Since coming to Tuskegeee University in 1981 Benjamin Payton he has fostered innovation and academic excellence, playing a key role in helping the University become the outstanding institution of higher learning that it is today. Payton came to then Tuskeegee Institute during its 100th anniversary succeeding Luther Foster, who had served as president for 28 years.
Payton became only the fifth president in Tuskeegee's 129 year history, and his path to the presidency was an unlikely one. He program officer of higher education at the Ford Foundation in New York, NY, and after the search committee had already gone through over 300 applicants and couldn't find anyone they felt was the right fit to continue the the legacy of Booker T. Washinton and his three successors, they approached Payton.
After some cajoling by his mentor Benjamin Mays, Payton agreed to be considered. "He told me, 'You know, it won't hurt to have them review your resume,'" Payton, 77, recalled. "He also said 'It won't hurt you and it, won't hurt them.'"
When Payton arrived in Tuskegee in 1981, he knew a big job lay ahead in many areas, but he also was aware that the challenges confronting him paled in comparison with what Booker T. Washington faced when the school opened in 1881
From Institute to University
Replacing "Institute" with "University" was one of Payton's early moves. When an aide returned to campus from a student recruiting trip and told him about problems encountered at the college fair, he knew something had to be done.
"He said students would walk by the table he was at, take one look at the 'Tuskegee Institute' sign and keep walking," Payton said. "Some would stop long enough to say they wanted to go to a university, not a community college."
In 1982, a year after he assumed office, Payton learned first-hand what his recruiter had told him.
He was accompanying then-Vice President George Bush as an educational adviser to Africa and extended to West Germany, Bermuda and Cape Verde islands.
In an interview with Jet magazine, Payton said he found that those he talked to didn't know what kind of school Tuskegee was and often asked Bush why he picked someone from a "community college" as one of his key advisers.
Bush got so tired of hearing those comments that he eventually introduced Payton as president of "Tuskegee University." That quickly got the attention of those who might have dismissed Payton as someone from a small school without nationally known credentials.
It took a few years, but Payton's recommendation to his board of trustees eventually bore fruit and, in 1985, Tuskegee Institute became Tuskegee University.
It would be the beginning of many major changes and improvements on campus.
Much-needed face lifts came quickly, thanks to generous donations and grants. Deteriorating buildings were torn down and replaced with modern dormitories and classroom structures while beautification projects turned the eyes of visitors accustomed to more drab surroundings.
Once his feet were firmly on the ground and he had the solid backing of trustees, Payton launched one project after another and Tuskegee University's star rose higher and higher.
He saw to it that the school, with an enrollment of about 3,000 students, never had problems with accreditation. He restructured TU's academic programs into five colleges, initiated the school's first doctoral programs and led the way for development of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Capital campaigns that at times lagged behind optimistic goals soared past them under his leadership with more than $200 million raised. Two of his proudest accomplishments involved establishment of an aerospace science and engineering program and development of a national center for bioethics research and health care.
The bioethics facility, which is housed in a former hospital, came as a commitment from then-President Clinton, who issued a national apology for a controversial study of syphilis-infected men from Tuskegee and Macon County.
"It was a monstrous thing to do," Payton said. "People call it the 'Tuskegee Experiment,' but, it wasn't Tuskegee that did it, it was the United States Public Health Service and it went on for 40 years. The apology was long overdue."
Payton said the result of the study, the apology and the aftermath was a national policy that no experimentation could be done with human beings without that person's consent.
His drive to support doctoral programs has attracted the best and brightest students in the country. They focus on materials science and engineering as well as integrated biosciences.
Those two academic disciplines might be a bit over the heads of people without a clear understanding of basic math, but for Tuskegee University, it put the school on a level with the top schools in America.
"It was clear to me that if Tuskegee University was going to come into its own, it must reach for the stars and seek to be the best in sculpting out new areas of instruction," he said. "It was important to pick areas where we were already strong and engineering was one of them."
Asked if he ever thought he'd spend as much time as he has at Tuskegee University, he broke into a big smile.
"I didn't think of it in terms of time," he said, in a rich baritone voice cultivated through years of public speaking and, as a young man, occasional theatrical work. "I've always been mission-driven, hoping I could make significant contributions in the position that I occupied."
It's also his belief that it doesn't matter how long anyone stays at a job, "it's how effective you are in what you're doing."
"Actually, there was just so much to do that I forgot about the time," he said. "My years here have been driven by a sense of strategic moves in forwarding the development of this university."
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