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Remarks at the Annual Conference of the White House Initiative on National Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Hyatt Regency Washington
Washington, DC
September 8, 2008

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SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much. Thank you. Dr. McNealy, Ernest, thank you for that wonderful introduction. I want to just acknowledge my fellow dais mates and my wonderful friends, in particular, Lou Sullivan, who is a longstanding friend and a real icon for all of us, Lou, for your government service, your university service. You’re somebody we all look up to and try to emulate. Thank you for what you’ve done. (Applause.)

It’s really a privilege to be here amongst this distinguished group of academics, educators. I feel right at home because, while I am currently Secretary of State, I’m going to be a professor again. (Laughter.)

A PARTICIPANT: It’s the best job.

SECRETARY RICE: It is the best job. You’re absolutely right. (Laughter.)

I feel very at home because like so many African Americans who were fortunate enough to have the benefits of education and all of the access that I have had, my life story starts with parents and aunts and uncles and indeed, in my case, a grandparent who got their start in historically black colleges. (Applause.)

I’m also pleased to be here because, you know, Ernest gave you a little bit of my background. You might wonder. Well, let me assure you, I was never going to be an Olympic figure skater. That was clear. Unfortunately, apparently, I wasn’t going to be Commissioner of the NFL either, though that’s still an open question. (Laughter.)

But I do want to tell you, and I’m sure that this has happened to each and every one of you as academics, as educators, that very often, my students will come and they’ll say, “How do I get to do what you do?” They want a plan for their lives. They want a plan that’s a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, a 15-year plan, a 20-year plan, and then they’re going to end up as president of a university or of a college or they’re going to be Secretary of State. And so they say, how did I – “How do I get to be what you became?” And I say, “You start out as a failed piano major and you go from there.” (Laughter.)

Well, again, it is really a great honor to be with you. America’s historically black colleges and universities have never been stronger and they’ve never been better, and their future has never looked brighter. Obviously, when we think about our historically black colleges, we’re talking about our heritage, we’re talking about our tradition, we’re talking about the places that provided hope for our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents at times when the broader society was not really open to them, no matter how smart they were, no matter how intelligent they were. The historically black colleges were a refuge for black Americans who believed that if you could be educated, you could do anything. And that’s our heritage and that’s our tradition and that’s our path. And I’m so proud that President Bush has recognized that with the many initiatives that he’s taken with historically black colleges.

But I want to start my remarks to you not with that past, but about the present and the future of historically black colleges. You see, academically, these colleges and universities are providing a quality education to the men and women who enter their halls. Admissions are up, enrollment is up, and the longstanding commitment to academic excellence remains the same. Both undergraduate and graduate-level programs give students the opportunities to succeed in whatever field they choose. And approximately half of all African American women who eventually hold doctoral degrees in sciences either attended Spelman College or Bennett College.

Xavier University of Louisiana places more African Americans in medical school than any institution in the country. And between them, Morehouse School of Medicine, Howard University and Meharry Medical College educate still most of America’s black doctors and medical professionals. Whether it is in education, in science and technology, or in engineering and mathematics, historically black colleges are excelling in all of these fields. They are preparing a new generation of Americans, mostly minorities, but others as well to succeed in the 21st century.

Financially in recent years, we have seen a renewed appreciation for the critical role that historically black colleges and universities are playing in our communities. And this is translating into historic contributions to the financial future of these wonderful institutions. For example, Howard University has raised nearly $300 million for their school and this is the most – (applause) – this is the most successful capital campaign ever by an African American institution, academic or otherwise. And I just congratulate you, President Swygert, because I know how hard it is to raise money. (Laughter.)

Globally, the impact of historically black colleges and universities is now increasing as well. The students of these colleges have reached beyond our borders to serve communities around the world. I meet them everywhere. They skillfully utilize their expertise in science and agriculture and medicine in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East. And they bring support and ideas and technology to those in need. And this is a tradition that black universities and black colleges are continuing from the past and extending into the future.

In March, I had the pleasure, Ambassador, to travel to Bahia in Brazil and I signed there an agreement to promote higher education through greater cooperation between institutions of higher education in the United States and in Brazil. And it is my hope – and I know that Ambassador Patriota shares it – that this cooperation will become a model to be replicated with other countries, particularly those countries that have large African diaspora populations. And Bahia is an energetic place and a vibrant place. And I hope that the connections between Brazilians and Americans will be strengthened and deepened by the relationship between Afro-Brazilians and African Americans.

HBCUs and government are growing in the partnerships as well. The role of this White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities is to promote a partnership between federal agencies and departments and the HBCU community. It’s a much needed effort that I’m proud to say is working, and it’s working at the Department of State.

Last year, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their students and faculty received nearly $5 million in scholarships and grants from the State Department for study abroad, foreign language exchanges, and other educational exchange activities – our highest funding level ever for these institutions. (Applause.)

Still, I hope that this will expand. It is our hope that more historically black colleges and universities and their students and faculty will take advantage of this opportunity because it’s good for the students, but it’s good for America, too. Because when I go around the world, I want very much to see black Americans involved in the development and the promotion of our foreign policy. I want to see a Foreign Service that looks as if black Americans are part of this great country. (Applause.)

I have lamented that I can go into a meeting at the Department of State and, as a matter of fact, I can go into a whole day of meetings at the Department of State and actually rarely see somebody who looks like me, and that’s just not acceptable. And so -- (Applause.)

And so Congressman Charles Rangel and I have been targeting students at schools with large minority populations. I’ve been working hard to double the number of Rangel Fellows, many of whom hail from institutions like yours, to interest them in foreign affairs when they are young, to give them the training and support to learn languages and to learn about the world, and then to go out into that world to be a part of the great global debate challenge and difficulty, too, that we face in the international system.

I’m proud of our efforts in that regard to post diplomats at historically black colleges and universities. Currently, we have diplomats at Howard, at Florida A&M, at Morehouse and at Spelman. And as we begin to look toward the next generation of diplomats who will represent America around the world, I think these programs will help to recruit young people into the Foreign Service. The State Department will hire 400 Foreign Service Officers next year. And I’m counting on each and every one of you to be a recruiter.

So as you continue with this summit, I want you to know that the State Department and the Administration stand ready to continue to work and partner with our historically black colleges and universities. If America is going to stand for the belief that multiethnic democracy can work, and if we are going to continue to show the world that multiethnic democracy is, in fact, workable, and by the way, showing that to a world where very often difference is too often still a license to kill, then all of America will have to be involved in that task.

Now, I started by saying that I wanted to talk about the present and the future of historically black colleges, because we don’t talk enough about that. We very often talk about our glorious past. But there’s a reason for that, and that is because it is indeed a glorious past and a glorious tradition. My mom and dad were both educated in historically black colleges: my mother at Miles College in Birmingham, my father at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte. (Applause.) Aunts and uncles and cousins were, too. Whole generations of Rices and Rays were.

But as I think back, there is one family figure who stands out, and that was my Granddaddy Rice, my father’s father. You know, I actually never knew him. He died two months before I was born. But his story, his legacy, is so much the center of my family’s view of itself. You see, Granddaddy Rice was a sharecropper’s son in Ewtah – that’s E-w-t-a-h – Alabama. (Laughter.) And Granddaddy Rice, one day, sometime around 1919 or so, decided he needed to get book learning. Who knows why? And he asked, in the parlance of the day, where could a colored man go to college. And they said, well, there is this little Presbyterian school not too far from here called Stillman College. And so he packed up his cotton and he went to Stillman College, planning to go to school.

And he went through his first year and he loved it, and then came time for his second year. And they said, “All right, so how are you going to pay for your second year?” And he said, “Well, I don’t have any more cotton.” And they said, “Well, then you’re going to have to leave because you can’t pay.” And he said, “Well, how are those boys going to college?” They said, “Well, you see, they have what’s called a scholarship. And if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, then you could have a scholarship, too.” (Laughter.) Granddaddy Rice said, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” (Laughter and applause.) And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since. (Laughter.)

You know, his legend lived on in other ways, too. Because my grandfather made certain that my father and my aunt were educated. He made certain that they knew the value not just of getting a job, but of getting a future. And so at the height of the Great Depression, he went – he came home, my father says, and he had in his hand, very proudly, seven leather-bound, gold-embossed books, the works of Victor Hugo and of Shakespeare. And my grandmother, a practical woman, said to him, “Well, John, how much did you pay for those?” Height of the depression. “Ninety dollars,” he said. My grandmother, of course, was completely put out by this. What could $90 have bought? He said, “Don’t worry, (inaudible). We can buy them on time.” And so they did. They bought those leather-bound books. And those leather-bound books were read by my father and his sister, his sister who became a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and taught at Norfolk State as her first position. (Applause.)

Now, what did my granddaddy know? He knew that there was something more to education than just being able to make a living. He knew that education opens your horizons and opens your sights. He knew that education allows you to become fully who you are, to dream. He knew that it didn’t – that education meant that you would not be tied to your circumstances, but that you would create new circumstances. That, my friends, is the central element of the American dream, that it doesn't matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going.

On the day that I graduated with my Ph.D., my father gave me the five surviving leather-bound books. I display them proudly today. But of course, what he was really giving me was my grandfather’s dream for his granddaughter. And that is what historically black colleges have done. They have passed the dream from generation to generation to generation, and I am so proud that they continue to do so today.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Released on September 8, 2008

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