Dr. Michael Lomax, a leader in politics, the arts, education, and civic engagement, visited Caltech as part of the Presidential Distinguished Speaker Series. A former professor, chair of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, president of the National Faculty and Dillard University, Lomax currently serves as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, the country's largest philanthropic organization focused on providing scholarships and other educational support to Black students. Dr. Lomax was appointed to the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities by President George W. Bush. He is a trustee of the Studio Museum in Harlem. He was a founding member of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and served on the board of America's Promise Alliance.
While at Caltech, Lomax met with students, faculty, and administrators, and shared the story of his extraordinary life and career.
Here, he reflects on his early life, his impressions of Caltech, and the opportunities he sees for the future of higher education.
When did your interest in the arts and politics begin?
My parents were very active democrats. They were both delegates to the 1952 and 1956 conventions. In '52 I started doing politics. I have a photograph from when Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver were running for president and vice president. Kefauver came to LA, and my parents had a reception for him. I sat on his lap, and he fed me ice cream. Every time Stevenson ran after that, I was on the convention floor with my brothers and sisters screaming for him.
The arts were certainly something I grew up around. My grandfather used to go to the auctions and buy paintings. On the visual arts side, he was really the force. My mother, as a journalist, was more involved with other writers. Langston Hughes subscribed to the paper. He wrote about Mother in the introduction to his book Simple Stakes of Claim. She interviewed and corresponded with Dr. W. E. B. Dubois. So, she had a pretty heady world she lived in. It was a very rich, interesting environment.
When I got older, the two sides of the ideal of the college I attended were, on the one hand, a kind of intellectual pursuit, embrace of the liberal arts, understanding and knowledge of the arts, and on the other hand social activism. I've tried to keep those two in creative balance.
Were you aware of Caltech as a child growing up in Los Angeles? How has your impression of the Institute changed as a result of your visit?
The California Institute of Technology was an institution whose name I knew. But, I never set foot on the Caltech campus until yesterday. This wasn't part of my personal experience. Then when I started reading about it, I was amazed. I didn't realize how small it is. I didn't realize how unusual the curriculum is. So, it has been a bit of an eye popper.
This is a different environment. Certainly, the research element is deeper. There's a robust humanities program here that I wasn't expecting, and faculty whose voices appear to be stronger today than ever, just because of the kinds of issues facing science and technology in America and the world, particularly around technology. The ethics of artificial intelligence, for example. We're now in a world where scientific discovery can create extraordinary positives and benefits for humanity but can also be very destructive. That intersection of new knowledge in science, on the one hand, and values and humanities, on the other—that has a lot more consequence in the 21st century than it would have had in the 20th century because the planet is now in such grave condition, and the decisions we make are so ominous.
How has your work with the United Negro College Fund and in higher education more broadly evolved? What opportunities and challenges are you focused on now?
Much of the last 30 years of my life I've spent trying to crisis manage and stabilize a community of institutions called Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Because I believe so deeply in that community, I've been focused on their sustainability. I've had a lot of success in recent years, and there's a lot more awareness and embracing of their role in higher education.
Now that it's not a matter of life and death of the institutions, and as I come to a transition in the role I want to play, the real question is what are HBCUs teaching and what are the students learning? As an elder stateman of the Black Academy, I'm asking the question, "To what end?"
So much of education today is about career outcomes, income, closing wealth gaps, closing education gaps, closing disparity gaps. I think that's really important. But it also glosses over what I think Black colleges have done with great power, and that is to provide a broader sense of what the educational mission of the institutions is. That is not just "What are you going to do to make a living?" but "How are you going to live your life?" Not just "Will I build wealth?" but "Do I have an enriched life? Am I an activist? Am I engaged in community?" I want to go back to some of those fundamental principles of the why, and I think there's hunger for that.
Systems fail when people lose their sense of the humanity in others. I believe in data, but if everything is a number and quantitative outcome, where is the humanity in that? When we don't see the other as a human being, the results are terrifying and horrible. I want to work on that.
What advice do you have for someone who is heavily ensconced in the "data side" of things and wants to be more informed in the liberal arts? Where do they start?
I talked to some of the faculty last night who teach in the humanities department, and I was very surprised by the way their approach to literature has been informed by their close proximity to scientific inquiry and by the many scientists they encounter here on campus. They meet at a gray point where they don't really know what the answer is. And the inquiry is to discover. That resonated for me as I think about the way that I would approach literature.
When you start reading a novel or a poem, at first the words don't make sense. You have to reread and re-examine and reconsider, and you have to probe to come to meaning. I suspect that would resonate for scientists. There's a lot of opportunity for cross fertilization and for each to be informed by the other.
On the issues of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, those are very challenging distinctions, and the outcomes of the decisions that we make regarding them are more consequential than ever. It isn't just a question of new knowledge. It's also something else that happens with time, and that is wisdom. And I don't know that there's a machine for wisdom.
What I've encountered here at Caltech is a certain amount of humility about what is truth and what causes what to happen. In a world outside of campus where people are so entrenched in their certainty about their point of view, I like this gray area and this kind of caution about proceeding a lot more than the "Bring it on!" or "Fight and destroy!" mentality.