Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, the nation’s second-largest philanthropy, spoke with candor and passion about diversity, inequality and privilege and its impact on society at an Oct. 3 event at Rice. “The question of inequality … is one of the great challenges of our time,” Walker said at the event, which was part of the President’s Lecture Series and the yearlong celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice.
Born in Louisiana and raised by a single mother in low-income, rural communities in Texas (Ames and later Goose Creek, an oil town east of Houston), Walker expanded upon his personal experiences and thoughts in a conversation moderated by Rice President David Leebron and Blessing Falade, a Baker College junior majoring in kinesiology and health sciences and president of the Rice African Student Association. Falade is a participant in Rice’s growing QuestBridge National College Match Program, which serves high-achieving, low-income students by providing financial aid packages.
“The Ford Foundation calls on us to invoke the better part of ourselves, to put our common good above our own personal gain and to, finally, put our words into action,” said Akilah Mance ‘05, president of the Association of Rice University Black Alumni (ARUBA), who introduced Walker. “Darren Walker’s presence here today is such a fitting way to conclude our efforts this weekend as we now turn from celebrating the 50th to building a 50th legacy. Our focuses shift toward institutional changes and the 50th endowment to put our money behind our vision.”
As a child, Walker was a member of the federal Head Start program’s inaugural class in 1965, before attending Goose Creek public schools. At the University of Texas at Austin, Pell Grants and scholarships helped finance his college and law school education. Both Walker and Leebron at different times worked at the same international law firm in New York City, Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton.
“(Inequality is) particularly challenging in the United States,” Walker told the audience assembled for the noon discussion in Baker Hall’s Doré Commons. “At the Ford Foundation, we have a global perspective on inequality. The challenges of inequality that we see in India or China, or Thailand or Brazil, or the United States, there are similarities and trends that we spot wherever we are in the world today. But … in the United States, it’s particularly challenging because inequality is, in many ways, antithetical to our ideals of the democracy we want to have. We have a narrative in the United States that we are a meritocracy and that social mobility really defines our nation and our aspirations. And what inequality does is … it invalidates that aspiration. Because inequality makes social mobility, which is really at the core of the American narrative, the American dream, extremely difficult to actualize and to realize.”
Walker, who became the foundation’s 10th president in 2013, said inequality “relates to this ephemeral thing called hope,” and that it spurs hopelessness. “I actually believe the greatest threat to our civilization is hopelessness,” he said. “When people feel hopeless, they are much less willing to engage and they are certainly, in a political context, willing to embrace radical ideology and willing to take risk because they see no alternatives.”
Universities have a critical role to play in addressing inequality, Walker said. “Universities are critical in a democracy like the United States,” he said. “Elite institutions like Rice have a particular opportunity to address inequality or to affirm the inequality that we are seeing. I think your example of the expansion of a program to ensure that more bright promising young students like Blessing come to Rice is an indication of your willingness to take on inequality. One of the great challenges of elite higher education in America is that it can certainly be interpreted by some that elite higher education is actually reaffirming, is solidifying and concretizing the larger inequality. Because elite institutions like Rice and the students who come here are highly privileged in a larger economy because they have this credential of a Rice University degree. And that gives them currency in a marketplace that is very stratified and sorts people accordingly by a certain status and certain markers of success.
“The more people who come from backgrounds like Blessing … who have an opportunity to have credentials and use those credentials in the marketplace, the more likely it is that we will be able to address inequality. So institutions like Rice play a great role.”
In 1965 and 1966, the first black undergraduate students were admitted to Rice University. It marked the beginning of five decades of diversity progression. For more information about 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice, go to http://alumni.rice.edu/events/50-years-of-black-undergraduate-life.
Each year, the President’s Lecture Series brings to the Rice campus a variety of stimulating speakers on a range of topics. Rice offers the President’s Lecture Series as a means of enhancing the intellectual life not only of the Rice community, but of the university’s neighbors throughout Houston. For more information, visit http://professor.rice.edu/professor/president-lecture-series.aspx.