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December 2000

Muriel A. Howard -
Working for a Better Community

by John BINDER

“Today a college president must draw on the energy and wisdom that comes from the broad range of expertise and experience of those around her,” said Muriel A. Howard in her inaugural address as the seventh president of Buffalo State College. “I intend, therefore, always to lead from the middle, sharing and collaborating.”

Muriel Howard had already been a leader in education for more than twenty years when she arrived at Buffalo State in 1996. She was the first woman vice president at the University at Buffalo, where she had served in a variety of leadership positions.

From the very beginning, her presidency at Buffalo State seemed to herald a new era.

“I see Buffalo State building momentum now,” says Howard. “In addition to our historical areas of strength in education and art, we are becoming increasingly prominent in a number of fields. We have just bolstered support for our flagship program in art conservation, and you can expect to see us become more aggressive in hospitality management as well. The Statler Foundation is supporting some excellent programs in hospitality. Up until now, three programs that grew from our former Home Economics program have been grouped together as ‘Nutrition, Hospitality, & Fashion.’ Now there will be three separate departments, supporting a variety of professional programs in these areas. It is an important commitment, and continues some vital Buffalo State legacies. Sometimes people don’t see the connections,” says Howard, “but there is great order and consistency to the evolution of this institution. This also applies to our legacy of community service.”

Howard’s presidency has been punctuated by major community partnerships, including the use of the official college President’s house as a Jr. League Show House, a partnership with the United Way in which Howard served as the chair of the annual United Way campaign for all of Erie County, and this year’s Herd About Buffalo art installation, which was a partnership between Buffalo State and Roswell Park Cancer Institute to benefit the hospital and the college’s Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

The hallmark of Howard’s career has been her ability to make connections. In conversation, she speaks comfortably about issues ranging from Buffalo State’s academic programs to the State budget, to regionalism. She sees the issues as interconnected.

She also makes comfortable transitions between her professional and personal life. It becomes clear that she sees a continuum, logical progressions between the stages of her life and from one level of her career to the next.

Born Muriel Atkinson in rural North Carolina, she spent her early years living on the family farm in the town of Wilson. Living on the family farm, young Muriel, the second of six children and the oldest girl, grew up in the middle of a nurturing extended family. These experiences turned out to be the perfect preparation for a future college president.

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Muriel as a little girl on her grandparents’ North Carolina farm.

“My grandparents had nine children, so there were always many relatives around,” she recalls. “And living on a farm, even as a child, I had a lot of responsibilities. During the summers when I was out of school, I was expected to work! I think that is where I formed my attitude toward work and my sense of social responsibility.

“Until age five, I clearly remember being at home with my grandmother. When my older brother started the first grade, my mother returned to continue her own education. So they would go off in the morning and my grandmother and I would get busy! She would have me do everything she did - which is how you keep a child out of trouble on a farm.”

Working side by side with her grandmother, Muriel Atkinson learned some very important life lessons. She also modeled valuable managerial skills, and a strong work ethic.

“All during that time, my grandmother was also overseeing the day to day operations of the farm. She was managing and ordering things. She dealt with the vendors and the visitors who came by.

“My grandmother was very concerned for our upbringing. She saw to it that we got lots of positive reinforcement and lots of early responsibility. Her own grandparents had been slaves, but her grandchildren went to college.”

Howard sees her own upbringing as an example of today’s movement toward opportunities for students to learn through inquiry and active participation, rather than passive transmission of knowledge.

“My parents and grandparents taught by example, and they talked to us a great deal about our responsibilities, and about ethics. These were valuable lessons. Remember, this was during Jim Crow times. One of the experiences I remember was that if we shopped in a store, they would not give African Americans paper bags. Of course, after my grandmother went over there and spoke her mind, I never had a problem bringing my purchases home in a paper bag.

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Frank and Mavis Atkinson, Muriel’s parents.

“She was very well known as an upstanding citizen and as a strong and outspoken person. She did not believe in inequities, and she would not tolerate inequities for her grandchildren.

“Education was also a tremendous priority. I sat in the first row of the class, and the vanilla wafers and punch were right by MY desk! And of course, we were the Bynum children. My mother and all of my aunts had gone to that school. We were a well-respected family.”

In addition to the impact of her family, Howard was greatly influenced by the historical moment in which she grew up.

“We went to segregated schools, which was not a problem, because it was a time when there were segregated schools that were well-developed and had good teachers and good supplies and materials. The child of any African American - a lawyer, a farmer, a minister - would go to that school, so there was a healthy social mix.

“Many African Americans were going north because of what they saw as better wages and better quality of work. Working on a farm is very hard. They had educated their children to move beyond this kind of labor. My father went to New York, and lived there for a year without us. Then we joined him there. Once in Queens I still had a lot of responsibility, but now it was more to help my older brother take care of our younger siblings, because there were six of us, and now there was no adult at home. My brother and I took turns.

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In New York City, from left, Muriel, her sister Daisy and cousin Maime.

Standing from left, Muriel’s brothers Rodger and Fajri, mother Mavis, brothers William and Isaac; seated, Muriel’s sister Daisy and Muriel.

“Even though we lived in a good neighborhood in Queens, my mother bussed me out to an even better school. Even now I don’t know how she pulled this off. By then, my father was working for the postal service, so he was making pretty good money, and she was working too. All of us were bussed and all over. I had to walk four blocks and take two busses to get to high school! Education and success were emphasized more than ever, and none of us ever dared to say we didn’t have any homework, because that had to be impossible.”

From high school, Howard went on to Richmond College CUNY for a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and a minor in education.

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Muriel Atkinson, high school graduation picture.

“It was a great time to be in college. Society was reinventing itself, and students were playing a major role in current events. I did very well as an undergrad. I was on the dean’s list. My advisor told me I should go to graduate school, but I did not listen at first. We were all looking forward to going to work. Two guys from my class and I were recruited to work at the same place, and we were paid $10,000 a year, which I thought was fantastic in 1971! Then after a year my two male colleagues received raises in salary and I did not. The boss explained to me that the men needed more money than I, because they had to pay when they took girls on dates.”

Matter of factly, Howard demonstrates her grandmother’s, “Don’t whine about it, but don’t tolerate injustice” philosophy. “I quit, and applied to graduate school. I found that job experience to be most instructive!”

And so, Muriel Atkinson applied for and received a teaching fellowship to Buffalo to attend UB. She thrived at the university.

“It was a wonderful experience and a first rate department. My professors at UB were very dedicated, and they were quick to treat serious students like colleagues.”

The Atkinson family was so pleased with UB that Mrs. Atkinson, once again, decided to transport her children toward educational opportunities - Muriel’s youngest brother Fajri was also sent to UB. Fajri still lives in Buffalo where he and his wife, Lavonne, are raising their three children. Coincidentally, Fajri has worked in admissions at Buffalo State for many years. He also coaches the championship Turner Carroll High School basketball team.

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From left, Bushir, Fajri (Muriel’s brother), Naila, Lavonne and Tariq Ansari.

Her many opportunities for mentorship at UB helped Howard further model her leadership skills. She began a series of famous firsts. Among these, she became the first woman to serve as a vice president in the history of the institution. Indeed, she changed jobs six times during a ten-year period, each time moving up in the institutional hierarchy.

Ultimately, when the State University of New York board of trustees needed an interim president at Buffalo State College, they called upon her.

“I was reluctant at first,” recalls Howard. “I was very familiar with the duties of a college president, and did not see myself assuming that role at that point in my career. Furthermore, I was very, very happy at UB and did not think I had completed the work I had to do there.”

Nonetheless, the SUNY Chancellor persisted. Moreover, once Howard arrived on campus, she discovered that the Buffalo State community holds values and attitudes toward higher education and service to students that are similar to her own. It was a good match. She was urged to become a candidate for the permanent presidency of the institution. Soon she was the first woman to serve as president of Buffalo State.

“I found Buffalo State to be a remarkably strong institution academically, with a wonderful family-like sense of community, and an impressive faculty. There was conflict at that time,” concedes Howard, “but, in general, there was, and is, a shared sense of purpose, and an affirmative attitude toward the college.”

Howard’s four-year tenure at Buffalo State has been characterized by efforts to reveal and to enrich the existing strengths of the institution.

“The excellence of our programs in education is generally well-known,” says Howard. “But we are often underestimated in other areas. When we hit the papers for strength in Great Lakes Studies, or boat-building, or criminal justice, forensic chemistry, art conservation, hospitality, fashion technology, or any of dozens of other fields, many people are often surprised. People don’t realize that our research foundation is the largest of any SUNY four-year college, and even larger than one of the SUNY centers’. Our Center for the Development of Human Services is the largest agency of its kind in New York State! We have a large communication program, and have many outstanding alumni in broadcasting.”

Howard thinks for a moment and adds, “Believe it or not, even in education, many people don’t really know us. Were you aware that our elementary education program is the largest in New York State, and that our art education program is the largest in the United States? Our exceptional education program is nationally renowned. Building on our famous programs in education, we’re going forward with a new Center for Rural and Urban Education, and a new technology center. When we developed our ‘Take another look at Buffalo State’ slogan, we meant it!

“We work, whenever possible, to link our academic programs and initiatives to our City of Buffalo location. We have great aspirations for our program in Great Lakes studies, and for the development of our waterfront campus.

“We’ve always been very strong in the arts. We’re now looking at the construction of a new Burchfield-Penney Art Center facility. This will enhance the gallery’s exhibition spaces, will expand its ability to interact with our academic programs, and will also help us develop cooperative programs with the Psychiatric Center.”

Among the new developments in the president’s life since she arrived at Buffalo State is one that is very personal. She assumed her presidency as Muriel A. Moore, but after she met Albert Howard, she soon became Muriel A. Howard. It was a second marriage for both.

“My husband and I have compatibility, shared values and interests. At this point in my life, it also important that we are both willing to allow each other space. Whatever we’re doing, we do it together.”

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The Howards at home.
Standing, from left, Mickey, Muriel, Etana.
Seated, from left, Carmelle, Yahshah (on lap), Kezia, Chelenie, Yahshiyah and Chayah.

Albert Howard is well-suited, by temperament and professional background, to be the husband of a college president. He brings his own set of experiences to the relationship, having worked in politics and community relations for many years. In addition, he brings to the marriage five children and a dozen grandchildren, including a new set of twins.

And so, Muriel A. Howard finds her life very much in order. With a great deal of support both at home and on the job, it seems there is nothing she cannot accomplish.

John Binder is a freelance writer.


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