Elizabeth Davenport, a professor of educational leadership at Alabama State University, recently spoke with NEA Today about her reputation as a hard grader, her dedication to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and why the greatest achievement of her five-decade career in higher education rests with the women she has mentored. On Friday, July 3, the NEA Representative Assembly honored her as the 2020 NEA Higher Educator of the Year, an award sponsored by the NEA Foundation and given annually to an outstanding post-secondary educator.
On the topic of graduating from the University of Michigan (UM)’s College of Education at age 19, and then earning five more advanced degrees, including a law degree from UM; three master’s degrees from New York University and Michigan State; and a Ph.D. in educational leadership:
When I graduated from college I was only 19, going on 20, so I was young. I had a bachelor’s degree in education, and I didn’t think I was old enough to run a high school classroom! So I went to law school. I wanted to use the law to do something in education, but I wound up in corporations….Anyway, I realized I like going to school. I like the idea of learning new things, and for example, when I finally did get to Michigan State, I got a master’s in telecommunications and a master’s in adult learning and higher ed. So I thought, if I like schools and I like being in schools, I should find a job doing something in schools. And that’s how I got to teaching.
I still like learning new things! The biggest problem in education is getting others to like it as much as I do. I see a tendency among some students to say, ‘I’ve done [the assignment],’ and put a mark beside it. But have they really done it? Do they understand it? Can they apply it?
I’m a very hard grader. So when I grade, it’s always, ‘Dr. Davenport has a thing against me!’ But I go back to this: I want you thinking at your highest ability. I want you producing at your highest ability.
On the topic of teaching in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs), the future of their students and the future of these institutions.
If somebody asks me why I teach at an HBCU or MSI, I say it’s because that’s where the minorities are! I made a choice to teach at HBCUs—and it was a choice—because I think it’s important to mentor the next generation, whether they’re going to be teachers or lawyers, or whatever. I want my students to think and grow. I want them to know their rights.
When they do studies of how people feel about their college experience, HBCU students come out on top. They feel comfortable. They have self-esteem. But I know they will pay a penalty for attending an HBCU. Their income will not be as high as if they had attended an elite Tier 1 institution.
Honestly, I worry about HBCUs. Many have been losing students for years, and now we’ve got this pandemic and more funding cuts, and students will have to rely on their own funds to get through. It’s going to be a tough year.
We have to think of new ways of financing education. Back in the day, when I was in school, education was considered a public good, and my success was considered the success of everyone. Higher education has to go back to being a public good. When I look at politics right now and at certain politicians who want to gear up their base, I see them focusing on the things that divide us. But education shouldn’t divide us. It should unite us!
On her years as a local union president and chief negotiator, and the value of unionism to her younger colleagues.
I came to FAMU in 2002 to teach. And accidentally, like everything in my life, I got into union leadership. And then accidentally, I became president — and in every year of my presidency, I negotiated a salary raise for my colleagues. I left FAMU (in 2018) because I had lost sight of what I wanted to do, which was to teach.
But it’s not like I’ve stopped being an advocate. I got everybody on my wing here at Alabama State to join the union, and in September I’ll be chair of the Faculty Senate. But I’m only doing this because I’m frustrated with the lack of respect that this faculty is accepting!
Collaborating with others makes you powerful. In Florida, for example, which is a right-to-work state, you had to force them to the table to negotiate, and that makes you powerful.
I’m a northerner. I grew up in Michigan and I’m going to bring my northern ways no matter where I go. I feel like sometimes my colleagues go along to get along and that’s not education. When I say our jobs are to transform minds, I really believe that. We can have a difference of opinion and we can talk it out. And I honestly believe that through talk, there’s action. That is what a union should provide. It should provide a safe place to talk, organize, and to solve problems.
On the topics of affirmative action, race, and diversity.
When I was in law school, 50 percent of my class were female. It’s never been that way again. At the same time, we were 10 percent Black — and that has never been the same at the University of Michigan again. Right now, at that law school, seeing a minority is like seeing a kangaroo on campus! Affirmative action means maybe you admitted people who didn’t have the same test scores as others, but we were all successful.
When I was growing up, people in the South were still going to segregated schools, but I went to an integrated school in Lansing from kindergarten on up. You learn about other people, and you learn how to express your opinions to each other. You learn to communicate. There is still a need today to bring together people and mix them up. I honestly believe in the concept of diversity. I believe it challenges stereotypes, strengthens workplaces and communities, and promotes a psychologically healthy society.
Education is power — and it has no color. When I say that, I mean it’s for everybody. It has no color. By merely having knowledge, knowledge is power. I’ll never lose any of the education that I got from my law degree or my LL.M. [master’s of laws] — it’s part of me. It’s my secret power.
On the topic of her greatest pride, which is the women she has mentored, nurtured, and helped develop into assistant professors, K12 administrators, educational consultants, and instructional designers.
It’s my Baby Docs. Yes, my Baby Docs. [Davenport refers to the students in her educational doctoral programs as “Baby Docs.”]
When I was younger, if I wanted to do something, I did it! You can always try something once. So I try to relate to them on that level, on their level. I bring my experiences with me to them. I bring Liz! She comes with me wherever I go.
Most of them have been women. I think I only graduated three men. One of my Baby Docs is thinking about accepting a job here at Alabama State this fall. Another one is already here. I didn’t have children, but the relationships that I have with these women is very strong. I think we have nurtured each other.