I’m here today with Dr. Henry Ponder, an economist, a university president, an administrator, and just an all-around wise individual I’ve had the great pleasure to know, because his daughter is the godparent to my children. Henry, before we begin to talk, I want to remember in 2016, when you came to the conference that INET ran in Detroit, Michigan, on race inequality and the future of our society. You were sitting in the audience, and I remember seeing a young, very vibrant, now the leader of the Kirwan Institute, Darrick Hamilton, up on stage. He looked over, and he saw you, and he said, “Oh, my God, I just have to say hello to Henry Ponder.” I just remember his reverence for seeing you there. Obviously, I was very proud that you were there, as well.
Thank you for joining me today in this very difficult time, with this pandemic, and with, I hope, in this next hour, the opportunity to explore a long vision from your life, which is moving strong, walking the dog in the morning, and you’ve gone beyond 90 years. I think there’s a lot that you can impart. First of all, thank you for being here.
Nice to be here, Rob.
You were a young man. You grew up in Oklahoma, and you had a bachelor’s degree from Langston University, and then served a little bit, I guess a couple of years or so, in the Army in the Korean War, spent some time in Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and then did a master’s at Oklahoma State, agricultural economics; a PhD at Ohio State University. By the way, I won’t hold that against you, because my father was an All-American swimmer at University of Michigan.
We’ll get over that. What do they say, on the one side, “Oh, how I hate Ohio State,” and on the other side, “The only good wolverine is a dead wolverine.” Tell me about the economics that you studied, agricultural economics, and you’d come back, like I mentioned, from the war. What was the focus of your studies, and what was the nature of your curiosities that led you in the direction of economics?
Well, that came about almost by accident. I give credit to my battalion commander when I was serving in the Army. He and I had a few conversations when we were not doing our Army work. He was a West Point graduate, and he asked me what I was going to major in when I went to graduate school. I told him I hadn’t decided yet, and he said, “Well, you ought to think about economics.”
I thought about that and said, “You know, that’s a good idea.” I decided I was going to tie that in with the agricultural experience I already had, and then get the academic part in economics that I needed. It worked out very well for me. I thank him. I can’t remember his name, but I sure thank him for making that suggestion for me, so the Army wasn’t all bad for me, either.
I got out of the Army in the last of November, and I enrolled at Oklahoma State University the first of January of ‘96, and had the people to look at my transcript from college. They thought it was pretty good, and they enrolled me in my courses. I took the agricultural courses that were there. Oklahoma, at that time, was a wheat-growing state. I think that was its major crop at that time. That has changed over time.
My master’s thesis was on grain elevators. I was talking about how they operated, and how they preserved the wheat for later on in time. That turned out to be very well. Then when I went to Ohio State, just to show you in the few years between ‘58 and ‘61, things had changed so that when I got to Ohio State, I picked up the topic of how a supermarket should rotate its checkout counters, so that they wouldn’t have long lines as people are going out. I spent a lot of time going through that, and eventually ended up telling the supermarket chains the best time that, in Columbus, Ohio, that they ought to have a full staff of people to keep people from in line. This was really about the beginning of the big supermarket chains getting started, and I think that helped out very much so.
That just gives you an idea of where agriculture changed from just the few, four, years that I was involved with it. The marketing system… We talked about how we would get the things from… the milk was a problem in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and how they had to get it to the markets all over the country. That was a part of it. We even had a lot of talk about how we ought to rotate our crops, to make sure that we would continue to educate the people, not only in this country, but that the farmers were making a good living while they were doing it. Then, after that, I got into administration, for some reason, and kind of drifted away from that, but kept up by reading about it as I went along. I think that’s a thumbnail sketch of how I got all of that, put all of that together, and ended up where I ended up.
After leaving Ohio State, what was your first stop as an administrator or economics faculty member?
My first stop was at Virginia State College, which is now Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. I went there as the chair of the department of agribusiness. Agribusiness was a big thing at that time, and I spent my time there. I did a lot of research, not writing, but in research and speaking on part-time farming and social security. During those times, many of the farmers in Virginia were not taking advantage of the private entrepreneurship of farming and doing the social security, so that they would have some retirement before they came on. I did a lot of talking, through the community.
I had many town meetings with local farmers to tell them that they ought to be sure and pay, so that they could get that 10 quarters in, so that they would have that for retirement. I think that helped quite a bit, but also, the part-time farming was something that most of the African-American farmers in Virginia… Most of them were part-time, because they only had a few acres of land that they had saved, in terms of the family, over time. All of the big plantations, most of the African-Americans did not have any of the big acreage, so it was part-time. I did talk about the fact that part-time farming was a way of life for African-Americans, and without that, they would’ve been much poorer than they were otherwise.
Then, later on, the American Farm Economics Association asked me to do a research paper on the African-American farmers in the country. I did an article that later appeared in the American Farm Economic Journal on the status of African-American farmers in this country. I traced it from back, just after slavery, until the present time. That was about 1968, I believe. They had lost tremendous amounts of acreages over that time, and it was my prediction that if they didn’t get some kind of support from the federal government and the state governments, that they would eventually lose all of their land, because especially in the South, where they owned most of the land, the segregation issues kept them from being able to get the loans that the government had to help farmers make it through.
I was happy to see that, later on, the federal government, U.S. Department of Agriculture, decided they needed to do something about helping those farmers out later on. That’s how all of that worked together. I did that last piece after I left Fort Valley and went to Alabama A&M. That was my first try at trying to write a research paper.
While I was at Fort Valley, which was in between Virginia State and Alabama A&M, because of the segregation issues, and… That was just a way of life when I was growing up. Segregation was in the South, and you had to learn to live with it, or you wouldn’t do very well, so you just learned to live with it. You didn’t accept it, but you learned to live with it. I wrote a paper on the economics of segregation, and what segregation was costing the various ministers in the little town of Fort Valley, where Fort Valley State College was located, just because they would not let black Americans come in and treat them the way they should’ve treated them. I think that got published, and I think that helped some in the eventual desegregation of what happened in Fort Valley, Georgia.
I guess, over time, I used my combination of agriculture and economics to try to make life for the individuals that I had to deal with more favorable in the environment that they had to put up with. That’s sort of a thumbnail sketch of how I combined the economics and agriculture along the way.
Well, I am fascinated by, which you might recall, how, unlike some theoretical economists, you were inspired by the context in which you lived at the time, and some of the very painful things that you were coping with, as an African-American individual, or studying African-American communities. There’s a lot of concern now, with the onset of this challenge. I draw the analogy to being like an alien from outer space, this pandemic. All societies and all peoples are being threatened by this. From what I’ve read, there continues to be an inequality of what you might call access to health care, or quality of nutrition, health, and other things that underpin, that make people of color, and poor people, more vulnerable.
There’s, how would I say… This is a very different world than the world you grew up in. I think you were probably a young boy at the time of the Great Depression, and that window from the Depression to the start of World War II, I’m sure, etched a lot of impressions into your mind. Do, what you might call, echoes of that time come back into your focus now, as you’re watching society grapple-
With something that’s like war preparation?
Yes, sir. It really does. I think that just looking at it, we had to live through a lot of this. You mentioned the educational, the medical profession, and the kinds of problems that African-Americans suffered through that. I just want to just point up here this also. When I got to Alabama A&M, because of that problem, I did a lot of speaking and research on the disparities in medical care. I talked, I was invited out to several places to give talks on that, when people found out I was doing a little research on it.
The main thing that I think would surprise most people on that, and it might still be true… I don’t know that, because I haven’t done anything with it, but at that time, and this was in the, I guess, if I had to put a time on it, it would be somewhere in the ’70s and ’80s somewhere. I discovered that an African-American with the same income, the same job, and the same healthcare policy, health policy, with a Caucasian, going to the doctor with let’s just say diabetes, the doctor would not make the same diagnosis and tell him what he should get versus what he told the white person.
For example, we discovered that more black people were not told that if they didn’t do certain things, they might lose a leg because of diabetes. They had the same insurance that the white person had, that got all of that information and technology. I discovered that it wasn’t that people were just discriminating. It was just that they unconsciously did things, because they had different ideas about how tough the one group was versus the other group, and how one could stand for more than the other.
That was tough. I remember all during my youth days, and I must say that I never had the real problems in segregation that most African-Americans had. I never had that, because the doctors, even though we had separate waiting rooms, I think they treated my family very well, during those times. I think it was because they understood that we paid the same money that others paid. For some reason, I think that was the way that went.
During those days, I think about the infantile paralysis scare that was going on during that time. Keep in mind that Jonas Salk invented the vaccine for infantile paralysis, I think, in 1956. All of the years before that, when a person had infantile paralysis, they took medication. If it got worse, the cure was to put them in an iron lung, which was very expensive, and we did not have the same medical insurances that we have now. The poor people did not have access to these things, and it was difficult for them to make it.
Somehow, they just accepted that, but when a person had infantile paralysis in a community, all of the people were afraid to go around that family, because we didn’t know what caused that. Now today, with this pandemic, we know what causes it. We know what we can do to avoid it, and all of that. When I was growing up, we did not know what we could do to avoid the diseases that were spreading around. When people got them, the tendency was just to almost not quarantine them in terms of locking them up. That isn’t what I’m saying, but the people quarantined themselves away from them.
They didn’t have the same kind of support from the community that others had. That, to me, is one of the main things that we have improved on, in terms of our medical technology and all of that. Now we know that if we stay 10 feet apart, that germ will fall before it gets to us, and it’s not carried in the air. It hits on something, and we have to touch that in order to get it. If we wear gloves and dispose of the gloves when we get home, we will not carry the germ inside of the house.
Now, imagine a person with infantile paralysis, when I was a youngster. We didn’t know what caused it. Some people just got ill, and some communities had what we have now. They had a number of cases, and people said, “Hey, there’s something in that community, so let’s stay out of that community.” We didn’t know how it affected us, so we just stayed away from everybody that did it. Now, we can have conversations, as long as we stay 10 feet apart. This is the kind of thing that I think I have lived to see, and certainly I’m proud that we have arrived in that way.
I think that, because of that, we’re going to get through this pandemic. It’ll take a while, because we have to get up to speed on all the things that we need to do, but the citizens of this country, and of the world, are now doing the things individually that they can do to avoid it. That’s what’s going to cause us to get out of this pandemic earlier than we would have, had this pandemic hit us in 1936. We would’ve been in trouble, serious trouble.
In the course of conversations that you and I have had over time, I’ve became aware that, in addition to an economist and university administrator, you have been extremely devoted to what I’ll call broader social purpose. I recall that you were the President of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. You’ve shared with me that you knew many Presidents of the United States, I believe Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and probably more. One of the things I’ve found most striking, and I’ll bring that back to the edge of the pandemic, is that you were acquainted with and had spent time with both Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, people who went to those stressful crisis-prone parts of life and world, obviously in their own regions, being South Africa and India. What did they impart to your spirit, from knowing these people, from knowing people like Presidents of the United States, who have a responsibility that is vast on their shoulders? What advice would you ask their, how would I say, the ghosts of those experienced to impart to our leaders today?
Let me start with Mother Teresa. We had a meeting with her, our group, and this small in stature young lady walked down the stairwell and out into the lobby of the building where college presidents and their spouses were. She said, “Let’s have prayer.” We had prayer.
Now, let me tell you what was striking about that. We had been in India for six or seven days. We had had ministers, some of our presidents were also ministers, and not one had said, “Let’s have prayer.” That struck me about the quality of this lady. Then, in her talking, she talked about how we have to learn to help the people who need help most. That was, in essence, the theme of what she talked to us about. We need to be able and want to help the people that need it the most. That’s what I got from her. You don’t need… I didn’t need to try to convince other presidents of something. I needed to try to convince a number of students that they ought to do right and do better than they could before. I had to try to get farmers to do better. That’s what I got from that one.
Nelson Mandela… We went there, again, a group of college presidents and their spouses. We went to his office, and his aide met us and talked to us. We said, “We’d like to see Nelson Mandela,” and he said, “Well, Nelson Mandela has a full schedule for today, and he just will not have time to see you.” We said, “Well, just go up and tell him that we’re here, and we’d like to see him.” He said, “Well, I will, but I tell you, you can’t see him.”
He went up and told him. He asked, “Well, who is it that wants to see me?” The aide said, “A group of African-American college presidents are downstairs.” He said, “I have to see them.” He came down and spent over two hours talking to us. Now, what did I get from that? It’s that you just never, never should be too busy to talk to someone that can help you put forth the message that you’re trying to put forth to the people you’re trying to put it forth with. That’s what Mandela did. I have then said, “I’ll never be too busy to talk to someone, the least of these.” Tie that in with what Mother Teresa said, and he said. That’s what I got from them is never to outgrow your need to talk to people who you need to talk to.
Now, I met a number of college presidents that you mentioned. I want you to know that I’ve met the republican presidents and the democratic presidents. The one thing that I have gotten from just our conversations with them, most of them tried to answer and give us relief from what we were talking about, so let me say that. I wouldn’t try to put one over the other, in terms of that. They all listened, and they all responded very well to what we were doing. The thing that I got from those meetings were that, in this country, we are all Americans. We are not republicans. We are not democrats. We are not black. We are not white. We are not Chinese. We are not Hispanic. We are Americans. As such, we ought to do all we can for each other.
Now, that’s why I think that most of our presidents are… That’s why I think most of our citizens want to meet our presidents. Yes, they are human beings just like the rest of us, but they do, when they get in that office, there’s something that says, “I represent more than myself. I represent a country. We like to think that it is the greatest country in existence, so we have to act that way.” Those presidents exuded that kind of confidence and personality when I talked with them.
I think that what it says is that our leaders have to be able to never lose that common touch. I think that, so far, we’ve had presidents who have not been able to lose that, and that has been good for this country. That’s what I got from that, Rob.
In this extreme crisis, this pandemic, I would, how would I say, distill that people who are thought and spiritual leaders should, how would I say, continue to reach out and mobilize what you might call our courage, our curiosity to, what you might say, pull the cart together with them, and that these presidents, who you met with, if they are to serve as an example for our current president and cabinet, it’s to maintain that, what you might call, what do I call… unifying vision of what it means to be an American. When that is brought to access to medical care, the nature of these various bail-outs and who gets supported and the way in which people are treated when they are admitted to the hospital, all these different dimensions, those types of what you might call visions that all of these people imparted to you are very, very strong and noble.
They are confronted with tremendous fear with the pandemic outbreak, which makes people not easily find their best self. I sense that it’s the role of leaders to help everyone find their best self in these dreadfully frightening and challenging times.
There’s no question about that. I think that when we listen to the newscasts every day, that when they are talking, I think that they are trying to present that to the public. They’re giving information which is needed, and they’re giving it in such a way that it does not turn the citizenry off. That’s why I think that the citizenry has decided they’re going to do the things to stop this.
Now, I know there are some protests about let’s get back into it. That’s the American spirit. Now, let me say that our leaders are taking the leadership, saying, “Well, it’s going to be a coordinated effort.” That’s leadership coming to us. Individually, all of us want to be able to do what we want to do. That’s what democracy and freedom is all about, but now we can’t do that, and some people are more excited about it than others.
I think that by what the leaders are doing, I think the protests to get this country moving earlier than we should, I think that when they decide that we’re not going to open it up until a certain day in the future, I think the general public is going to react very favorably to that, and go along with it, because of the leadership that they’re putting forth. That is so important for this pandemic, over in terms of other things.
For example, if you’re afraid of something… That’s what we were in the polio pandemic. We were afraid of polio, because we didn’t know anything about it. Now the leaders have told us everything they know about it, and we know what we can do, so instead of being afraid, we are just concerned that we want to be sure and do what we should do, and not do what we should not do. That’s the good leadership that we’re getting now.
The sense that I have is that one of the responses to this pandemic is what they call social distancing. I don’t like that term, by the way.
I think it’s physical distancing with social connection being fortified through new technology. I think we all need our family and friends to stay in communication now and invigorate one another. What I’m really curious about is you sat for roughly 25 years at the top of universities, as president of a variety of universities. This response is changing the nature of education. You can see things slowly coming along.
I went to MIT, and they put the electrical engineering undergraduate curriculum online. People set up certification in places like Southern India, where people took the undergraduate degree in electrical engineering remotely, because all the materials were made available. I sense, now, that the structure of the university, the structure of undergraduate education, maybe even K-12 education are in… accelerating in the rate of change, and the nature of what will be faculty, what will be administrators, whether the whole world will use the same, say, Economics 101 course, or whether people will build mosaics, electronically, of bits and pieces of all kinds of different readings and videos.
I don’t know. I haven’t been at the masthead of a university. I’m curious how you see this challenge inspiring change and transformation in that realm.
Well, the change is coming for sure, and you sort of described it, the way it’s going to be. I don’t think any of us know exactly what it’s going to be. The technology is going to be the thing that drives how we do it. I think that we’re going to have a lot more online courses, and I think that textbooks have been very important to get us where we are, and everyone buying textbooks, and the prices of textbooks sky-high and so forth. I think, in the future, we won’t have textbooks. We’re going to have technology schemes of some kind that you just simply plug in, and it is all there.
I think this is going to reduce that price. It’s going to make it easier for youngsters to sit at home, and learn the same thing that they have been learning, sitting in a classroom. Now, the thing about that is that there’s something to be said about sitting in a classroom with your fellow students, and the camaraderie that you get there, and the mixture that you get, that helps with that education, but the knowledge… You can get that knowledge sitting at home on your television. I think that’s… I mean, on your computer. I think that’s where we’re going.
Now, what this means is that our teachers now must become more technologically oriented. I’m not sure. I think this pandemic caught some of our teachers by surprise, and they were not ready to put their courses online for students to learn. Now everybody, even the high schools and elementary schools are doing this. That says that we’re going to move into this, in a big way, once all of this is over. There’ll be problems with that, that I think we have to think about solving.
I think that the other thing is that, keep in mind that technology does not come without a cost, and when you say that you’re going to reduce the resources, because you reduced the personnel, does not necessarily follow, because the technology… Not only does it have to be improved and kept up, but the maintenance of it is something. You’re going to have people who will know exactly what to do. These people are now going to be highly paid people, so that… Right now, the IT people are not the top paid people in our university systems. I predict that, in the future, they will be in the top-paid echelon of the administrators and that, and they will be in the top of the staff, paid on the staff roll.
I think that one thing that I really believe is going to happen is that tenure is on the way out. I think that a number of things already has exacerbated that, to some extent: the reduction in resources, meaning finance coming from states for the school systems, or in the money from corporations and foundations drying up. I think that you can get adjunct professors at a cheaper price than you can get a tenured professor. I think that’s going to move along that way.
I think another thing that’s going to happen is we are going to have to justify, in higher education, every course offering that we have. Now, by justify, you have to look at the end results. How much is it contributing to what this university stands for? What is it doing for… Are the students benefiting? Do they get a job because of this? Do they get some personality development from this? You’re going to have to find a way to justify the courses that you have.
In terms of departments, there will not be as many departments in higher education in the future as we have now. There will be combining of departments. I’m not at the point… I haven’t taken the time to figure out which departments would best fit together and all of that, but I think that will reduce some administrative… I didn’t say that, but the administrative faculty now are the highest paid in the university, and I think that we have to find a way to move down some of that administrative cost. That’s where the combining of departments is going to be. Where you’ve had ten before, you only have five now. That cuts out five department heads. That gives money that you can put into other things. I think that we have to start looking at that.
I think another thing that’s going to happen in higher education… It will no longer be a four-year degree program. I think universities must reduce the degree time by at least one year. I think we will be getting master’s degrees in three years, rather than the four years that it now takes. All of this is a part of what I think this pandemic is simply making sure that we know that we have to move differently from what we have done because of this, and we’re going to start doing this.
In essence, Rob, that’s the way I see it going. There are probably other things that I haven’t talked about, but certainly, I think these things are definitely going to happen there. The adjunct… Oh, a tenured professor, for example, has to have an office, has to have a telephone, sometimes a secretary. Now, all of these things is why an adjunct professor can move in, teach the… Three adjunct professors can come in. Well, let me take that off. One adjunct professor can move in and teach the load that a tenured professor has, because he usually doesn’t have more than two courses, and an adjunct professor could easily take two. His salary is much less than that tenured professor is drawing.
All of these things are going to work on this. Oh, and I didn’t mention, we also have to continue using administrators, because the president’s job, now, is no longer just running the university. When I was growing up, in college, the president spent most of his time on the campus. He ran almost everything, not ugly. I’m not using that term, but he knew what each department should be doing and was doing, and he was there to see that they did it.
Now, since the funds have been drying up, coming from the state governments, state legislators, and he has to go out now, or she has to go out, and make sure that he is known in the corporate and foundation world, so that he can get the resources necessary to make up for what the states took away from him. Though he is not spending more than three days on the campus today, the major professors, I’m sure of that, because they have to make sure that they are out there.
Now the president is the PR of the institution. Everyone wants to know what the president thinks about what is going on at that institution. These things are doing to force a number of more online courses, more adjunct professors, and an elimination of tenure. That’s three things that I think are coming.
Oh, I didn’t mention, because of this, we have not had the number of students that we once had to make up any shortfalls we might be having in our budgets. The students will not be there. That’s going to happen. That means that we will not need to continue to improve the campus with dormitory buildings. There will be fewer dormitory buildings on campuses, as we move into forward. Oh, and another thing that I just thought of, a college town… In some of these cities where the major universities are, the town has taken the college’s name. It is more… The town and the gown works very closely together. In the future, with fewer students, fewer faculty, the town will not be as flourishing as it has been, so that’s going to be a change that takes place. I just wish I could be around to see all of this happen.
Well, I think you’ve shed insights into many different dimensions, and how would I say, that’s quite… You’re almost qualifying as a science fiction writer.
I knew it.
Let me talk a little bit. There’s always, how would I say, good and evil present inside of everything. What I found a little haunting, as I was listening to you, is that, at least in an ideal sense, the notion of tenure was created to give an academic freedom and insulation from human and social pressure, so that their work could come from their heart, and be a genuinely expertise that was a genuine public good, not a coerced or narrower agenda, or not having to abide by silences and taboos for fear of offending power. In this scramble for money, and in this loss of tenure, for technological and cost reasons, are we sacrificing some dimensions of academic freedom? Is that one of the casualties of this transformation?
I think that that is going to be the casualty, either real or imagined. Let me put it this way. I think that that’s going to be what the faculty will think, that our freedom of expression is being taken away and so forth. Chances are that is true because, after all, the president still has the right to decide who works there and who doesn’t, but I’m going to put it on the other end. This really, probably, puts me into the fantasy world, really. It truly probably does, but I think now boards are going to have to be more open, in terms of what boards are supposed to do, and that is, a board is supposed to make sure that the university operates the way they think that university should operate.
Now let’s… We can talk about, that’s an academic. We all know what that is. Now, when boards start doing that, and not trying to manage the institution in any way, boards are going to have to get out of the management of the institution in any way, in terms of personnel and what goes on there. Now with that, I think boards now must become more concerned about the character and the quality of the person they bring in to be the president.
They have to bring in someone who will understand that the people who work at this institution are not working for me. They are working with me. They have to get a president who fully understands the difference between a person working for him or her, or working with him or her. Now, that’s the fantasy part of what I’m talking about. How do you interview a person and know that? Because I say all the time, and when I was there, I would say this, and that is, I would say to faculty members, “When I see a picket line outside, I wouldn’t feel too good if you were in it.” That’s a hard thing, because you can’t separate the person from the job. It’s going to be tough, but I think that tenure has to go, primarily because of the reduction in funds and the way the university is now moving. That’s my opinion.
Well, I must say today, Henry, I’ve been down because your daughter, as I mentioned, is the godparent to my children. I’ve been down, and I’ve watched you, after your 90th birthday, walking your dog, Pearl, on the beach in the mornings. I’ve seen the vitality of your mind at our conference in 2016, and in conversations we’ve had, but it’s a real treat to be with you today, and how would I say? I will share this podcast with the entire world, but I wish I could put a ribbon on it for your wife and daughters.
You are a vital, vital 92-year-old man, that I just marvel every time I see you, but how would I say, a marvel again today. You have so much insight, so much curiosity, and so much enthusiasm for life, and you’ve seen a whole lot of things, some of which were very ugly. I think you’re a model for the kind of spirit that a social scientist and a citizen should aspire to be. Thank you for joining me.
Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed it very much, Rob. The best to you.
We’ll come back, how would I say, in a few months time, as the pandemic moves on, and we’ll take a look at it from a different vantage point.
Maybe we’ll go walk our dogs together.
Okay, very good. I like that. You’re welcome anytime. Bye now.
Thank you. Bye-bye.