Director of the Black History Research Lab at the University of Idaho. Prior to his time at the University of Idaho, Dr. Freeman was director of a teaching and learning center at Tuskegee University. Dr. Freeman holds a Ph.D. and an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from Auburn University and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Oakwood University. He has also received certification in Executive Management (EMC) and Strategic Organizational Leadership (SOLC) from the Management and Strategy Institute.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in academic research on higher education and educational leadership and in applying your scholarship toward the advancement of educational equity?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] I’m originally from Camden, New Jersey, and I attended a school called Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Philadelphia. It is one of four historically Black boarding academies. I’ve lived away from home since the age of 14, which shapes some of my thinking.

Also, because it was an all-Black institution, I had access to — I counted, at one particular time — 10 to 15 Black male teachers or administrators from middle school through college. I had access to Black leaders, and in particular Black male leaders, who poured into me and shaped my thinking around equity and justice. Being in a historic Black institution, you were provided with the information needed to be successful.

From there I went to Oakwood College, which is now Oakwood University, in Huntsville, Alabama. There I earned a degree in interdisciplinary studies with focus in business management, vocal performance, and public relations. I was a student activist during that time, and I started something called the Progressive Black Caucus. The idea was that we would help Black students see beyond just what was happening on campus, that we need to engage the community and work to advance the Black community.

In my senior year, the President of the College asked me to shadow him. After shadowing him for that time, I decided I wanted to be a university president. I went to Auburn University and got my Master’s in Higher Education Administration with a cognate in student affairs. I got my Ph.D. from Auburn as well, and after earning my Ph.D. I could either go the faculty route or the administrative route. I went to Tuskegee University to serve as director of their teaching and learning center. I did that for three and a half years, and from there I had the opportunity to come to the University of Idaho and serve as a professor in the area of adult organizational learning and leadership, with an emphasis in higher education.

This gives you the span of my career and how I came through. I think the notion of justice and supporting others is a core element of your question. I don’t believe I was this naturally academically inclined person. I had to struggle, and fight, and figure things out. It was important that I was provided opportunities, and for me to provide opportunities for others to be able to access what I was and more. Given my study of higher education, I understand how higher education can change lives.

[] One major focus of your research has been on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions. Would you begin by introducing us to how you conceptualize equity in your work and discuss how your research understands the importance of minority-serving institutions as a site for advancing equity in higher education?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] When I think about education, I put the marginalized at the center. Rather than othering people and institutions and saying “Oh, there’s these special institutions called HBCUs,” I put HBCUs at the center. For instance, we have to understand these institutions have been open access institutions for anyone since their inception, which is very different from most other institutions here in this country.

I start from a liberatory lens. How do we create educational institutions that help people to be liberated and decolonize? That is the framework through which I think about education and empowerment. My teaching, my mentoring, my service, my research, and engagement with the community: all those things are interconnected. I don’t break them apart and say, “Oh, I do outreach here, I do service here, I do teaching here.” All of these things are linked together in my equity work.

I attended an HBCU, and the high school that I attended was a historically Black boarding academy. I have a special affinity towards historically Black institutions, and I believe that it’s important for Black people to have to engage in institution building for our advancement. But you’ll see that my work is not just limited to Black people. My work has looked at minority serving institutions more broadly. Beyond that, I have looked at the ways in which these institutions can prepare their next generation of leaders. While they can hire leadership from predominantly white institutions, I think it’s important that those institutions develop their own leadership, and I believe that higher education academic programs are one place in which that can happen.

[] Your research has emphasized the importance of both the organization of HBCUs, as in “The Governing Structures of State Supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” and leadership strategies, as in “Exploring Perceptions of Effective Leadership Practices of Presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Could you discuss what you see as being crucial to the success of HBCUs today?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] John C. Maxwell is a leadership guru. He says, “Everything rises and falls with leadership.” For our institutions to be all that they need to be, they need to have highly trained and capable leaders. We live in a time, as we see in Florida, when we have politicians that are trying to curtail discussions of Black history. Our institutions need to have the type of leaders that have the moral authority that can speak to the country and to the nation and say, not only that Black lives matter, but that this is our history, this is why we’re here, and this is why we’re going to be here for the next 100 years.

A lot of my work now looks at HBCUs in the year 3000. Most of the time, when we think about the future of higher education, we’re not thinking necessarily about Black institutions. I center those institutions and ask, “How can they be uniquely positioned to provide educational experiences to meet the needs of the Black community moving forward, because Black people will be here in the future?”

[] Are there particular emphases or strategies you see as being particularly important to the future of leadership at these institutions?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] Number one, leaders at these institutions need to have strong financial skills and budgeting. What I’ve learned is that if you don’t know your budget well, you can’t just rely on your Chief Financial Officer. You must know your budgets yourself.

I think you have to be comfortable in multiple different settings. You need to be able to speak to philanthropy, students, faculty, staff, alumni, in a way that treats all of them as partners. Sometimes leaders can position themselves as the kings or the queens of these institutions. That won’t work moving forward. Moving forward, we need to be looking at things as partnerships and collaborations.

Next, leaders need to be equipped to engage in crisis management. I did a study over a decade ago about the skills and competencies needed, not only for HBCU presidents but presidents more broadly, and crisis management, while it came up, was not a major thing. Today, crisis management via technology is really important. If you’re not savvy with Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.

Finally, being willing to continue to grow. Put people around you that are smarter than you, and don’t be afraid to let them make you better as a leader.

[] Would you put your work on minority serving institutions in conversation with your scholarship on Black leaders in majority white institutions like in your recent publication, “‘When I Show Up’: Black Provosts at Predominantly White Institutions”? In what ways are the challenges faced by leaders at these institutions different, and are there ways you see them as importantly related?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] There’s a lot of overlap. I think in both cases you’re going to be hyper visible. There are going to be certain expectations on you because of the white supremacist environment in which we find ourselves.

I think for those who work at predominantly white institutions, it’s really important that you have someone who sponsors you in your pursuit of opportunities and that you be purposeful in looking for opportunities for administrative growth. One of the things that we often discuss is that the pipeline into administration typically comes from the faculty. If you’re at a predominantly white institution, you may not be perceived as leadership material. You have to navigate that and show the ways in which you’re competent. This usually means having someone within leadership who sponsors you to the next level.

For HBCU presidents right now, I think it’s about innovation and showing how you meet the needs of Black students. That’s key. It’s shoring up your base. Your base is Black students. We need to identify the unique things that they need to experience and the skills they need to have in order to be successful in this society and make it clear that our colleges will help them achieve that success.

[] You have also examined the role that mentoring can play in advancing equity, which you explore with respect to university leadership in “‘How It’s Done’: The Role of Mentoring and Advice in Preparing the Next Generation of Historically Black College and University Presidents,” and as it pertains to faculty in, “A Critical Examination of the Role of Mentoring in the Development of Black Male Higher Education and Student Affairs Scholars.” Would you discuss this line of your research, and the crucial role that mentoring plays in fostering environments where Black leaders and scholars can succeed?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] There are multiple levels to mentoring. Initially mentoring is where you find someone that you would like to emulate given their position within higher education, whether they’re a dean, a president, or a provost. Mentoring is the starting point, and that person might then become your coach. A coach is someone who sees what you’re doing, and they can look at your leadership from multiple angles and give you feedback. Finally, there is a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who is in the rooms you can’t get into, but they’re speaking on your behalf.

I think, whether you’re in a predominantly white environment or you’re in a predominantly Black environment, each of those things is critical. Leaders who want to advance need to be humble and listen to the mentors that can coach them. They also need to speak up, and let people know that they need sponsorship; that they need someone advocating for them in rooms they don’t have access to yet.

[] One of your recent publications is “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: The Relationship Between Age and Race in Earning Full Professorships,” and you are coauthor of a forthcoming article on preparing for university leadership under 40. Could you discuss your investment in aiding younger faculty members? In what way is age an important consideration in our discussions of educational equity, either in its own right, or because of its relationship with racial equity?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] With respect to age, one of the challenges that we have is that baby boomers are staying longer in senior positions. Depending on the institutional or unit context, this may mean younger faculty are not able to advance in their careers.

There’s also a perception that you are only supposed to have access to certain positions and advancement as faculty members if you are a particular age. For instance, I’ve met the qualifications to be a distinguished professor at my institution but won’t be promoted because I haven’t been at the institution for long enough. This essentially amounts to a restriction on my advancement based on my age.

The way that the law is constructed, ageism goes one way. Legal protection against age discrimination means you can’t choose not to hire someone because they’re older, but it doesn’t work the opposite way. That’s one of the loopholes I talk about in my research, which our policies have not caught up with. This matters because the situation right now is that senior faculty members basically have to retire or die before younger people can access those positions or opportunities. The system is not set up so senior faculty have incentive to mentor, coach, and sponsor the next generation.

I find this particularly challenging for people of color. We’re already disadvantaged by our limited institutional networks and opportunities. Black faculty may provide unique perspectives and bring new ideas to the table, but they still need to understand how things have historically worked in that institution in order to be successful and advance. I think that it’s really important to be intentional about sharing the keys to advancement sooner and open space for younger faculty to have a seat at the table earlier in their careers.

[] You are Director of the Black History Research Lab at the University of Idaho. Would you introduce us to this initiative and your experience working as its director, perhaps touching on the Black Transformation Model, which guides the Lab’s work?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] In August of 2020, I had a conversation with our President and our Chief Diversity Officer about how we could show that Black lives mattered at the University of Idaho. This spawned from an article I had written in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragic death of George Floyd. In that article, one of the things that I talked about was the importance of the institution studying its Black history.

I earned a grant to sponsor our research, and I leveraged those dollars to create the Black History Research Lab, which studies the institution’s Black history. As a result, I’ve been able to work with dozens of students on Black issues at the University of Idaho, and we just published a book on Black contributions to the university [which you can read for free here].

The Black Transformation Model is based on my own research. It’s a five-step model that starts with decolonizing your mind. For example, the initial question that I would get when talking about the Lab was, “The University of Idaho has a Black history?” We had to decolonize people’s minds so they could consider the possibility there could be a Black history at the institution, which starts from its inception in the late 1890s. A Black woman was a part of one of the first graduating classes. So, we really had to decolonize, and challenge these common assumptions about the history of the university.

That’s just the first step. The end goal of the model is liberation. In the future, the Lab will be just one of multiple pillars, working together to move us to this liberatory stage.

[] Drawing from your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or administrators who are seeking to advance educational equity in their own work?

[Dr. Sydney Freeman Jr.] One of my former students did an oral history with me, where we discussed six foundations for my academic activism [which you can read here]. These are the key things that I would recommend to scholars and administrators looking to fight for academic equity.

The first foundation, for example, is longevity, which is about continuing to show up and do the work, because making change requires persistence. Another is quality of work, which involves publishing quality work consistently, so that you’re always pushing the conversation on equity forward and giving yourself a great chance to be heard.

Other principles are about building relationships; it’s important to engage with leadership and administration whenever possible in order to establish rapport with the people who work in the system you are trying to make more equitable. Building relationships inside the institution you are trying to change also makes the changes we are proposing seem less threatening. It’s important we are unapologetic about our identities and perspectives in building relationships, while also recognizing that equity work requires being strategic.

This is another one of the important principles; strategic framing. This means persuasively engaging with leadership — when I am lobbying for something, I limit what I’m asking to three main things, and I try to frame those requests in memorable ways. To meaningfully advance educational equity, I think we need to be persistent, to build relationships, to develop a strong sense of our own identities, and to remember that academic activism requires being strategic.

Thank you, Dr. Freeman, for sharing your insight on pursuing education equity in higher education!