African Americans hold top academic job at city's three major universities

Wendell E. Pritchett, incoming provost at the University of Pennsylvania. ( MARGO REED / Staff Photographer )

Come July 1, legal and history scholar Wendell E. Pritchett will become the first African American provost at the University of Pennsylvania, and he’ll have some company.

Temple and Drexel, also in Philadelphia, already have African Americans as provost, a job generally responsible for the academic enterprise and regarded as the number two in command on a campus.

JoAnne A. Epps, also a lawyer and former dean of Temple’s law school, was appointed last July, and M. Brian Blake (M stands for Malworsth, a family name, and the “s” is silent), an engineer, began at Drexel in 2015.

It’s no small fact, considering that a 2014 survey by the American Council on Education, the most recent available, showed that only 3.9 percent of provosts were African American. Another council survey released this month found that nearly 8 percent of college presidents are African American.

At a time when some colleges are facing criticism for lack of diversity in leadership ranks and more minority students are seeking to enroll in college, having African American provosts at three of Philadelphia’s largest universities could prove key.

“That sends a very clear message that we value African American intellect,” said Marybeth Gasman, a Penn education professor, whose work has focused on historically black colleges and universities.

Lorelle Espinosa, an assistant vice president at the American Council on Education, said colleges need to work on diversifying their faculties and creating welcoming campuses for minority students, and that takes commitment from top leadership.

“Just having people of color in senior leadership is a powerful signal to the community about the value of diversity on that campus, a powerful signal to students and to prospective faculty,” Espinosa said.

All three provosts, she pointed out, have touched on diversity and inclusion issues during their careers. Blake, a native of Savannah, Ga., who got his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology, worked on diversifying faculty at the University of Miami, where he was an administrator. Pritchett’s work has focused on race relations and issues such as urban renewal and housing discrimination. And Epps has mentored many young minority lawyers and educators.

Epps, Pritchett and Blake see their collective role as powerful.

“It’s a marker of progress for people of color at major universities,” said Pritchett, 53, a native Philadelphian and Ivy League graduate who led Rutgers Camden, served on Penn’s law school faculty and for a year as its dean, and taught history at Baruch College in Manhattan before becoming Penn’s provost.

Wendell E. Pritchett, incoming provost at the University of Pennsylvania, in his office in College Hall. ( MARGO REED / Staff Photographer )

Epps, 66, a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who got her law degree from Yale, said the three appointments are “symbolically” significant.

“It’s hugely important that these three institutions be seen as options for the city’s children and young adults, and seeing people who look like them in all three of these places means that young people might be inspired to want to be students at one of our institutions,” Epps said.

She hopes her presence will mean that more minority faculty will apply to Temple, she said. But she anticipates an even broader impact.

“I hope when somebody is deciding whether to move to Philadelphia or Memphis, they might pick Philadelphia because this is just one of the many symbols of the kind of city we are,” she said.

Epps would like to collaborate with Pritchett and Blake on helping the city and has arranged a meeting with them for July. She and Blake already have talked. She is interested in addressing hunger in the city, while Blake — at 45, the youngest of the three — wants to target workforce development, possibly getting the city’s big companies to provide training for smaller ones.

Blake, a graduate of a Catholic military high school and the son of an entrepreneur who owned service stations, said he didn’t envision a career in academia. He thought he’d run a company of software-engineering consultants.

But while pursuing his doctorate in information and software engineering at George Mason University, he started to consider it.

“Over time, I just felt it would be great to be in a position to do things that have a bigger societal benefit,” he said.

He taught a software-engineering course at Georgetown University and soon rose to tenured professor, then department chair and director of graduate studies in computer science.

Before coming to the 26,000-student Drexel, Blake worked in administrative posts at both Notre Dame and the University of Miami.

M. Brian Blake, Drexel provost.

He’s the first African American provost at Drexel, and he said he’s gotten used to people being surprised, also in part because of his youthful appearance.

“I’ve been in so many meetings where the impression of the group is I’m not the provost,” said Blake, who lives in Chestnut Hill with his wife, a mechanical engineer, and two children, who attend Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

He’s helping with both the recruitment of African American faculty and students, he said. Nearly 6 percent of Drexel’s faculty are African American and about 8 percent of its students.

Each year, he reaches out to the top 10 African American applicants,  encouraging them to come to Drexel. He doesn’t tell them he’s the provost or that he’s African American, he said, but finds he identifies with them.

“You can answer certain questions,” he said.

Pritchett, the son of a high school English teacher and a classical pianist who led the music department in Philadelphia schools, grew up in Society Hill and attended Friends Select.

“Being the only black person has been a theme of my life,” he said, “but I’m also conscious how positive my experience has been being the only black person.”

Pritchett got his bachelor’s in political science at Brown, his law degree at Yale, and his doctorate in history from Penn. From 2011 to 2014, he served on Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission.

He said he looks forward to working with Penn’s president, Amy Gutmann, whose priorities, including inclusion, he believes in. Diversity in both faculty and staff — including economic, gender, racial and other kinds of differences — will be a major focus for him, he said.

A university report this year showed that the percentage of black, Latino and Native American faculty at Penn had increased 30 percent from 2011 to 2016. Still, at the 24,960-student university, only 3.7 percent, or 97 members, of the faculty and about 6 percent of the student body are African American/black.

“I think we’ve made substantial progress under President Gutmann’s leadership, but she would be one of the first to tell you there’s a lot more to do,” said Pritchett, who is married to a Philadelphia public school teacher and who has two children, one at Yale and the other at Masterman, a prestigious city magnet.

Temple provost JoAnne A. Epps (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Epps, a native of Cheltenham, also grew up in a largely white community and was one of 10 African Americans in her graduating class of 610. Her father was a machinist and later an installment-loan collector, and her mother a secretary at Temple. She said she didn’t have African American role models and often felt isolated or different.

“It still happens,” said Epps, who is married to a community-relations employee at Temple and lives in Shamong, Burlington County. “I’ve spent a lifetime being different but managing to blend in a way that has been gratifying but … I am still a black woman and even at this age and in this job, there are days when I’m starkly aware of that fact.”

She recalled being on a message string with friends when one of them referenced the TV show M*A*S*H.

“There weren’t any black people on that show, so I didn’t watch it,” she said.

Early in her career, she worked as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles and an assistant U.S. attorney.  From 2008 to 2016, she led Temple’s law school, where she had been a professor since 1985.

Epps acknowledged that more diversity — all kinds — is needed at the 39,000-student Temple but cautioned that “can’t drive ultimate decisions” in hiring. Currently, 6.5 percent of faculty are African American.

Student diversity also represents a challenge. Temple’s percentage of African American students, last school year at 12.5 percent, has declined from 16 percent in 2009. The university this spring accepted more African American students with the hope of increasing the number, Epps said.

“So far,” Epps said, “we are optimistic.”