“When I left school at the end of my first year, I owed the institution sixteen dollars that I had not been able to work it out. It was my greatest ambition during the summer to save money enough with which to pay this debt. I felt that this was a debt of honour, and that I could hardly bring myself to the point of even trying to enter school again till it was paid. I economized in every way that I could think of-did my own washing, and went without necessary garments-but still I found my summer vacation ending and I did not have the sixteen dollars”– Booker T. Washington _Up from Slavery_ (1901)
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
One not only finds lessons in Mr. Washington’s management of a university, his stewardship and cultivation of transformative gifts and donations, his passion as an educator or his affectionate love for his wife and children, one also learns from his life as a student. And here is one lesson that students can learn from the founding principal and president of Tuskegee Institute (University): “It was my greatest ambition during the summer to save money enough with which to pay this debt. I felt that this was a debt of honour, and that I could hardly bring myself to the point of even trying to enter school again till it was paid” To be sure, the price of a university education-particularly an education received from an university as eminent as Tuskegee-is costly. Yet, it is equally costly to have no such education. All the same, Mr. Washington knew what all graduates of post-baccalaureate and graduate institutions either know or comes quickly to know: Education costs and paying for your education is a responsibility for all who desires one. We learn the following from his own experiences at Hampton Institute. First, “I owed the institution sixteen dollars that I had not been able to work it out.” Much like a creditor, an institution is not always able to “work it out” for students. When it does so largely though discounting the tuition bill it does so to its own detriment and opens itself to other criticisms from many of the same students as to why the institution is often unable to provide other services. Second, “It was my greatest ambition during the summer to save money enough with which to pay this debt.” He knew that a tuition bill would be there when he returned to school in fall. In spite of his obvious poverty as a formerly enslaved person, he did not expect that he would be able to “work it out”. Rather, he worked and “saved”. Whether an internship, summer research program or any other noteworthy summer endeavor, each student should bear in mind that fall is coming and any unpaid tuition bill will await them. Third, “I felt that this was a debt of honour, and that I could hardly bring myself to the point of even trying to enter school again till it was paid.” Honor is nothing but integrity. Hear again: “Integrity is the greatest 9-Letter word.” Mr. Washington would not allow his words to be inconsistent with his works for he had received an education at the expense of the institution that paid the salaries of the professors who educated him. This was a transaction. He received the education and in turn he owed the institution its money so that it might continue to pay his professors to educate others. Last, he “economized in every way that I could think of.” The founding principal and president did not frivolously spend his summer monies knowing full well he owed on his tuition bill. Rather he “economized.” He counted the cost and did his best to make it right. In the end, Mr. Washington did secure sufficient monies. He did not give up. He was resourceful, and he went on to not only graduate from Hampton Institute but to go on to lead from 1881 to 1915 what remains one of the finest institutions in the nation-Tuskegee University-“the pride of the swift growing south.’
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.