By Ameera Steward
Miles College President George T. French Jr., PhD, is forever a teacher and a motivator.
“I absolutely love my students,” he said. “Any chance I get, I walk across the campus. Anytime I see someone with their head down, I will stop them and offer counseling, advice, encouragement. That’s what I enjoy doing. That’s what I’m going to really miss about Miles College—my students, more than anything.”
Last month, French announced that he is resigning from Miles to become the president of Clark Atlanta University (CAU), which has a student body of 3,485;
Miles has about 1,700 students. He has served as president of Miles College since March 2006 and will assume his new role on September 1.
Departing the Miles campus in Fairfield, Ala., French said, “was one of the hardest decisions of my life. Having a solid employment contract, having solid support of the board of trustees, it was very difficult for me to leave—but, [I’m] leaving on top. I’ve achieved every single goal I set out to achieve. It was just time.”
Miles is in much better shape than it was when he arrived, and he credits the partnerships among students, faculty, staff, the board of trustees, and his office.
“Relationships are so important to me,” he said. “And then to put the college on such sound financial footing with nearly $100 million in assets, … this is somewhere we’ve never been before, and to double the size of the endowment at almost quadruple the size of the campus.”
French has been known as a prodigious fundraiser. The key? Making friends, he said.
“Once you raise friends, you can raise funds,” he said. “People don’t give to institutions; people give to people, so the key is to develop relationships. … Do the prospect research early, find out where the money is, take … sufficient time and [don’t] rush to cultivate the relationship, make the ask, be accountable to the donor for the gift after you’ve received it, … and continue to build new relationships for new asks.”
Former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington and Miles College alum said CAU is getting “a proven leader.”
“I have mixed emotions [about French leaving],” Arrington recently told a gathering of Birmingham-area CAU alumni. “I think Birmingham and Miles College are losing a proven leader, but I hope and know [you] will hold up his arms and support him.
“[French] has done wonderful things at Miles College. Remember what leadership is about. … It takes a special person to really be a leader, and George French is really a leader. He has transformed Miles College. … Anybody can steer a ship, but to lead it in the right direction and do things, that takes a leader—and that’s what you all got in George French. You’re going to be proud that you have him as president.”
Once a Leader, Always a Leader
It’s not surprising that French would leave on top. After all, that’s something he learned from growing up in the same community as one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time—Muhammad Ali.
French, 57, was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., in the same neighborhood as Ali. One thing that stuck with French was hearing Ali always say he was going to quit boxing while he was on top.
“That was drilled into my head living in Louisville, which is why I’ve been fortunate to leave positions of leadership, such as Miles College, while on top,” French said. “I’d rather have people ask me to stay than ask me to leave.”
He also learned a valuable lesson from his father, who pulled French aside at 8 years old and said, “I need to be a lawyer, which I am,” French recalled his father telling him. “I want you to go to law school, I want you to go to Congress, and then I want you to be president of the United States.”
French said he allowed “some people who were racist to talk me out of thinking I could be president of the United States. What’s interesting is I’m the exact same age as President Barack Hussein Obama, … we’re both lawyers, we’re both from the Midwest, and we both did community work, but I let somebody talk me out of a dream. That has always … stayed with me.”
That would be the last time anyone would talk French out of his dreams.
“That’s why I tell my students, … ‘Make sure you don’t interact too much with dream killers,” he said.
French began his leadership training with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during his last year attending Trinity High School in Louisville, Ky., in 1979 and his freshman year at the University of Louisville, where he served as Kentucky president from 1979 until 1982. In addition, he also was on the National NAACP Board of Directors Youth Works Committee from 1981 until 1983.
“I always had a passion for Civil Rights,” he said. “Not being old enough to be part of the Civil Rights Movement, I just wanted to do my part. … I had the chance to work with Julian Bond, [who helped to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)], [as well as former NAACP Executive Director] Benjamin Hooks and some of the nation’s Civil Rights leaders at the time. It was an awesome opportunity.”
French learned about politics through his work with the NAACP, which gave him the opportunity to listen to the needs of people and “really understand how policy works. I had an opportunity to meet with several congressmen, U.S. senators,” he said.
French earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, with an emphasis on policy analysis, from the University of Louisville. He was accepted into the University of Richmond Law School in Richmond, Va., and completed two years of studies before being recruited to serve as director of development at Miles College. He completed his final year of law school at Miles Law School, earning a juris doctorate, and received a doctorate in higher education from Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.
What many may not now is that French is a martial artist: “I love to work out. I do Kung Fu, Wing Chun,” he said, adding that he works out four days a week.
He also loves to listen to jazz and travel to the beach “whenever I can.”
“I go a couple of times during the summer … [and] try to get there three to four times a year,” said French, who recently returned from a retreat in Key West, Fla.
Man of God
To know French is to know that he is a man of God who is “unapologetically Christian.”
“I’m a child of God,” he said. “I’m a man of great faith, … so I’ve been a pastor for several years. I’ve pastored about three churches, so I listen to the man on the inside. I listened to my father on the outside, but there is a man on the inside of me who solidified the things my father said to me.”
French served as pastor from 1989 until 2006 at three churches: Ebenezer Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in South Boston, Va.; St. John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Gadsden, Ala.; and Mount Carmel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Adamsville, Ala. He resigned as pastor because “I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t feeling like I was giving [the congregation] what they needed for proper spiritual nourishment. I was too busy, so I resigned,” he said.
Being a pastor is what led French to Miles College. He was pastoring at Ebenezer Christian in South Boston, Va., where he met then-Miles President Albert Sloan, who was looking for a fundraiser and grant writer. Sloan invited French to come the institution in 1996.
“After I was here for two years, I was his right hand,” said French, who moved to Birmingham in 1996.
“[Sloan] told me, ‘I’ve never seen anybody in 25 years that I wanted to succeed me as the president of Miles College, until I met you,’” said French, who earned his doctorate in higher education from Jackson State, “and the rest is history.”
“I was unanimously voted the 14th president of Miles College,” he said.
Protecting a Legacy
French began at Miles College in 1996 as director of community development, and six months later he became the director of Title Three, a financial-assistance program that helps historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) solve problems that threaten their ability to survive. He became vice president for development in 1997 and was named president in 2006, after the untimely passing of Sloan.
“I was happy to be president but not at the expense of … one of my best friends, my mentor, dying,” French said. “So, it wasn’t exciting. … There was a sense of foreboding in that this president selected me. He had a plan of succession and wanted me to succeed him as president, so there was a sense of fulfillment in knowing I would protect his legacy. That’s really important to me. … I walked into that office on the first day knowing I had to protect the legacy of my predecessor.”
French said he stuck with Miles because of its great board of trustees and supportive chairs, Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton and before her Bishop Lawrence Reddick. He also stayed because “any city that has a great HBCU has a great black middle class.”
“If you have a city that doesn’t have an HBCU, you usually don’t have a prosperous African American middle class,” said French. “For Birmingham to be what she is, we have to have a strong HBCU. That’s what I saw, so that’s why I wanted to build Miles—not just for Miles but for Birmingham. We cannot lose our students … to all the surrounding states. We need to have a product here, which is Miles College, which will bring people to our community. … I wanted to build Miles, but I also wanted to build Birmingham and [provide] an option for students looking for an education.”
The role of president has given French a sense of accomplishment: “To see the transformation, to lead the transformation [of a student], to actually engage in these student’s lives, to make a difference,” he said.
“Sometimes all you need to change a generation is one person in the family getting a good job. … Higher education is the great equalizer for prosperity, for generational wealth building, for changing families.”
One of the highlights for French as president of Miles came during his first graduating class, when he awarded a degree to his oldest daughter, who is now a medical doctor with a private practice in Birmingham.
His other children, he has two girls and a boy, have given him some familiarity with Atlanta. His son graduated from Morehouse College in 2019, and his youngest daughter is a senior at Spelman College.
“It’s perfect,” French said. “I will … preside over the college that looks directly at Spelman, where my daughter is. So, I have an opportunity to enjoy family there, and it’s a larger platform … and opportunity to touch more students.”
French plans to grow research efforts at CAU significantly “to [make it] one of the top five HBCUs in research in the nation, [as well as] continue to grow graduate school enrollment.
It is with “great pleasure” that French said he turns over the reins of the presidency to his friend Bobbie Knight, who will assume the role of interim president on September 1. Knight has served on the [Miles] board of trustees and is the former vice president of the Birmingham division of Alabama Power.
Asked what advice he would give to Knight, French said, “Love the students, love the structure, respect the academy, understand the importance of faculty members, respect faculty members, go in and just hold fast to the strategic plan that is in place until 2023. … Follow the road map.”
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.