Michael Powell, W&M Class of 1985
Michael K. Powell arrived at William & Mary in 1981 on an ROTC Scholarship. During his time at William & Mary, he served as President of Theta Delta Chi, was a member of the Men’s Gymnastics Team, and became the first black commander of the ROTC.
Powell graduated in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts in Government and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army. He has since held positions as chair of the Federal Communications Commission and currently serves as president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. He also served on the Board of Visitors at William & Mary from 2001 to 2009, serving three years as the school’s first African American Rector.
In his interview, Powell discusses what he states was a “fantastic” experience at William & Mary, marked by his involvement in many student organizations and key figures such as Sam Sadler and Tom Graves. However, his life, both at William & Mary and beyond, has not been without difficultly, and he speaks about the moments throughout his life in which his plans were uprooted, sometimes drastically. He views a liberal arts education as providing the skills necessary to adapt and adjust in those situations. The interview ends with poignant ruminations on the value of diversity and inclusion.
William & Mary
Interviewee: Michael Powell
Interviewer: Carmen Bolt
Interview Date: June 12, 2017 Duration: 1:30:35
Carmen: My name is Carmen Bolt, the oral historian at William & Mary, and it’s currently around 1:30 p.m. on June 12, 2017. I’m in Washington, D.C. at the NCTA office with Michael Powell. Can we start by talking about the date and place of your birth?
Michael: Sure. I was born March 23, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Carmen: What years did you attend William & Mary?
Michael: I graduated high school in 1981 and attended William & Mary that fall through spring of 1985.
Carmen: Wonderful. Before jumping into your time at William & Mary, will you tell me a little bit about where and how you were raised and what your family was like?
Michael: Sure. I was born, interestingly enough, in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, which was a pretty tumultuous year in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.
00:01:00 Tumultuous for two reasons. One, my father had just deployed to Vietnam, so unfortunately, he had left before I was born, and my mother had moved home to be with her parents since she was about to give birth and her husband was gone. And so I was born in Birmingham while living with my grandparents, who were quite famous people in their own right. He was the principal of the major black high school in Birmingham in 1963. And my grandmother was a real pioneer. She integrated the Girl Scouts back then as well.
So it was a pretty heated period in that part of the world. That was the year the 16th Street Baptist Church exploded, killing four little girls who my mother knew very well. In fact we were in church, me as an infant and her with me, three churches down when it exploded, so we were in the city area close by.
00:02:00 So that part of my upbringing is important on my mother’s Birmingham side. My father is a child of Jamaican immigrants who more or less talked their way into the country to start a new life, and my grandmother used to say to give my children a better life than they would have had in a small island country. And so he was born and raised in the South Bronx in New York before meeting my parents.
He was a bit of a screw-up as a student, he likes to say, but he ultimately found his love in ROTC, in the military, and so he set out on a journey with my mother after they got married, of a military life together, of which me and my sisters got to be on the train. And so a lot of our upbringing was moving—moving across the country. I never say that with any displeasure.
00:02:59 For us it was adventurous, it was fun. A lot of people say that, you know, oh, the American people this. I can honestly say we’ve truly lived out there amongst all variety of American people, in small towns in Kentucky, in bigger communities in the Great West, in Colorado, along the East Coast. So we had a ball growing up meeting friends and living the military brat life.
Carmen: It sounds like you had quite the travel experience just as a youth.
Michael: We did.
Carmen: So where did you find yourself in high school? Did you go to several high schools or was there one?
Michael: I was very lucky. You know, me and my sisters have different stories. We moved to northern Virginia for my father to work in the Pentagon right about the time I was starting freshman year of high school, and so I was really lucky enough to attend the same high school for all four years, which is pretty unprecedented for a military kid.
00:03:58 And I went to Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. My sisters, who are both William & Mary graduates, though, my sister Linda is two years younger than me, had to go to four high schools in four years, just to give you a contrast. My sister Ann had a few moves as well. So it kind of depended on where you fell in the pecking order.
I think one of the reasons I ended up being interested in colleges in the area was this really was the closest thing to home base in our family, to be around Virginia, or northern Virginia, since he would often return to that area no matter what. So, you know, we drew a big circle from Washington, D.C., and certainly William & Mary was inside that circle.
Carmen: So how did you narrow in and choose William & Mary out of the other schools within that circle?
Michael: I wish I had a very pedagogical, you know, significantly structured way of going about it. It seems the kids do much more today than we did.
00:05:02 To be honest, I had no idea. The colleges my parents went to were not ones that I would have been interested in, nor would they have been interested in for me, so, you know, I didn’t come—I was the oldest—I didn’t sort of come with any family predisposition. But I was involved in high school in theater, as a matter of fact, and I had just a good friend, who was two years younger than me—two years older than me—and she had gone to William & Mary.
And it sounded prestigious, it sounded romantic, it sounded beautiful, it sounded hard. So it quickly sort of got to the top of my, you know, stretch school list. And I was also applying to the military academies that year, so I really wanted to know early whether it was fish or cut bait, and I applied early decision. And I have to say I was stunned when I got accepted sometime in late November or December.
00:06:00 I’d never seen the school at that point, and so my dad decides to throw me in the station wagon, we’re going to go down and visit the college. Except for the date was December 26th, the day after Christmas, which is the worst time on the planet earth to visit a university. Not one single person was around. We took no tours. We walked around. We looked in the window of locked buildings.
And for some reason, with me, that’s all it took. You know, you just felt, the heart felt like I could see being here. And, you know, we went through the rest of the year, but kind of the emotion I had, with it being the first place to let me in, and the best place to let me in, you know, there I had it, I picked. And there was never any ounce of regret about that choice.
Carmen: Wonderful. So I guess your very first memory or experience of William & Mary would be of peeking through locked doors or windows of the buildings. But what about when you first got there for your freshman year, what was your very first memory of getting to William & Mary?
Michael: First of all, you should know the first impression is the brochures you get. Today everything is online, but back then, you know, you would have to send away. You know, you’d write a letter and you’d be sent a packet. And believe it or not, those packets would make a big impression on you, what do the pictures look like, what does the narrative feel like. So that’s the first impression.
But when I showed up, I also went to William & Mary on an ROTC scholarship, so I had to show up on move-in day. My parents had moved again. Now they lived in Colorado. And we left my little Ford powder blue Pinto sitting in Virginia with my trunk that—my mother insisted I have a big steamer trunk. And I flew back from Colorado by myself, 18, to Washington, got in my little car and drove to William & Mary by myself.
00:07:57 I had no parental, like, departing tears or anything, I was on my own. And I remember pulling up to Yates and finding the room. My roommate was there. He was a football player. He looked big enough to carry the trunk so he came out and helped me move in. I remember being excited that day, the campus sort of full of energy. But the first thing I had to do was I had to go report to the ROTC department. And I remember running, having to find my way with a map over to what is today Blow Gym—Blow Hall—what then was Blow Gym.
And I just remember being nothing but excited. And then there’s the sort of week before classes start where, you know, you’re playing human bingo in your dorm and various things. But I found, number one, the student body I found so friendly, caring, and just sort of instant friends. And in fact to this day people I met the first week are still good friends, including my wife, who I met the third day, you know, four doors down in Yates.
00:09:03 Now she doesn’t even…she’s not even four doors down, she’s just right there. It’s interesting, you know, to form bonds that quickly. I found the campus beautiful. I think it has a physical presence that sticks with you pretty quickly. You know you’re at a college. You know, this is the imagery of the ivy, you know, an ivy colored wall with ancient values. It just felt like that.
When I was a freshman they did not have convocation, which I wish they had, so it was sort of…orientation was kind of you running around and spending time with students. I hate to tell you the drinking age was 18, so freshman orientation included plenty of various keg parties that you attended, and which I did. So my impressions were just of happiness. And given that my parents were so far away, I don’t know why I felt very comfortable and at home. I didn’t feel worried in any way.
Carmen: Fantastic. Just to be able to move that far away from family and feel so comfortable so quickly. It’s not everyone’s story of going to college.
Michael: Yeah, and unlike when they were in northern Virginia, I couldn’t just, you know. You know, I think there’s always a moment for freshmen where they’re lonely, or sad, or hungry for home cooking, or want their clothes cleaned or something. You know, that was not going to be a ride away for me anymore.
You know, it was a plane ride away, which made it very difficult because, you know, my parents weren’t going to afford…you know, you’d get to see them when Christmas came, or Thanksgiving came. I can’t remember if I… No, I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving, I went home for Christmas, so I was away. But the campus filled in. It filled in as brothers and sisters and parents and friends very quickly.
Carmen: Sure. And you got involved in a lot of things. As you said, the ROTC, I guess from the very get-go you were involved in ROTC. Why did you choose to get involved or apply on an ROTC scholarship?
Michael: So, you know, a funny story is like, you know, when I was applying to college I had two completely irreconcilable ambitions. One was I wanted to be an Army officer like my father, and so I was applying to West Point, and the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy, and for ROTC scholarships. And my other ambition was I was going to be a Broadway lighting designer. So I remember we would take these college tours up north, and we would go to some theater school, and then we’d go to West Point. Then we’d go somewhere else, then we’d go to Annapolis.
And my parents didn’t care. They were sort of very it’s up to you, there’s no… But at the end of the day I, you know, I kept looking for a compromise. And in some ways William & Mary made sense when I got a scholarship because, number one, the scholarship relieved a lot of the pressure of free school at West Point, right? Now college would be relatively inexpensive for my parents and for me.
00:12:00 Secondly, William & Mary at the time had a pretty robust ROTC unit, so it was a pretty meaningful program. And it was a campus that had theater and other things. My theory was I could experience a lot more without having to make a commitment at 18 for a life of service at an academy that I wasn’t ready to make. So that’s kind of what made that choice.
ROTC, for me, at the beginning, was a lot like a fraternity would be, you know, a common collection of people who, you know, were pursuing the same things, many of whom I went through school with, and got commissioned with, and saw in the Army, so it was great.
Carmen: That’s great. And you did end up joining a fraternity as well, yes?
Michael: I did, with absolutely no desire or expectation to do so when I went there. My parents were not Greek, either one, so I never even heard of these things in any real way.
00:12:58 And, you know, the little bit I knew from “Animal House” I had no interest. But, you know, what I think often happens , a lot of the guys on my hall were interested in rush, and at the time rush was pretty civilized, and so I would go, you know. And the fraternities were very open. You know, you could come to them for parties and events even if you weren’t a member of them and even if you weren’t rushing.
So, you know, I ended up going because my roommates and hall mates were going. And I remember our RA at the time was a member of…or was also rushing a fraternity, even though he was a sophomore. So I kind of got swept into it, and then I just very quickly found a bunch of guys that I really liked and, you know, one thing led to another. Next thing you know they’re sort of offering you. I remember calling home, like is this okay? And they were fine and so I joined.
00:13:58 And I have to say it was also a spectacular experience. I mean, the four years I was there the students were…you know, they were great men, and they were great friends, and they were, you know, they were good citizens, and they had a lot of fun, like you want them to, but our house was very open to all students. And I became president of the fraternity by the time I was a senior, and even went on to be a national officer in the fraternity in the United States, was one of the five elected officials to the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, so it was a big part of my life, too.
Carmen: And I was reading in the Flat Hat, and I noticed that at that time there was the transition, I guess from the Inter Fraternity Council, perhaps when you were president, to a kind of newer version, a newer committee, and you were part of that transition or you weighed in on that transition.
Michael: Yeah, probably. I mean, I don’t…I have a little bit of a fuzzy memory of how the inter fraternal governance worked. I mean, we did have the IFC, and when I was an officer I was more cognizant of it, my junior and—I guess I was an officer sophomore, junior and senior, but vice president my junior year and then president my senior year.
00:15:12 And I was an active participant in that. And at that point I had formed pretty important working relationships with campus administrators. I was a president’s aide, so I got to know the president. I was involved in the presidential search that led to the selection of Paul Verkuil. I remember being part of that. I had become well connected with Dean Sam Sadler, who was then Dean of Students, later Vice President of Student Affairs. You know, so I had a much more working knowledge and so was often involved in task forces and projects to improve the school in different ways.
Carmen: Sure. And I do have a question. Also I noticed in the Flat Hat—and this was somewhat happening outside of the fraternities, but I think in some way included them as well—I noticed that at the time there were a lot of claims of sexual assault, and this was something that was of growing concern at the school. And they were happening kind of outside the school’s bounds. But I also saw in the Flat Hat that this was something fraternities were also becoming increasingly cognizant of. And do you remember those conversations happening within the walls of the fraternity?
Michael: Yeah. So though…look, I personally believe we’ve come a long way. I mean, I…it would be inaccurate to say in that period of the ‘80s those conversations came with the same kind of consciousness, diligence and seriousness and commitment that they do today. I think campuses have come a long way on this, even though they probably still have a long way to go.
00:16:59 And it would be unfair to say there were more casual attitudes about this. But I think the society and the culture was still struggling to get this right. I don’t really remember any significant events that I had any direct knowledge of, you know, friends or anything of that regard, though you would frequently hear about an incident, you know, particularly at a fraternity.
I will say, and I think it’s just the luck of the draw, you know, in the years I was a president of a fraternity, I think the fraternity was composed of guys who were quite conscious and committed to not tolerating that sort of stuff, meaning, you know, I even remember quite clearly, particularly if you remember drinking ages were younger, so very common, you know, during freshman orientation, here comes a bunch of young freshmen women drinking more than they’ve ever had in their life and they’re wandering around your house.
00:18:00 And, you know, I remember me and the officers being very consciously committed to watching out for that. Like, you know, if we saw anybody going upstairs we didn’t think should be going upstairs, we would stop it. You know, if we heard anything was getting a little… I remember incidents of brothers going into people’s rooms and saying, you know, she needs to go home, and making sure she got home.
One thing I liked about the drinking age being younger in those days is that there was a socialization of how to cope with this stuff, and older people would help younger people learn to do that responsibly. And I just remember lots of nights making sure people got home. And I think that’s healthy before, you know, at an earlier age than we do now, unfortunately.
00:18:52 So yeah, I kind of…I do remember it. And I do remember—I don’t quite remember, but I remember some things off campus that I think rattled people. But I had a good impression within my little bubble of how that was unfolding.
Carmen: It sounds like these were conversations you were having and that you were being proactive to try and prevent—
Michael: Well, and I think I’ll credit our national fraternity, which at the time was quite stern about these things. There was no, at least in our fraternity there was no sense of permissiveness about that kind of stuff. So maybe we were lucky, maybe we were good, I don’t know, but I think we avoided some things that could have been worse, for whatever reason.
Carmen: Thank you for answering that. I wanted to backtrack a little bit because you were mentioning Sam Sadler and also being able to grow close with the president, being a president’s aide and working in these circles and interact with these administrative individuals. Did you look to any of those individuals as mentors, or were there other mentors you had during your time at William & Mary that you could point to?
Michael: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I am one of a trillion people who would say Sam Sadler was a mentor, because Sam Sadler is a mensch. He’s one of those rare individuals who not only feel it’s their duty and their responsibility, but take special joy, pleasure and passion in the development of young people. And I remember him always being surprisingly available to people. He was someone you could feel very, very comfortable going in.
He always had a sense of humor, which I think, you know, no matter what people say, administrators can be an intimidating relationship to develop. Sam made that very easy. So I remember even when our fraternity would be doing something it probably shouldn’t have been doing, you know, I can remember days of Sam Sadler showing up on Saturday morning, and go, so, what are all you…what cleaning is going on? And I was like…
00:20:59 But he could do it in a way that let you know he knows, and you better be… Without it becoming just, you know, a combative thing. We felt like sort of he knew how to become one of you, you know, without being subverted by you, so you didn’t want to disappoint him. And I think he was a great mentor.
You know, I had great military mentors because I spent a lot of time in ROTC, so the professors in military science I remember, and the young… You know, I think about them, they would have been young officers, but they seemed old to me. You know, who were working in the department I think were very important.
I really did enjoy the transition from Tom Graves to Paul Verkuil, so I got to know them in that capacity. So yeah, I had good mentors. I think I have one regret, which is I never powerfully developed mentorship with faculty, something I see students do a lot more today than they did in my time.
00:22:01 You know, going to class in the ‘80s felt a little more like you just go to work and you come home, you know, and when you’re home, you’re home. You don’t sort of go… You know, yeah, some students always have and always do, but most of us would just, you know, oh, I’ve got to go to class like it’s I’ve got to go to the office, and then when you’re done with the office you’re done. I think I went about college that way.
There were a few professors that—Joe Schwartz in the Government Department, who’s still around, and who I took more than once because I was really sort of moved by their class and had a bit more of a relationship. But not as much as I should have. I wish I had academic mentors today, you know, more of them.
Carmen: Yeah, that makes sense. Did you ever come into contact or work with Dean Carroll Hardy at all?
Michael: Yes. Yes, I did. To be honest with you, a little more because of my sister. My sister Linda was an English theater major, so she really kind of got under the wing of Dr. Hardy. And in many ways I got to know her because of my sister. I just remember her just being kind of this giant of a figure. She just commanded a kind of grace and authority. An exemplar is the word I would use.
There was something about her that was gravitational. Like, you know, you quietly felt both the obligation as an African American student to what she was making available to you and also just a degree of comfort that there were folks like her who took an interest in folks like us. And I remember that really well.
00:23:57 You know, my sister Linda’s always loved her, and, you know, she’s a Broadway actress to this day as a consequence of, you know, that impact, so I think that’s how I remember her.
Carmen: Sure. And I think it kind of leads into somewhere I wanted to go, which was to ask you what the experience of being an African American at William & Mary during the 1980s was like.
Michael: Yeah, I knew you would ask this question, and I want to answer it honestly without seeming to dismiss the concerns that other students obviously would have had. My experience was fantastic. I never experienced a racist encounter, not once in four years that I have any memory of. Well, I should take that back. I’ll tell you one, but it was more humor. You know, it was…we coped with it differently than we might today.
00:25:00 I felt extremely welcomed by my fellow students, by faculty. I just never had any perception that that was a significant issue. And the percentages were much lower than they are today by a lot. At the same time, there was a budding black life culture going on at the campus, but probably much less than today. These things were more new—black sororities and fraternities, service oriented stuff. And I participated in that as well so, you know, it wasn’t like I sort of checked out from what that was about and was over here. But, you know, I would go to dances that were sort of oriented around that, had made a number of friends who were in black sororities and fraternities and sort of experienced that through them.
00:26:01 Although I was, you know, the vast majority of fraternities and sororities at William & Mary were largely white and, you know, all of them seemed relatively welcoming to people of every type, from my experience. So I don’t have a bad racial experience, and I don’t remember a lot of that being a very conscious set of fears and anxieties.
Though as time passed, some of my friends there, who came from a different background or had different campus experiences than me, have helped me see that they were less happy there than I thought they were. And I think back then you put on a good face. I think what’s more transparent today is I think we talk about when people are uncomfortable. And I think back then I think a lot of those students had a stiff upper lip.
00:26:57 And, you know, they’re not the kids of the ‘60s integrating places, but I think they’d still been raised by those parents, and I think you weren’t…you were supposed to march on. But knowing many of them as well as I do even to this day, you know, I think they didn’t feel as warmly as I did that this was their alma mater, this was their experience. It seemed a little more vocational, like they did what they were supposed to do and got out. So I think that’s interesting because I think it was not so much…it wasn’t those tensions weren’t there. I think they were subverted more than they are today.
Carmen: And you mentioned you just had the one experience that was more humorous?
Michael: In fraternity life and sports life you’d see some… You know, there’s one fraternity who would sort of march through campus wearing Confederate uniforms, and I remember them marching under our freshman dorm.
00:28:00 Which none of us took kindly to. But our response was to fill trash cans with water and poor it on them, so—
Carmen: I was going to ask.
Michael: —that’s how we dealt with it, which we did do.
Carmen: Being on the higher ground.
Michael: Me and my roommate poured a huge…
Michael: You know, and I think, look, we weren’t experts on this stuff, but I think we learned how to somehow express what was inappropriate and be engaged in that without completely going to sides. Like, you know, some of these guys were certainly more Southern and had different perspectives than I do, but I rarely found a time that there would be somebody I would avoid, or wouldn’t confront, or talk to, or spend time with, even if I did understand they thought about something differently than I did.
Carmen: Great. That’s very insightful. I’m wondering, because the percentages were significantly different, that even though your experience was not a negative one, if it was a noticeable thing, like it was noticeable that there is a drastic demographic difference, it’s noticeable that…I believe you were one of five African Americans or students of color in your fraternity.
Carmen: But was this something that there was an awareness of this or it was just that was what it was?
Michael: Yeah, you know, hindsight was there awareness. Sure. You have to understand that, you know, a lot has to do with where you come from. And, you know, I came from Army life. I was always one of a few. You know, we didn’t live in a predominantly black community anywhere ever, other than passing through. We lived on Army bases, which there’s an element of that are relatively brutally egalitarian, right? I mean, they, you know, the hierarchy on a military post is by rank more than it is by anything else. And in our case my father was one, both an officer, B, a very successful, fast climbing officer.
00:30:03 And so a lot of times on post you were a colonel’s kid or it didn’t, you know, it didn’t matter. It seemed secondary, some of those things. And, you know, I actually think the military, as an institution, has been much farther along on racial issues and issues like this than society as a whole. The military had been integrated since ’48. Many of its senior people were increasingly visible in those roles.
The soldier corps is run by, at the time certainly by African American non-commissioned officers so, you know, we had a long tradition of African Americans in senior posts with much authority over black and white. And so I came out of a world where me and my sisters were, you know, most streets we were the only ones.
00:30:59 You know, the colonels live here, but the Powells are black, but they’re the only, you know. So to me, the perception of the percentages didn’t feel out of place to me. Those were the percentages of the life I lived in.
When I talk to friends who had more issues, their life was different that way. They were used to much bigger proportions of their racial community, and they had a deeper part of their cultural interests and loves that were tied up in that, that then you come into a place where you’ve gone from being 30, 40, 50, sometimes more like 70, 80 to 4 and 5. That’s a much more radical shift for that student.
And so I don’t like when people talk about these racial things, or any other—or gender in kind of generalized ways because I think sometimes things can be very particularized based on the prior experience of that.
00:32:00 I knew it wasn’t many. That was relatively obvious. But in some sense I think that was still early enough where that’s a…there was a little bit of a source of pride, right? You know, among a lot of my black friends, you know, we were William & Mary’s black kids. We took that as something good for us, that we were, you know, we were part of what they were trying to change.
So that’s my…you know, it’s a different time, but I actually think those issues get harder as you get bigger numbers. You know, I think if you’re 30%, then the range of subjects gets much more complex and serious. So success breeds new problems, new challenges. And I think the integration of numbers has been very successful, but now you have to really work harder on inclusion, and not just representation, and I think you have a higher population to be more culturally sensitive to. It’s just success often makes things even more challenging.
Carmen: Sure. And sort of along the same vein, but you’re speaking of it as like a source of pride. And speaking of sources of pride, you were the first black commander of ROTC at William & Mary.
Michael: Oh, I didn’t even know that. [Laughs.]
Carmen: You were. And now that we’re kind of preparing to celebrate 50 years of African Americans in residence at William & Mary, we’re looking back at a lot of these firsts, and you were in fact the first there. What was the experience of being a commander of the ROTC like? And being the first black commander of the ROTC was certainly a source of pride, I imagine.
Michael: Well, when they called me and said, you know, junior summer going into senior year, that you’ve been selected to be the commander of the Corps of Cadets, I guess we called it then, it’s probably…you know, other than being admitted to William & Mary itself, it probably was the most moving, emotionally successful thing I achieved the whole time I was there.
00:34:07 I mean, I was thrilled when I got elected president of Theta Delta Chi, I was honored and touched to be a president’s aide. That probably meant a lot to me. But to be told, you know, you’re going to be the one, and you get to, you know. And I probably quietly aspired to that since day one. I mean, I really wanted to do that someday, and worked hard to try to make that happen.
You know, I’d had a father who’d been a commander. I’ve seen command. So I really wanted to experience the same thing. So for me, it really melted my heart. I mean, I was so thrilled and excited. And I think it also crystallized for me that there is a skill set, and there’s a culture, and there’s a human dynamic to what it means to be a leader.
00:35:01 You know, I remember giving a speech to high school kids at William & Mary years later, and Taylor Reveley was president. He was introducing me. That was the high school model United Nations, I think. And I just agreed to run down and do it. I was happy to help. But it turned out to be a big group. I didn’t know. And Taylor got up to introduce me. He said a few nice things, as only Taylor Reveley can say them. He says, I would just say, you know, Michael’s done a lot of things, but he just is a leader.
And I remember getting a little chill when he said it because I remember having that conclusion at William & Mary Corps of Cadets that that’s what you should be doing, and it’s not it kind of can be a career, it’s, you know, motivating people to do things is a good skill. Then that’s when the rest of William & Mary started making sense to me. I mean, I think if you think about a liberal arts education, and you think about what they’re teaching you, and you try to assemble that into a coherent philosophy about leadership, it’s amazing how much all of a sudden all of those pieces come together.
00:36:05 I mean, why you have to have a wide range of knowledge—in order to be creative. Why creativity is important to leadership. Why discipline, hard work, how to motivate human beings. I mean, there’s so much. I could write a whole book on just why the right kind of college education goes into… And I think that’s why there’s so many leaders that get produced from liberal arts schools. I think William & Mary’s tradition, they like to brag about it, but I don’t think that’s an accident that leaders come from that place.
Carmen: And you are a leader and you came from a good place.
Michael: Well, we’ll see. The story’s not over.
Carmen: So before we jump to trajectory after William & Mary—because it already sounds like it was impactful for you and it kind of determined what direction you went in after you left—I just want to know some of your favorite memories from your time at William & Mary, if you could narrow it down to just a couple.
Michael: That I’m allowed to put on tape? I don’t know.
Carmen: Yeah, yep.
Michael: You know, I would start by saying I don’t know why that first week before classes started was just surreal and magical. All of a sudden you’re a grownup. You’re not going to your house at night, you’re going to your dorm. You sort of have this elation that you’re on your own in a way you’ve never been before. I met my wife and was totally like freaked out by her right away, so she’s around. Being stimulated about your classes and what you’re about to study. You know, you suddenly think you’re not a school kid anymore, and you’re doing Algebra 2 or whatever, but you get to really do what grownup people study. I thought that, you know, I remember being very…
00:37:57 So to me there’s this—and the weather was spectacular, I remember, not overly hot like it sometimes is, but sunny, and there’s just this kind of magical first week.
You know, you mentioned the day you got picked to be the command of the Corps of Cadets was a very, very special memory. There are a number of very special parties which I’m not going to tell you about that really we’ll always remember, just because you’re having so much fun with your contemporaries, and we’re just laughing, and I just remember that being spectacular. Me and my wife being at this toga party at Barrett. I remember it. Well, she’ll tell you the same thing. We’ll always remember it.
I remember quiet moments, too. I used to like to walk around the campus. I’m a bit of a meditative person and I would sometimes be down along the creek or walking past the statue of the couple that sits at the end of Crim Dell.
00:39:01 I used to have little spots around the campus I used to like to just go to be alone. I remember that.
I’ll never forget a big snowstorm in which I’m convinced the entire campus was in the snowball fight. And I remember the campus police pulled in between DuPont and Yates, you know, purportedly to stop this. There was only one guy in the car and there were like 300 people over here, and 300 people over here, and almost on cue everything launched. I remember that being a great act of defiance that was fun.
And I remember a few, I guess I would say I remember occasional academic moments of clarity that, you know, when you finally kind of, something makes an impression on you. I could probably name a million, but…
Carmen: It does sound like they struck something, whether a sense, you know, sensory or something else that stuck with you all of this time.
Michael: Yeah. You know, I think we—you know, I could be wrong, but I’m a student of this today because it’s my business, but we didn’t have any cell phones, and computers were brand new. We had a computer lab.
My dad actually bought me a PC to go to college with, which, he’s so cheap I couldn’t believe he did it. But he believed that this was the future, in 1981, and so I got a computer for graduation, a personal computer, and I didn’t know anybody else in the entire William & Mary campus that had one. People would come to my room to see it. And I had a printer and everything, I could do my papers, and people were like Powell’s got a computer. You’ve got to go see this thing. And I mean, it was…by the time I’m a senior, you know, these things are proliferating. But you had to—the point of this is we had to really be present.
00:40:55 There was no…you could only be distracted by other human beings. I mean, even your mother, you’d talk to her once a month, maybe. You know, some people talked to her once a week. We didn’t. You know, the phone rang once every blue moon. So you had to just engage with each other, I think, in a deeper, richer way. Maybe today people would say they’re fine with the way they do it, but if you were bored, you wandered out of the dorm and went outside to see what was going on. You didn’t pick up a device. You couldn’t.
So the number of times somebody would just bang on your door, hey, we’re bored, we we’re going here to do—you know, there were so many of those kind of sporadic, unplanned, unstructured human contact kind of things that I just remember thinking were so much fun. And if somebody wanted to find you, they had to come find you. You know, they had to literally like…I don’t know, I think I saw him over there at the caf, right? So people would, like, trudge across the campus to find you because you couldn’t text you or call you.
00:41:58 God, I sound so old now, but it was special for that reason. I have a much stronger sense of being physically out on the campus a lot than I do even today when I… Because I can text someone—oh, Jane, meet me back here. I don’t have to go. But we were always out all over the place, like, you know, navigating our lives. It was cool.
Carmen: Different world.
Michael: It’s a different world. It’s a very different world.
Carmen: But yeah, I can certainly see the value in that, absolutely. Even now it’s just nice to unplug and just take a walk around the sunken garden.
Michael: Yeah, yeah, and just let it burn in your memory. It’s just a little different.
Carmen: Definitely. And I do want to get to post William & Mary, but when you mentioned you met your would-be wife the week of going to William & Mary, did you both start a relationship soon after that or was this something, a pining that eventually resulted in something? It just seems to be—
Michael: Well, it started immediately, so… It started within three days, four days.
Michael: Though, you know, she was one of those classic sappy freshmen who came with a boyfriend who was off somewhere else and, you know, pictures all over her room with, you know, whatever that poster was that said if you love something let it go that every freshman girl, you know. You know, listening to best of Bread albums, longing for her boyfriend. So it was kind of one of those things.
We’re like, well, you know, we found each other, and he didn’t last very long. And I remember being really scared once because he surprised her. He showed up freshman year like on the hall, and we were like, uh-oh. But that was the end of that. And I think we dated for two years, we stopped, we stayed best friends. So when we graduated, we were not dating.
00:43:58 And she actually was very seriously dating somebody else, who was older, and I went off to Germany with no expectation that we were anything. And really the fates forced me back in her direction when I had to leave Germany when I got hurt. So yeah, it’s just funny how life works that way.
Carmen: It’s just so interesting talking to so many William & Mary alums who found the person that they would end up with.
Michael: Well, I think most schools I talk…like a number of people I know who both met each other, and I talk to people at other schools, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as contagious.
Carmen: No. I mean, I can’t speak on that specifically, but—
Michael: I don’t know why.
Carmen: Yeah. Yeah, just something in the William & Mary water, I guess.
Michael: I guess.
Carmen: I don’t know. So you brought up Germany, and that is a good transition into time after William & Mary. How did William & Mary and your time there just really determine the trajectory you took after you left?
Michael: Well, some of it does, some of it doesn’t. The way I think about it is your experience and your education sort of walk alongside you all the time. It’s always sort of off your shoulder, you know, if you’re listening, for insight and recollection. But I was, in some ways, on a very mechanical path, right, meaning oh, I went to ROTC, you get commissioned. I got commissioned. You know, I got the branch that I was supposed to be in. You waited for the Army to tell you where to go. I went where they told me where to go.
And, you know, after some training and some detours—the first way I would say that it affected me was when I went to Armor Officer Basic Course. Everybody goes to their first six month school when they get their branch, and I was a tank officer, so that’s where I went, Fort Knox, Kentucky.
00:46:00 And I really had no planned effort like how to…you know, you just want to do well. You don’t really… And in the last few weeks I started being told right now your scores are…you’re like in first place in this class. And that’s when I realized I was a better student than I thought I was, because all of my academic work had been inside of William & Mary, where I was an average student, nothing spectacular at all.
But I remember, because when I got dropped off at William & Mary, my dad said, you know, one of the most important things is you’re just here to learn how to learn, and that’s probably the most important thing, more than any knowledge. Oh, okay. But when I was at Fort Knox, I was like, oh, I actually know how to learn, like I know how to break this down and figure it out. And some tasks were very academic, some tasks were very physical, but the point was it all came together.
00:46:59 And I graduated first in my class, which really surprised me and sort of put me on a different path in the Army than I would have been. So, you know, right from the beginning I think some academic ability put you in a position to take a certain… And because I was first, I could pick what duty station I wanted to go to, what unit I wanted to be in. I got to go where I wanted to go.
And I switched from where I had been assigned to this other unit in Germany, and off I went. I don’t know if anything prepared me for those first few years. It’s a surreal life. We were in a pretty remote part of Germany, not in one of these big American ghettos, so I really lived in German economy and lived in the woods a lot.
00:47:57 But again, I think certainly scholarly temperament. I think a lot of the impressions that I made were to my benefit were about being creative. You know, that theater arts major stuff will stay with you all day long when it’s time to figure out how to present something or be more creative about it.
And I think William & Mary contributed to my temperament. I think I was a sort of more happy, joyful kind of person. I think William & Mary was producing those kinds of people. It carried over. At least that’s the first stretch. I also think that when I got hurt badly, which we can talk about, but your life is badly disrupted. Everything you thought you were going to do, years of training and investment just got flushed down the drain.
00:48:55 And I think coming back from adversity, or learning how to adapt and cope and redirect, I couldn’t say exactly how I would draw the causation, but I think William & Mary had something to do with it, right? Because you have to keep your mind active when your body’s broken, and I was in a bed for four or five months. And, you know, what do you do?
You have to read and you have to think and you have to plot a new future, because they’re telling you your career is over, we’re going to kick you out of the service for physical disability, and you’re like… That’s a lot of mental work. That’s a lot of internal work of the mind. And you have to believe that anything that helped shape your mind was playing a role. I don’t know. I could go through years of this, but I rediscovered being in love with learning, I think, much older. And I would say in my mid 40s and 50s I kind of became an academic again.
00:49:57 Like law school first of all. I probably couldn’t have gotten through without a William & Mary education. But the rigors and the joys of learning became stronger the older I got. And I’m always trying to figure something out today that…not directly related.
Lifelong learning. You know, they talk about it, but I think in your 30s you’re so busy, your 40s you’re busy. You know, you’re just kind of buzzing through. You don’t have a lot of time for sort of Aristotle-like luxurious reflection on questions. But then you start to. And then as you get to more midlife, you know, what’s the meaning of all this, you know. I’m halfway done, maybe. And all of a sudden philosophers matter to you. All of a sudden great literature has more to say that you understood when you were 20.
00:50:55 And then when you’re 48 or 50, you’re like, oh my god, this guy, you know, Tolstoy’s right. So it’s amazing that you can pick up where they kind of lit the fire.
Carmen: Even following adversity, as you say, just being able to pick up and head in a new direction again, I mean, the time you spent being able to think and being able to reflect, and to get through that and then to choose what’s next, I mean, how did you choose what was next?
Michael: Some of it you stumble into. You know, got out of the hospital. I didn’t have my career. I had to start over. And, you know, through a friend, parental friend, you know, oh, why don’t you come work at the Pentagon for So-and-so and he can teach you how to do, you know, sounds good. Like so many kids today grab an internship, you know. Who knows how it’s going to affect you?
00:52:01 But I had always thought about law school, even when I was younger, so all of a sudden something I had kind of waved off started resurfacing prominently. So I worked at the Pentagon for like two years, and then decided to go back to school. And I was already married and already had a one-year-old, so I had to do it under those circumstances, but… You know, so that was my choice.
But I don’t know how to put this. It’s not what you do or what happens to come along your way. It really is just the mindset of adaptation. Like the struggles really aren’t what job do you have today. It’s more like, you know, how do you really think through what it means to start fresh and what do you want out of life, and what you don’t want out of life.
00:53:00 In some ways it gave you a chance to not be on autopilot about that, which I think a lot of people start to get. You know, I’m just on autopilot. This happens, and now I do this, now I do that, and now I do that. But, you know, you’re forced to say well, so much for that idea, now what?
I’m glad I went to law school older. I was 26, not 22. I think the maturity of where I was in life was better for me. I think it would be better for more students. When I teach kids in college classes or law school I say, you know, most of life is about adaptation, it’s not about knowledge or pre-planning. I mean, there’s no plan that survives the first contact with the enemy, we used to say in the Army. There’s no sports team whose game plan, the minute you get out there, doesn’t have to be radically adjusted. The talented people are the adjustors who see the cracks and say we have to shift, we have to make a change.
00:54:03 You watch a football team lose all day long, because at halftime they can’t figure out what to change. The greatest teams, you know, very quickly figure out this isn’t working, we’ve got to change it. And that takes some courage, it takes innovation, it takes situation awareness. And again, that takes me back to liberal arts. I think people who have a wider range of knowledge and experiences figure that stuff out faster.
Carmen: That’s an excellent philosophy, just a way of looking at things, and I would say being able to roll with the punches can get you a long way.
Michael: You know, most of the hottest jobs in America today didn’t exist five years ago. I mean, so when I talk to a student about, “oh, I should definitely go study this because that’s what’s…” I’m like really, how do you know? First of all, by the time you’re done in four years, I guarantee you the job market won’t be exactly the same.
00:54:56 So this sort of narrow approach to careerism, you know, on the margins has some virtue, but against an economy that dynamically convulses in the way that ours does, you know, it’s pretty crazy to try to tell somebody, oh, ten years from now these will be the jobs. My approach to that is instead of trying to tell you what the end of the play is, let me just teach you to be a good actor, and you’ll play in whatever the show is, right, or you’ll spell whatever the words are that are [necessary]. Be a learner and an adapter and someone with perseverance and let the rest take care of itself.
Carmen: That’s great. So before we wrap up I want to kind of bring this back to William & Mary, because you didn’t graduate and then just leave indefinitely, you got back involved. So what led you to get involved with William & Mary again, and what has that looked like for you? What different roles have you had?
Michael: Yeah, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know that I would have but for it sort of knocking on your door. I remember somewhere in the ‘90s somebody coming to my office talking about let’s get…you know, probably a development person. They’re often the people who find people who’ve been apart. And the suggestion was made, oh, we’d love to get you involved in something, and I said I’d be open to that, sounds kind of interesting. This is usually how it works at William & Mary.
And next thing I know they asked me to be on what was then called the Endowment Board, which today I think we call the Foundation Board, which I’m on again. And so I got a taste. And that was interesting. But the real moment came when it was Charter Day, and I have no idea why, but the college asked if I would be the Charter Day speaker, which meant a lot to me. I thought that was a special speech to give.
00:57:00 I worked on it really hard. It also happened—life’s a lot of coincidences, right? It also happened to be the first Charter Day after the governor’s election, and so William & Mary’s tradition is the governor always comes to Charter Day in February after he’s been elected or she’s been elected in November. And so Mark Warner was there, and I got to give my speech with the governor sitting here. And very quickly after that, that turned into the governor wants to put you on the Board of Visitors, which I did. So now I’m pretty deep into governance. And because William & Mary taught me about leadership, I tend to gravitate toward, you know, what can I do to help. Next thing you know you’re the secretary, and you’re vice rector, and then I got elected rector, which I was thrilled about and loved very deeply.
00:58:00 But it was that experience that taught me the other side of this school. The part that I experienced on the retail side as a consumer and the back office operations are sort of breathtakingly integrated in the sense that the values and the commitment and the passion on the back end matches that on the front end. And if I could explain to students how brilliantly well run that institution is for how little resources it has, it’s an amazing achievement, and one that many people have contributed to over a long period of time.
But I took a lot of pride in saying…you know, I think I went from being involved to saying you should be committed to being a steward, right? Like as long as you take breath, you know, this place is not going to fail. And I came to it at a younger age, being involved with the school that way, but caught that bug and never lost it.
00:59:02 And I think also when you get a little bit older—you know, I’m only in my young 50s—but you start to want to be a citizen of your community. You don’t just want to have your job, you want to feel like you’re involved in a philanthropy that matters, you’re involved with young people in a way that matters, that you, you know, you’re more interesting and more renaissance than that. And I think one of the best things that one would add to their Christmas tree of life is to be committed to one’s alma mater, assuming that it’s of value to you. So I can’t think of hardly anything better to be doing with extracurricular time than stewarding, you know, 300 plus years of historical significance.
00:59:52 And I also am a believer that everything is fragile and changing. I’m the Buddhist in that regard, right? There is no permanence. And the day we forget that it takes hard work, care, love and stewardship, William & Mary could die. Anything can die.
And I think at times in some of the communities there’s been a belief, oh, you know, it’s been there 300 years, it’s not going anywhere. No, it has at times been inches from falling into the sea. And it doesn’t look like that today. Probably not going to look like that in my lifetime. But stuff we do today, in 2080, in 3010 are going to be outgrowths of what we do today, so that’s real…that’s stewardship, so I want to be a steward.
Carmen: That’s actually quite inspiring to hear you talk about it like that. And I know it hasn’t been without difficultly, and what I see, many stewardship roles will have controversies and difficulties, and you experienced that a little bit during your time as rector, so if we can touch on that just a little bit, just how the experience was for you to experience the controversy that came out of Gene Nichol resigning from the school and the fallout from that.
Michael: Sure. No, I was not fortunate enough to have a ceremonial rectorship. It turned into being an intense full-time job. I probably, at the height of it, was spending 30, 40 hours a week on William & Mary, and it was intense, but really important. You know, I’m blessed to say that I was on both ends of that saga. I was on the board that hired Gene Nichol and I was on the board that lost faith in him.
And people tend to forget that. It was quite a journey for everyone involved, because it began… I’ll never forget the vote. And, you know, when you pick a president you do it in the ceremonial board room in Wren, and with candles, and, you know, you open the balcony, and you ring the bell, and it’s a moment of hope and optimism.
01:02:10 And, you know, he had our full faith and confidence and, you know. But one of the things we often talked about in making that choice was it felt high risk, high reward, like it’s not a traditional choice, but it could have a really high up side. It might not, but the school needs to be bolder and take greater risks. And we did.
And I actually think Gene is an incredibly fine person. As a human being I like him a lot. But we started having problems, I think, earlier than people realize. And they were not the problems that were visibly manifested, though certainly they…you know, he moved the cross off the Wren Chapel, which was highly controversial. That in and of itself wasn’t the issue.
01:03:00 The issue was sort of how and why that decision was made, what the process of that decision was, what the inclusion of other people who have a stake in the value tradeoffs that you’re making. This is a place of shared governance. This is a place with a lot of history, particularly, and alumni, and you’re certainly free to raise the prospect of making changes like that at the school, but it’s sort of like…but it’s not your school. It doesn’t belong to you alone with your values, it belongs to all of us. And it requires a better…
And that was a skirmish, really. That had nothing…that wasn’t going to lead to him leaving. But over the course of a couple of years and a lot of very hard work to fix the situation—we brought in outside people, and 360 degree reviews, and offered to have executives coaches.
01:04:06 That presidency is a very complex, very hard job, and somebody can be great and popular, and they just don’t want to do the harder, grungier things. That school couldn’t afford to have a period with no great fundraiser in the seat. It couldn’t afford to have somebody who had a lot of very admirable values, but wanted to almost be a student sometimes, going out to physically get into the controversy. I don’t know that I think that’s the role of a president. So it just really wasn’t working.
And it was a very, very hard, painful decision. I could also write volumes about all that went into trying to figure out what to do. But at the end of the day I remember—you talked about mentors—I had a great mentor.
01:05:01 Not a William & Mary mentor, but she was a mentor through another leadership program I was in at the Aspen Institute, Ann Korologos, who was the Secretary of Labor once. She’s probably one of my best mentors. And I remember calling her for advice, as well as Sandra Day O’Connor, who was the chancellor at the time, and others, and almost al of them said something that was a variant of the same thing, which is there are no indispensible people.
William & Mary has been there a long time. It’ll be there a long time after. But the institution has to be bigger than any one person. And if you can’t get him to accept that, or that, you know, that you have a problem, but more importantly, don’t be afraid to make the change, no matter how painful it will be in the short-term, because you have to believe the institution’s bigger than any one human being.
01:05:57 And I thought that was really powerful. And at the end of the day, in a very emotional board meeting, people, almost teary, went through this and they said we just don’t believe the long-term interests of the college are going to be served on this course and speed and we don’t think we can change it.
And I think probably the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my professional life is to show up at his house on a Sunday morning to tell him we were done. And I will hate that day forever. I don’t like firing people anyway, and I don’t like… And it was unfortunate, because there was so much promise in this choice. But it just wasn’t going to work anymore.
And then it turned into being, you know, kind of explosive and controversial. I will try to avoid being a critic about how the rollout was done, and how aspects of it were intended to be purposefully inflammatory. But we did it.
01:06:55 And maybe the second most difficult thing I’ve ever done is we called up and said, look, I will come down there and we’ll sit in chairs for all day long. So we set up a huge town hall in three segments: students, faculty and staff, and me and about seven board members agreed to sit there and answer every question till we’re done.
And I think I sat in that chair for nine and a half, ten hours. And we did the students for two hours, three hours, the faculty for two or three hours, and staff for two or three hours. And I think that was the day the healing started, because number one, in the tradition of William & Mary, we were explaining, we were transparent, we were letting people speak their piece, even people we didn’t agree with, and even people who didn’t agree with us.
01:07:54 And I think when a lot of people walked away, they said whether you agree with the choice or not, they made it thoughtfully and with some rigor. Frankly, it was the students who really first led the healing. I mean, the Flat Hat did brilliant editorial work around this and said… They surprised the campus and came out and said we’ve studied all this stuff and we actually think the board made the right decision, which people didn’t expect.
And then I got to lean back and see…I got to hire Taylor Reveley. That was the best professional decision I’ve ever made. I went to his house and I said you’re not going to want to see me, but we have a situation, and are you prepared to step in on short notice? And to his credit, he was very aggressive with me in saying are you guys sure you’re making the right decision, and I don’t know if I want to. I said think about it. He thought about it—[snaps fingers]—this long and he said my loyalty to the college, if you need me, I’ll be there. So he walked in with no notice, no prep. I think the rest is history.
01:08:55 I mean, the way the college has prospered in the interim makes me feel good in the sense that I don’t know if this is where we would have been if we hadn’t done that painful thing. So I’m hesitant to say I’m proud of the decision because those are painful moments you don’t ever want to take joy in, but I do believe, stronger than ever, we made the right decision, and I think we put William & Mary on a much better path.
And I also think the experience of Gene taught us to be bolder, like he was. I mean, he did leave his mark. I think he left his mark in people willing to strive for more greater…more envelope pushing. You know, whether it’s Matt Lambert and Taylor, whose For the Bold campaign, I don’t think we necessarily would have been that ambitious or that aggressive but for going through a period which tested our metal in that regard.
01:09:57 So I think everybody leaves their mark. I think he left his mark. I think certainly there were negative things, but there were positive things that we should be thankful to him for. But I don’t think he was going to have a successful tenure if he had stayed.
Carmen: Thank you for having the conversation with me. I know—
Michael: Yeah. Well, it’s oral history. We better get it all out.
Carmen: It is, we have to get the history. And it sounds like it was quite the roller coaster. But it also sounds like it didn’t necessarily push you away from your involvement.
Michael: The funny thing about your question is I think it… I needed a break, but it didn’t push me away because it deepened the love for the school. It deepened… You know, it would have been a lot easier, to be perfectly honest, that look, I’m just an alum, I don’t need to be in the middle of this mess. The school hired him, it’s not my…you know.
01:10:57 You could have painted over it very easily and just kind of gone along and let it… But I think it was the passion and love for the institution and its future that motivated everybody. So when you emerged from it, you almost emerged more affirmed and more committed.
And if it weren’t for the maturity and the grace of the campus’ evolving from it, that gave me…that’s when I said this place is, you know. It didn’t continue to linger as this hideously bitter thing. Yes, some people never were happy about the choice, but the school moved on in a very graceful way that just shows that this whole point that Ann, my mentor, was saying, was right. It’s bigger than any person.
Carmen: It sounds like…I don’t know, it’s just groups of people, for better or for worse, banded together during this point to make their voices heard, to come and sit down and ask questions of you and BOV members, and just talk through something that was highly controversial, and that looked like it could be a true hurdle for the college to get through. And from your description it sounds like this was handled in such a way that, you know, people were allowed to express…
Michael: Look, I’ll put it this way. You know, a few years ago UVA had their own version of this, and some of us watched with smirks on our face, humored by how badly it went at UVA versus how much better William & Mary got through the same thing. UVA tried to fire a college president, the board, it wasn’t well—I don’t know all the details, but the point was it exploded.
01:12:59 A lot of mistakes were made. Not the school’s finest hour. And I think the contrast is pretty amazing. The William & Mary community was exceptionally mature. And yeah, nobody wants to sit for nine hours, but the questions were rigorous, thoughtful, hard, relatively civilly presented. Every now and then less so, but to be expected. And people were persuadable.
I mean, I work in Washington and sometimes my frustration is sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter how good your argument is, it doesn’t matter how right your position is, there are times you just feel like you still can’t win. What we felt was the William & Mary community is still intellectually centered and capable of being persuaded, if you have the weight of the argument.
01:13:57 And it was very reaffirming to see that it, most people, it was persuadable. And I think most people who were involved then who now see it would say, ooh, this was right. We can see the… We were hoping this would be the case. It turns out it was the case.
Carmen: So clearly it has not prevented you from staying involved with the college because you still are. Would you just explain the ways in which you still are involved with the college?
Michael: In whatever—sitting here, in whatever way they ask me. My wife loves it, too. My military family, moved all over the place, has few things in common, but this is one of the anchors, given that all my sisters went here, too. My wife’s sister also went to William & Mary. It’s part of our anchor. So formally I’m on the Endowment board. I’m on the Washington regional fundraising committee structure.
01:15:02 But more importantly, I’m on the phone, on the other end of the phone. And it doesn’t take much for them to call and say we could use this or that, or would you speak here or meet this student. Yes, yes and more yes. So every summer the whole William & Mary summer program comes over here for a couple of hours and I get to talk and to dialogue with them.
And whenever I do that, at least five students will reach back out and say can I come over and talk. So three or four of them have been here already. And they ask all kinds of great questions, and I ask them great questions. And they say, well how should I do that, and I spend days sending them books, and podcasts, and contacts to try to get them going. So to me the happiest thing to be involved with is be involved with the students.
Carmen: I think I need to be on this list of getting the podcasts.
Michael: You should be on this list. Oh, yeah, I’m a podcast freak. I love podcasts.
Carmen: I think I read something somewhere, Malcolm Gladwell—
Michael: Revisionist History. It’s fantastic. I’ve done the whole thing. Because he’s my cousin, you know, supposedly.
Michael: Well, he claims to be. We haven’t figured this out. If you look at the back of—I don’t know which book, “Outliers,” maybe—he talks about how he’s Colin Powell’s Jamaican relative. My dad’s convinced it’s actually true, so there must be some… I’ve never met him, but…
Carmen: It sounds like it’s time for you to do a podcast together, maybe.
Michael: His podcast is brilliant. And you know there’s three in that series he does on higher ed that’s amazing.
Carmen: I don’t think I’ve gotten through all of them, but I certainly love—
Michael: They’re toward the end, like—
Carmen: Yeah, I haven’t done…
Michael: —the last three or four.
Carmen: But I will. I’m motivated to. And then I’ll get on that podcast list for the other podcasts you send out, and I’ll just have—
Michael: Lifelong learning.
Carmen: I’ll just be set. That’s right. So just a couple more and we will wrap it up here. Again, thank you for answering all these questions. So we’re about to kick off a celebration for 50 years of African Americans in residence at William & Mary, and I want to hear from you what you view as the value of diversity in general, and on a college campus.
Michael: It’s so important, but so hard to articulate, and I think there’s sort of so many kind of trite, mechanical explanations about the value and virtues of diversity. But in some ways it’s sort of co-terminus with the values of liberal arts, right? That, you know, you will have a deeper, richer intellectual experience and human and emotional experience if that experience, or that intellectual work, or that inner work is done through multiple lenses, right?
01:18:06 So academically we believe that knowing how to see the world through math has certain virtues, knowing how to see the world through literature has certain virtues, knowing how to see the world through religion has something to contribute to the historical dialogue that takes place across the ages, or we wouldn’t be teaching all of those things. And more importantly we wouldn’t, in our academic environment, require students to study all of those things, right?
We don’t let you self-select. Why? Because we believe you looking at the world through different lenses is what is the thing that makes you better. And just like sometimes people can’t articulate very well why liberal arts is still valuable, but it’s something like that. I think the same thing is true of human interaction. Knowing people of other experiences is just another way of having another lens on the world.
01:19:01 And the greatest quality of human beings is we have mirror neurons, right? I mean, if you start crying, I’ll get sad, right? If you smile, I’ll be happy, or if you yawn, I’m going to yawn. And so if you just know that basic fact, right, then sort of whose smiles are you reflecting, whose eyes do you get to see through, whose sadness might you digest?
If that’s a pretty narrow collection of people and experiences, then your training is narrower. You are not a worldly person. You’re not a person with multiple windows on the world, which is, to me, William & Mary’s promise to you, is we will send you out as that person. I don’t know how we can send you out as that person if we don’t also expose you to those people.
01:19:52 So there’s a very self-interested, utilitarian version of diversity which is you don’t want to live without it. You would be a lesser capable person if you haven’t experienced more. It’s not just moral, which it is, or philanthropic, which it can be. It’s not even all about “the other.” It’s about human capacity for betterment and growth and outlooks on the world.
And I think my life would be trivially less without having had that. You know, I’ve lived all over the country. Do I want to live in Clarksville, Kentucky again? Not particularly. But did I learn things in Clarksville, Kentucky that give me a window on people who do, and the country that I use today? Absolutely. There’s no experience that doesn’t leave an impact on you. So part of me thinks that’s one really important part of the story.
01:21:02 I think we don’t talk about this enough in America, or we talk about it in too radicalized terms at times, but I think this country is still trying to make good on a sin, a sin that’s darker and more bitter than most people want to look in the mirror and see. And I think slavery, you know, and I think Jim Crow and the civil rights era, and I think what we see today in lingering vestiges of a brutal treatment of other human beings based simply on an immutable characteristic, I still think that there’s an effort to redeem from that and to give more—this is more important for an institution of colonial heritage, right, do the Constitution’s words mean what they say or they don’t?
01:22:01 Are we really repudiating that African Americans are not full people? And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think…I think almost all the students at William & Mary would say yes to that question. But I also think they don’t know what yes means, right? Like yes, I believe in that conceptually. But we’re still learning how to believe in it in a way that you live and walk and talk, right, like that your behavior to other people, the way you interact, the opportunities you provide.
This is why diversity increasingly is being talked about as inclusion. So I could pour 20 more black kids in the school and say we are diverse, but the second half of that is, but are we inclusive? That is, are we able to harness the best of all these experiences into something…you know, and not just there’s a corner for them and a corner for you. And William & Mary is not like that, but some schools are.
01:23:01 So, you know, I think the original sin of the U.S. Constitution is it talks so glowingly about the rights of human beings and then it’s still trying to give life to those principles. So how can you be a true American and not believe in…? Diversity is integral to the constitutional faith and the American experiment. So all these people who pull out their Constitutions and talk about the country and America first, the greatest commitment of the American principle was a world of natural rights and human dignity, right? Even the whites of that day were chasing oppression, running from oppression and running from societal treatment, right?
01:23:55 So diversity, to me, is inherently American. And probably the hardest global experiment in the history of the world, a multicultural democracy, which is not easy. Democracies are easier if they’re tribal, like everybody’s the same, and they think the same. They’re much harder in our world.
So if we’re training leaders for America’s future, and America is experimenting with multicultural democracy under these principles of inviolate human rights, all of our students should be practicing that every single day when they go to eat lunch, when they go to class, when they get involved in experiments. If we really are preparing them for the 21st century, they have to have those experiences or their education is incomplete and their preparation for the real world is incomplete. So I don’t know, I could talk, ramble trying to figure it out.
01:24:55 I’ve always struggled with what the right definition of diversity is. I would say this. Too often the definitions to me are too shallow. I’m always looking for a more resonant explanation of why it’s important.
Carmen: That was great. Thank you. I love the way you described all of that. So on that note, is there anything I haven’t asked you, or I haven’t talked about, or we haven’t talked about that you would like to talk about on record, or ask me?
Michael: I don’t think so. You know, I would add, you know, you started off, another point about race, you said we’re about to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Celebrations are great, right? But 50 years is short. And I think, I hope when we do this we will be proud of our achievement, but we’ll be more cognizant of how incomplete it really is.
01:25:59 Even in the history of America 50 years is nothing. I mean, I’m 54 years old, so you’re telling me we’re celebrating, you know… You know, some of these periods are kind of short. I mean, even women. I mean, you know, even this country about to celebrate the 100th and the 19th amendment, I mean, part of what strikes me when I hear about these commemorations is it’s not really that long.
And I think as we’re learning right now, as the country seems convulsed over this stuff, a lot of people thought it was over. It was far from over. Far from over. And I think there’s a healthy part of the harangue going on in America right now because I think people are having to re-immerse themselves in their thinking and their philosophies and their beliefs, and I think the country is sort of going to have to rediscover and re-commit to what it believes in so something good can come from all of this.
Carmen: That actually made me want to bring up one more thing. I know I just said no more questions, but I just want—
Michael: That’s all right, because I don’t have one more thing.
Carmen: This idea that it has been a relatively short amount of time. We’re about to celebrate 50 years of African Americans in residence, celebrate 100 years of coeducation at the school, so a lot has changed in that period of time, but in the great scheme of time, a short period. So if we’re looking at the next 50 years or the next 100 years, what are your hopes for William & Mary?
Michael: I hope it wins the perennial argument of the value of liberal arts. I hope that no matter what the robots in the caf are like, or how much artificial intelligence has taken over the curriculum, that there are still books and there are still people who want to do patient and long, sustained, deep thinking and study.
01:28:08 I feel the world is getting shallower at a time when people need to be deeper, and I think we’re being kind of trained to be shallow. And I think there’s going to be a premium and a more desperate need for some institutions to sort of stand strongly, committedly against that tide, not in opposition, certainly as a complement, but, you know, but that still believes in the world is better off with people who know how to learn, are exposed to lots of great ideas, break open books, and spend uninterrupted periods of research and study in questions to improve upon the human knowledge record or the life of society.
01:29:09 My own belief is that technology will always be, to a degree, wondrous, but it’s also going to do a lot of damage. And philosophers, and sociologists, and economists, and religious scholars are going to have to remake sort of the post tech world, right?
And we see it now. Like, you know, what are the social norms evolving because of Twitter? What are, you know, what is the behavioral psychology around smartphone addiction? Will one day that be a…will your smartphone be a controlled substance? I just think the world is crazy exciting because I think the industrial age has sort of collapsed into a new era, and we all get to be at the beginning of it.
01:30:07 So that means the next generation of all these thinkers has got to figure this stuff out. But if they think they’re going to figure it out without reading what the other guys said 100 years ago, they’re making a big mistake, in my opinion.
Carmen: Well, great. On that note, I have nothing else. Do you have anything else?
Carmen: No? Well, thank you so much for sitting down and answering all my questions.
Michael: Thank you guys. You guys are the best.
01:30:34 [End of recording.]
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