Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Corey D. B. Walker

walker_corey-copy Today I begin an interview series that will run through the remainder of this year. The interviews will take place once a month and will feature discussions with African Americans in formal leadership positions in academia, including department chairs, deans, associate deans, organization directors, and more. My goal is to provide our readers with information on the various challenges and opportunities that come with such positions and an understanding of the type of training necessary to become a successful academic leader. The first interview is with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, who is Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University.

A scholar of African American social, political and religious thought, Dean Walker’s research revolves around a series of critical investigations into the historical, philosophical, and theological problems of modern thought and political practice. Prior to assuming his position at Winston-Salem State University, he served as chair of the department of Africana studies at Brown University. Dean Walker also served as a member of the faculty in the department of Religious studies and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies at the University of Virginia, director of the Center for the Study of Local Knowledge at the University of Virginia, and visiting professor at the Historisches Institut at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Dean Walker graduated from Norfolk State University with a B.S. degree in finance. After a career in the financial services industry, he went on to earn his M.Div. from the Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University, M.T.S. from the Divinity School, Harvard University, and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary. He also received the M.A., ad eundem, from Brown University. He has published widely on African American political thought and culture, African American religious thought, and religion and American public life. Dr. Walker’s interview will be followed by interviews with Dr. Jeffrey Leak, Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, and Dr. Banita Brown.

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“Because the walls of the academy are, on the whole, merely more tastefully, delicately wrought extensions of the walls of the government, industry, and the military (somewhere along the line the white church got lost in the shuffle), it is not surprising that they too should now encompass part of the national army of the cynical, despairing, increasingly frightened men and women. . . . In this sort of setting, it necessarily follows that one of the questions most out of style is that which attempts to probe the meaning of vocation, of calling, of purpose in work and life. . . . Nevertheless, by standards other than those of a rootless (“swinging”) and opportunistic society, that is a critical inquiry, affecting a person’s central vision of himself, his role, and his rootedness in the movement of history.”

~Vincent Harding, “The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community”

Cameron: I’d like to start with a discussion of how you got to be dean of a college. What positions/experiences have you had prior to this that best prepared you for your current job?

Walker: I do not think of what I do within a discourse where the term “job” and its categorical correlates obtain critical purchase. Having spent some time in the financial services industry, I realize that there is a critical difference between what I did there – which can correctly be catalogued as a “job” – and my practices now. I approach my intellectual practice along the lines of what Vincent Harding describes in his germinal essay of 1974 “The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community.” As vocation, as calling, there are many experiences that inform how I engage the life of the mind in our contemporary age. Some of the most pivotal experiences occurred when I was a student and a prison chaplain. It was in the midst of these communities of scholars, students, and activists where I learned the redeeming power and potential of ideas. These experiences expanded my imagination. An expanded and continually expanding imagination animates my continual attempts to cultivate cultures of curiosity. Learning and being renewed by intellectual struggle within the context of community from then until now empowers my service with others in creating conditions of possibility for intellectual and human flourishing.

Cameron: Even as dean, you’ve been able to remain a prolific scholar. How have you been able to successfully balance your research agenda with your myriad administrative tasks?

Walker: If we accept the prevailing division of intellectual labor as legitimate, then scholarship and administration are necessarily antithetical tasks. It is this pernicious division that empowers a technocratic rationality that governs and polices forms of university life and existence. I have sought to deliberately articulate an intellectual practice which rejects this fundamental and, in some significant ways, foundational division. In so doing, I engage my vocation as a critical intellectual – albeit imperfectly and not without contradiction – committed to a continually attempting to carve out creative spaces for intellectual expression by communities of students, scholars, activists, and citizens. In this manner, I have found deep resonances between the questions I am asking in my modest scholarship and in practices of intellectual community at the university. For instance, my recently completed manuscript “Between Transcendence and History” unfolds a history of African American thinking coextensive with new configurations of global politics and power which, interestingly enough, informs how we must engage critical intellectual life and institutional practice under new flows of neoliberalism. In opening up a new line of investigation for my current project, “Representations of the Black Intellectual,” I am preoccupied with a series of questions revolving around Black studies and the Black university in their formal expressions in a particular conjuncture of the 1960s and as heuristic devices to think along a broader theoretical and methodological axis which in/forms a deep stream of African American intellectual and political struggle. This effort is, as we say, always already connected with a series of current institutional concerns and intellectual commitments. For me, I do not segregate the struggles of the life of the mind from the struggles for hospitable institutional forms which welcome varieties of critical and creative intellectual practices. Thus, to echo the vision of Jean-Paul Sartre and the critical work of Sartrean scholar Joseph Catalano, a practice whereby “the question, the questioner” and the questioned” are always integrated and “research is not a mirror of reality, but a practical attitude toward people.”

Cameron: What have been the most challenging aspects of your position?

Walker: One way to host this question is by recalling the wise statement by Toni Cade Bambara, “Ain’t no such animal as an instant guerilla.” We are experiencing a dramatic and rapidly changing context in higher education as well as all of society. It is in this context that Bambara’s statement gains critical traction in that our desires for the speed for change outstrips the complexities of the task. This may give rise to short term thinking that values expedient and easy rhetorical change over deep structural transformation. This situation is exacerbated in a moment saturated with multitudinous forms of im/personal technology and a political culture governed by the logics of a manipulative populism. It is this context where critical thought is devalued and a vulgar utilitarianism reigns, particularly within the discourse of education. For those of us committed to institution building, this context for creating and sustaining practices of critical intellectual life is most challenging. However, living in the shadow of history and facing the long future, I remain hopeful and dedicated to this righteous vocation.

Cameron: What has been the most rewarding part of leading a college?

Walker: I have had the wonderful opportunity to work in an intellectual community committed to “leading with ideas.” For us, this is more than just a tagline or branding strategy. It is a veritable way of life – with all of its attendant challenges, complexities, contradictions, and conflicts. To be part of such a community is to be joined with others who are committed to the struggle for the life of the mind in solidarity with those on the “underside of modernity.” It is this struggle for an institutional form to host a sustainable learning ecosystem designed and dedicated to elaborating new styles of thinking in service to people that renews the life of the mind and life itself. As a recipient of this gift, I am reminded of the rich intellectual practices of Anna Julia Cooper, particularly her powerful vision of the possibilities of thinking articulated in The Voice of the South. Her rhetorical questions – “Is this the cold region to which thought, as it moves in its orbit, has brought us in the nineteenth century? Is this the ‘Philosophy of the future’ – the exponent of our ‘advanced ideas,’ ‘new light’ of which our age so uproariously boasts?” – serve as an invitation to not only reject forms of instrumental rationality, but to pursue a fugitive thinking that escapes the calculus of the given in opening up new futures of possibility. To be able to offer a contribution to this elegant project is the very essence of my vocation as a black scholar.

Cameron: For graduate students and junior scholars who may be interested in academic administration, what advice would you give? What skills are most beneficial in a successful senior administrator?

Walker: I am an idealist (but with a strong materialist grounding) about the life of the mind so my only advice would be to continue to pursue ideas within the context of community. Since I do not think of my vocation within a technocratic rationality of administration, I realize that the renewal of the life of the mind and of life itself must be underwritten by an ethic of struggle for the right to think for all people. It is this struggle which informs the ideas that find institutional expression in our universities, for better and for worse. By hosting this struggle between ideas and institutions, we better understand that we must strive for new and critical institutional forms to respond to our highest intellectual aspirations. To be sure, what I hope is that we enter an age that marks the end of the “administrator” and a new beginning for critical intellectuals in service to community committed to activating new visions of transformation and possibility for the university. We must have critical intellectuals – not administrators – who will offer fresh opportunities to move us beyond sterile regimes of thought and dogmatic institutional practice in framing and authorizing new practices of the life of the mind that aid in righteous planetary possibilities.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Corey D. B. Walker

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    Kudos to Dean Walker, an HBCU graduate! I enjoyed reading this interview about Black scholars in community. Adjudicating our scholarship and the various nuances of academia often renders us at odds to university administrative posturing. More importantly, our community work should benefit those who are seeking enlightenment about themselves and the world in which they breathe with impetus for praxis. Often we miss engaging in praxis. I look forward to the next interviews.

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