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Rodney Cohen joined the University of Utah just over a year ago as the inaugural manager of the HBCU Partnership Program—and he is among the first in the nation to hold such a position. In this episode of U Rising, host Chris Nelson and Rodney talk about the program, how it came about, who its partners are and how the program is benefiting students, businesses and communities both in Utah and in other states.

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Chris Nelson: Welcome to U Rising, where we share stories about research and innovations taking place at the University of Utah. I'm Chris Nelson, chief university relations officer.

My guest today is Dr. Rodney Cohen, the inaugural manager of the University of Utah's HBCU Partnership Program—and among the first in the nation to hold this position. We're going to talk about what the program is, how it came about, who our partners are and how the program is benefiting students, our campus and our community.

First, a brief introduction to Rodney. Rodney joined the U just over a year ago from Morehouse College, where he was an adjunct professor. He's the author of two books about historically Black colleges and universities, including one about the Black colleges of Atlanta. I know we'll hear more about his connection to HBCUs in a few moments, but first, welcome to U Rising, Rodney.

Rodney Cohen: Well, thank you. I appreciate being here and looking forward to our conversation.

Chris Nelson: So, we're thrilled to have you at the U leading our HBCU Partnership Program. For those who aren't familiar with that acronym, it stands for historically Black Colleges and Universities. Give us a brief overview of HBCUs as far as the number and history of the schools with that designation.

Rodney Cohen: Sure. Great question. And so, first of all, that acronym, if you will, that you just mentioned, HBCU, was something that came into existence probably in the late ’60s, early ’70s, through the United States Department of Education.

So that's a designation by the U.S. Department of Education for institutions that were founded  for a particular year, I think that was the 1960s. But, those institutions that were historically founded to educate African Americans, mostly those following emancipation. With that being said, although the lion's share of HBCUs, which they are about 107 in existence, most of them were founded after the mid-1860s. However, we had a few HBCUs that were founded prior to emancipation in January of 1863. More specifically, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, which was actually named after Abraham Lincoln, was founded in 1854 Ashmun Institute following Lincoln's assassination.

And obviously, his role in the Emancipation Proclamation, it was agreed that the institution would be renamed in 1866 to Lincoln University in honor of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, their old seal, which is not in existence today, actually would bear the profile of Abraham Lincoln. That institution, real quickly, was a very distinguished institution, to this day is doing great work today as well. Individuals such as Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes attended and graduated Lincoln, along with the first president of independent Ghana Kwame Nkrumah, and independent Nigeria Nnamdi Azikiwe, also are graduates of Lincoln.

We also have another institution in Pennsylvania by the name of Cheney University that was founded in 1836. It was, however, not a full-fledged university at that time, that will come much later. But that was the precursor to Cheney, today, in 1836. Now, what is interesting about that is that, as we all know historically, that during that time period it was illegal for African Americans to read or write or for one to teach them to read or write. So, to think about institutions that existed prior to the Emancipation Proclamation is phenomenal. So, after emancipation, after the Civil War, going into reconstruction, you saw an explosion of HBCUs between the 1960s, the1860s and the 1890s, an explosion of them.

Chris Nelson: How many students do they serve today?

Rodney Cohen: That particular number I'm not sure, but I could tell you this. They range from schools like Howard University with 10,000, all the way down to some of the smaller schools that enrolled 800 or 900 students.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. Yeah. Amazing, amazing, you know, the legacy of those schools.

So, one of my favorite quotes that we came across that you have said is the power of HBCUs to change lives is imprinted in your DNA. Talk about that a little bit.

Rodney Cohen: Yeah, so, I was pretty much born on a HBCU campus in Atlanta. Both my parents attended HBCUs, more specifically Clark College in Atlanta and Atlanta University, which now is one institution. They were very active in the institutional culture there. So, as far back as I can remember, my experiences were on those college campuses, which also included some of the other institutions in that Atlanta University Center consortium, such as Morris Brown College, Spelman College, Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King attended, and Atlanta University, where the great W.E. B. Du Bois was a scholar there and wrote his seminal book, “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903.

Chris Nelson: So, here you are at the University of Utah, may be the furthest, metaphorically, literal place from HBCUs. But talk about this partnership we have. As I understand it the program launched in 2020, our current president, President Taylor Randall, was dean of the David Eccles School of Business at the time. But the origination and how you found it and where we are today with this.

Rodney Cohen: Sure. So, I would like to just add a small caveat to that position. It is actually “partnerships” plural because we have several partnerships. But to your point, it started off as a partnership and has evolved and morphed since then.

So back in 2020, President Randall, who was then dean of the business school, had forged a relationship with the recent outgoing President Howard University Wayne Frederick, who's done a phenomenal job there. And they, had conversations around collaboration and recruitment of Howard students, more specifically at that time. It was through the business school, but it was actually a kind of triangulation where the University of Utah's School of Business would coordinate with some of our local corporations and help them think about crafting internships, where Howard students would come out.

And the intent of that was to, and is to, expose those students to opportunities here in Salt Lake City, with the intent that after they graduate, that they would highly consider those organizations to come out and work with permanently in those organizations. So, since then, other programs throughout the institution have been formed—in the biomedical sciences, the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where we also partnered with Howard in that particular program.

This is our first cohort of 10 students this year and they're doing research at Huntsman and that program is supported by Qualtrics in coordination with the Utah Jazz as well. So right now, this summer, we've gone from about four students in the first year, which was virtual because of Covid, to over 35-plus students who were on campus this summer in some capacity. Living on campus, operating collectively, where they get together and do various activities outside of the classroom, the laboratory and the internships.

Chris Nelson: So, we've got Howard University, the other partners . . .

Rodney Cohen: Yeah, so we have Howard, we have Morehouse, we have North Carolina A&T, we have Prairie View, we have Morgan State.

Chris Nelson: Wonderful. It's the goal to keep growing that partnership?

Rodney Cohen: Yeah, it’s going to be very intentional, you know, and you know how growth is. You want it to be, not necessarily exponential, but you know, in a way in which it can be managed and where you have healthy and continuous relationships with institutions.

Chris Nelson: So how do those partnerships work? Are you on the ground? Are you visiting those schools?

Rodney Cohen: Yeah, so a lot of that is visiting. A lot of that is relationships that I already had forged prior to coming to Utah. And other institutions that we are having conversations with now more specifically, is Florida A&M University, which has a very strong business and science program there.

So, one of the things that I want to mention is when you talk about growth, there is an intent that we're going to definitely grow across departments, colleges and schools and disciplines. We are having conversations now with a number of faculty, thinking about things such as faculty exchanges. So, one of the things that I mentioned when I got here is that we want this to be a bidirectional relationship because oftentimes, historically, when majority institutions have forged partnerships with minority institutions, it's extracting talent, whether it is students or faculty, what have you. But one of the things we want to do is create a bidirectional relationship. So, one of the things we're thinking about is faculty exchange, as an example. And, also too, there are a lot of great graduate and professional opportunities at those institutions where some of our students here, undergrad in particular, at the University of Utah, could consider a Howard, for example, for postgraduate studies.

Chris Nelson: So right now, really a focus on the business school, but also a lot of the health sciences as well. Is that just because of the prestige of our science programs? Is it just that there's some opportunity right now?

Rodney Cohen: Yeah, I think that's more so just where I would say initial resources existed and, I don't want to say low-hanging fruit, but when you're talking about the sciences and business, you know, those are areas that initially make the most sense in terms of making quick kind of partnerships and developing that. But using those as kind of benchmarks and as templates, we are able to kind of look at other areas too. In fact, we're looking at the humanities as well.

Tuskegee is another institution where we're having some conversation with our area of humanities because oftentimes to your point, the humanities are often left out, or maybe education or social work, and we've really been talking to those areas because I think it's important to get them involved as well.

Chris Nelson: So, I'm curious about recruitment of students from these colleges, you know, has that gone as expected? Has it been more challenging? Are the students like, ‘I don't want to go to Salt Lake City?

Rodney Cohen: No, not at all. On the contrary. I would say there is an initial sticker shock because many had not been here. I had never been here. I came here sight unseen and I traveled throughout the United States and been throughout the West Coast, but I always say I flew over the Mountain West.

Chris Nelson: A lot of people can say that.

Rodney Cohen: No, but happy to be here. Now, I will say this, I will say this, that, you know, just general apprehension in terms of never been here, and it's no different if they've never been to Arizona or El Paso, Texas. But, I must say that when students get here, they're excited about the experience. And one of the things that helps, as you well know, is the students serving as ambassadors.

So when students go back to the campus, you see them wearing the University of Utah sweatshirts and they're talking about the experience here. And one of the things that we talk to students about is that if you dedicate 8, 12, 11 weeks to an opportunity such as this, it's going to make you a much well-rounded person, you know? In terms of understanding what a Pioneer Day is, understanding what a Moab is, you know, just being in a different environment, you know? That has been the whole basic philosophy and theory around diversity in education historically, even when you talk about abroad study, that's why a lot of institutions have moved to making it mandatory because they understand if you get into a different environment, even an environment which you think may be uncomfortable, it's going to make you a much enriched person, more well-rounded . . .

Chris Nelson: Even just the geography, right? Just the geography. Just, you know, we're in the high desert. Yeah. You know, having spent a little bit of time in the South, I mean, you know, you get a different sense of what a forest is compared to Salt Lake.

Rodney Cohen: Most definitely. So, to answer your question very directly, no, it has not been difficult recruiting students. In fact, in a lot of the programs, we actually have more students applying than we can accept.

Chris Nelson: Wonderful. Good problems to have. I've been thinking about how to ask this question, but, you know, these words—equity, diversity, inclusion—you report up through our vice president for EDI, as we call it on our campus, and it has become very political, but really this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. This is actual exposing people to different points of view, both for the students who are coming here and then the folks on our campus. It seems very practical, this is real EDI. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Rodney Cohen: I do. In fact, and, you know, the historically Black colleges I mentioned before, dating back to the 1850s, all the way up to today, have served as a model for America. In fact, these institutions were the only institutions who did not discriminate based on race, creed, color and, for the most part, gender. The reason why I say for the most part, gender, is because two or three of the schools were all male, but it was not a discriminatory thing as they had counterpart female institutions. So, it wasn't based on that, but I just wanted to qualify that. But these institutions, in fact, if you look at Atlanta University founded in 1865 in the deep South on Diamond Hill in Atlanta, Georgia, they had the first integrated faculty in the state of Georgia. They had the first integrated student body because a lot of the faculty who came from the North enrolled their students in the institution.

And in fact, the state of Georgia said, if you don't discontinue this integrated model here we're going to stop funding to the institutions. So, I'm saying that to say that when we fast forward and we look at the 107 HBCUs, if you look at the faculty at historically Black colleges, they tend to be the most diverse faculty of any institutions in the country.

In fact, many of the schools may have 40,% 45% non-African-American faculty. So those students are getting exposed to different viewpoints. You're now seeing an increasingly number of non-African-American students attending these institutions. In fact, we have at least two HBCUs that are not majority African American. We have a HBCU in West Virginia that's about 90% white students and in rural West Virginia, the same way at West Virginia State.

And when you go interview those students, those students say, ‘I attend a historically Black college.’ So my point is, it has always been said by earlier researchers, is what is it that these institutions have done that they can create a diverse environment, No. 1, what is it these institutions have done with very little to no resources and produce some of the greatest minds in the history of the world? What is it we can learn from those institutions?

Chris Nelson: Right, right. So we are, if I understand it correctly, we're one of only a few as we call Primarily White Institutions, PWIs, that have this program. Yes? Is that right?

Rodney Cohen: Yeah, so let me make this clear. There have been other PWIs who've had some partnership scenarios with HBCUs. So that's not a new concept. That's been going on for quite a while actually. But we are the first institution that has, if you will, carved out, I don't want to say office, but an office or position to look at this strategically university-wide and create those collaborations and manage all of those collaborations and think about how to institutionalize those partnerships across the board. We’re the first to do that and here recently, two other institutions have come on board. Harvard and Brown have created a position to do that and think about that as well. And, to your point, I think with the recent Supreme Court judgment, I think more institutions may consider this model because what we must be clear on, and I just illustrated that, is that although they're called historically Black colleges, those institutions are not based on race. That designation is exactly what it says, historically. And it's a designation by the United States Department of Education.

Chris Nelson: Just a couple more questions. One criticism I could see coming is, hey, this is, like you said, a majority Primarily White Institution and this is, you know, window dressing. Just doing, you know, the motions. Counter that for us. Talk about, you know, you could do anything in your career. You've chosen to be part of this. Talk about what you're seeing from the university on this side toward that commitment.

Rodney Cohen: That's a great question about the window dressing piece is. One of the things I've always said is when we think about the history of inequity in this country and we think about how do we redress or address those issues, one of the things I always say is that to much is given much is required and expected. So, I think that now a lot of institutions such as this and others who have great endowments, great resources and access to resources are thinking about how we can make a difference in areas, communities and populations that may not have access to that. So, again, one of the things I mentioned earlier is it's just not about extraction of talent for optics, it is about how can we based on what we have accessed, provide certain resources to individuals, communities, and institutions.

That's what it's about. So, for example, one of the things that we're working towards is matching up some of our faculty with their faculty to do collaborative research. And the fact of the matter is, there's some resources that we have from a research perspective that institution A or B may not have, but they're bringing intellectual talent to the table, and we can collaborate. So as a result, we can help them build their research capacity. So, this is really a way in which, how do we help others build their capacity and how can they help us with some of the intellectual talent and resources they have?

Chris Nelson: Right. Yeah. And again, if we're going to be a 21st century university and compete in a global economy, our students coming from Utah, coming from the communities around Utah, which continues to get diverse, need this exposure as well.

Rodney Cohen: It's a fact of the matter. I mean, you see that Utah is, I mean, Salt Lake City or Utah is what the second fastest growing economy in the country, something of that sort. And, all of the companies that are moving here and relocating. And I'm from Atlanta with the Delta hub, and I know Delta, this is going to be the Atlanta of the West, if you will, for Delta. So you're right. I think this time is right and we're prepared to do that. And mark my word, I think this is going to be a model for other institutions.

Chris Nelson: Nice. Alright, last question, just about you. So you were working and what sparked your interest in moving West?

Rodney Cohen: Well, again, what we talked about earlier, I said, wow, this position is very unique and, in fact, you know, one of the nicknames I've always had was, folks call me Mr. HBCU, so, obviously that title. . .

Chris Nelson: You say Dr. HBCU!

Rodney Cohen: Well, yeah. I've always been, no pun intended, I've always been a bit of a pioneer, literally. So, the opportunity to look at something that was new and upstarting and, you know, based on my experience and background, thinking that I could probably contribute to this kind of inaugural initiative was exciting to me.

Chris Nelson: What surprised you the most about Salt Lake? What do you like the most and what do you miss maybe the most?

Rodney Cohen: I would say the thing that surprised me the most is how an area can have 100-degree weather and I can look out my window and still see snow on the mountaintops. That is fascinating to me.

Secondly, what surprised me the most is I've lived in other cold climates, such as South Bend, Indiana and Chicago and Detroit—the snow here is very different, in a good way and since, I've fallen in love with the snow. If it snowed every day, I wouldn't have a problem with that. So that surprised me as well. And I'll tell you, thirdly, what surprised me is how vast the country land is in the landscape. That was surprising as well.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, that geography, I think is interesting. It gives you a different sense.

Rodney Cohen: Yeah. People have been good here, good people, nice people here, and the growth of the community as well, I think is a good thing, too.

Chris Nelson: Well, modern-day pioneer, Dr. Rodney Cohen, thanks for joining us. Great conversation. Thanks for all the work you're doing. Thank you.

Rodney Cohen: I appreciate it. I appreciate it.

Chris Nelson: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I'm your host, Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.