HOUSTON / ATLANTA / MONROVIA

Clark Atlanta University’s Power Couple

By Cynthia L. Blandford, Publisher and Simeon Nunnally, iF Team Member

As Publisher and CFO of iF Magazine Atlanta, I had the great honor and privilege to interview two powerful individuals, visionaries, and thought leaders, the President of Clark Atlanta University (CAU) Dr. George T. French, Jr.  and First Lady of CAU, Dr. BaShen Bacon French. 

In my opinion, these two interesting personalities serving a Historical Black College and University (HBCU), is an amazing opportunity for them and a gift to the institution. This husband-and-wife team, both have PhDs, have travelled extensively, believe in internationalization and the importance of exposing students to the world and believe in engaging stakeholders and partners in their global vision to connect and have a worldwide impact on policy, programs, and purpose.

The dynamic duo interview follows. I hope you enjoy.

President, tell us about yourself and walk us through your background.

In 2019, I became the fifth president of Clark Atlanta University, the largest United Negro College Fund (UNCF) member institution in the country and the largest private HBCU within the state of Georgia.  

Prior to this appointment, I served for 14 years as the president of Miles College, making me one of the longest serving university presidents in the nation. I have been nationally recognized as a leader and influencer in higher education and educational policy and have served three secretaries of education under two United States presidents as a congressional appointee to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

I also have the honor and pleasure of serving as the Chair of the Atlanta University Center (Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Morehouse School of Medicine,) Council of Presidents; and as a member of the Metro Atlanta Chamber (MAC) Board of Directors. I received my J.D. degree from the University of Louisville, Miles Law School, and a Ph.D. from Jackson State University.

I am also proud that under my leadership, Clark Atlanta University has exponentially exceeded all fundraising records in the history of the university; maintained stable enrollment in the midst of global pandemic and developed corporate and community relationships to position the university for unprecedented growth.  I was awarded the Birmingham Spotlight Man of the Year, the NAACP Man of the   honors, and I received the Higher Education Leadership Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

What does the President of CAU do on a day-to-day basis?

As President, I have to manage an institution that has about 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students and seven-hundred or more faculty and staff members. It’s quite an enterprise with an annual budget of about $128 Million dollars. We have seen enormous success in the thirty-one months since I have been here, and it was noted at the last Board of Trustee’s meeting by the Chair of Finance that we are in the best financial position in the history of the University. That is the basis of my job is to raise funds by raising friends by introducing philanthropist and different constituents to this University and showing them the opportunities. That’s what I do on a daily basis. On the administration side of the house, which is of course internal facing, I have Vice-Presidents who do an excellent job as members of my senior leadership team they report to me on a regular basis, and we have Cabinet meetings every week. 

Dr. French noted that “we were recently vacationing in a different city, and I got on the phone and was able to raise one million dollars in about 15 minutes.  My wife, First Lady, Dr. BaShen Bacon French, sat there as we drank coffee in amazement and stated, “I don’t believe you just raised one million dollars!” First Lady chimed in and said, “That’s what he does every day. He is a fundraiser par excellence.”

First Lady went on to say, “My husband is engaged, hands-on and has the pulse of the students. He raised $200 million in 31-months. He has the personal touch. If I can add to that I tell you this is a President that receives calls at 2:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m., always wanting to know about major student issues. This is a 24-hour, seven days a week job. Clark Atlanta University has a president that genuinely loves and really cares about the students so it’s not a nine-to-five job. If an issue arrives at 2:00 a.m. then his Chief of Police will call the President and he will be engaged. He knows his students and I have seen him engage students by name.” I call it the “Retail Presidency.” 

Dr. French also noted that Atlanta is a FinTech City and CAU is taking the leadership role with Google, Apple and Microsoft as we are preparing our students for the future with cutting edge technology and for the marketplace of the future with C-suite opportunities, Predictive Modeling, Whiteboarding, and more.  First Lady also stated, “Imagine a future with holograms in the classroom. We must be fearless, and this is a unique opportunity for CAU as an HBCU.” “The sky is the limit.”

President French, I am familiar with the Young African Leaders Mandela Fellows Program (YALI) at CAU. Please describe what makes YALI so important to CAU and what are your future plans. 

Dr. French noted that at CAU they have the Young African Leaders Mandela Fellows Program (YALI) on our campus, which was former President Obama’s signature program for international youth. CAU is the only HBCU with the YALI program among twenty participating colleges and universities.  In July of this year, President French noted, “We will have students from the Continent of Africa to come our campus where we focus on business principles and practices, entrepreneurship, non-profit organizations, and service learning and more.  Students make connections, network and they learn how to hone and reinforce their skills and learn about business best practices.”  Madame First Lady was also quick to point out that HBCUs lack access to funding to help raise dollars for a YALI program on their campuses and require more exposure on the opportunities of YALI for a wholistic program.

President French, I was excited to work with you to conduct a virtual MOU Signing with the University of Liberia late last year and want to congratulate you on graduating two Liberian students with PhDs in Chemistry.  What are your plans to help strengthen this agreement for greater impact and outcomes?

I am pleased to acknowledge that in collaboration with the University Consortium for Liberia (UCL), two Liberian students received their PhDs. in chemistry from CAU with scholarship support. In late last year,  the UCL facilitated a virtual MOU signing ceremony between CAU and the University of Liberia to help strengthen their relationship.  We believe that with additional funding and support, we aim to put a YALI program at UL and to expand our scholarship program at CAU as well.

Madame First Lady, you have such an impressive background and as an accomplished professional in your own right, please share with us your background and tell us about yourself.

As an executive and advisor with 25 years of experience working on behalf of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as a college vice president, professor, director, and researcher in providing technical assistance for foundations, non-profits, and corporations in transformational policy development, organizational strategic planning, strategy implementation, fundraising, and campaigns for disadvantaged populations, I was a trendsetter and leader in this space.  

You also have a Doctor of Philosophy, May 2003-Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration Concentrations: Non-Profit Public Management and Urban Policy Dissertation, a Master of Arts, May 1999-Howard University, Washington, D.C. Major: Political Science Concentration:  a Bachelor of Arts, May 1997-Howard University, Washington, D.C. Major: Political Science Cum Laude; Departmental Honors. You have also travelled extensively throughout the world. Tell us more!

I would like to share that for more than a decade, I led a Center of Academic Excellence for the United States Intelligence Community focused on creating systems, curricula, and programming for post-secondary institutions. Notably, the laudable outcomes-driven work resulted in unprecedented visits by three Intelligence Community heads for scaling and amplifying. The then Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Brennan; then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), General Vincent Stewart; and the then National Director of Intelligence (NDI) James Clapper visited to learn more about the model program for replication throughout the Intelligence Community.  As it relates to the Continent of Africa, one out of every four people on the planet by 2050, economists and sociologists are projecting, to be on the Continent. It’s not only a great idea, but also imperative that the United States and our students engage with the Continent. The world yes, but, specifically with the Continent given the demographic shift. Under the leadership of President French, he is focused on this, and I tell you wherever the United States Intelligence community is going in terms of these projections, then it’s imperative that we are cognizant of that and can follow this trend.

Madame First Lady, I understand that you have students, faculty and staff traveling to Ghana this month.  What plans do you have to grow your international programs in the future with students and faculty?

Currently, we have a delegation of faculty, staff and students in Accra, Ghana, and we are excited about their visit, as we feel like we own the space of internationalization given our beautiful history at CAU and W.E. B. DuBois, really making certain that students have a global education.  We are not new to this perspective, in terms of our strategic plan.  One of the things I want to point out and share with the magazine is that CAU participated in the American Council on Education internationalization laboratory,   a couple of years ago, as they refocused on internationalization.  Our students have gone to multiple places throughout the world. We understand that global education is imperative.  It’s no longer an option, and we want to give young people of color the opportunity to participate and see the world!   We want to make CAU’s international programs accessible whether it be via the curriculum or engaged in studying abroad. Global education is a pillar of the President’s administration to keep the legacy and to refocus the legacy to be inclusive to make sure our students have a global education. CAU’s students have visited Australia, China, Costa Rica, England, Ghana, India, Italy, South Africa, Spain and Thailand and more recently students  traveled to China, France, Greece, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Liberia, the Netherlands, and South Africa. Madame First Lady noted, “One of the things that I am learning is that CAU has alumni all over the world. I was recently engaging an Ambassador to Ghana who is a CAU alumni, and we want to engage them in this refocus of our internationalization focus efforts.

Congratulations on hosting the Second annual women’s leadership forum at Clark Atlanta University honoring trailblazing women in leadership.

As CAU’s First Lady, during the second annual women’s leadership forum hosted by Clark Atlanta University, we recognized three trailblazing women in Leadership. These inaugural academic awards are bestowed upon women whose global leadership has impacted diplomacy, business & trade, and policy:  “Peace & Diplomacy” – Anat Sultan-Dadon, Consul General of Israel, “Policy & Progress” – Tonya P. Anderson, Georgia State Senator, Chair of the Georgia Black Caucus, and Chair of the Georgia-Israel Caucus. Congratulations to you as the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Liberia for receiving the Business & Trade Award. This initiative is consistent with our vision, and we look forward to next year!

Is there anything we have not discussed that you would like to mention?

Madame First Lady responded, “In the United States, the birth rate is declining, so how will Universities continue to have a pipeline. We have to look outside of our normal parameters.  In terms of students, we have to expand our focus and what better way to expand our focus than partnering with the Continent given that we have cultural similarities. HBCU’s are the natural institution to have educational partnerships on the Continent.

Many thanks to the dynamic duo, CAU’s Power Couple for a delightful and informative interview.

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