The littlest people in Dr. Charles W. Richardson’s Marketing Principles class at the business school of Clark
Atlanta University sat on the floor in the back, quietly sipping from juice boxes and playing with sticker books. Occasionally, they bicker over who gets to hold the Barbie doll.
They are the toddler sons and daughters of the students in Dr. Richardson’s class, many of whom attend school at night while holding daytime jobs, several of them single parents with no one at home to care for the children.
Dr. Richardson, who could have accepted a professor’s position in many other college settings, was most comfortable in this one. For decades, even before becoming a professor, he was deeply engaged in working with and at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). When he decided to leave a successful corporate career to become a business professor, there was no doubt that it would be at an HBCU.
Professor Richardson also taught many students of traditional age when on faculty at Clark Atlanta, and then the generational roles switched. With these students, it is their parents he gets to meet. This typically happened each spring at graduation, when many of his students introduced their parents to him after the ceremony with words that are almost identical:
“Mom, Dad, this is the professor I’ve been telling you about.”
“I am,” declares Dr. Richardson, “the road less traveled.”
Dr. Richardson, who attended the first PhD Project conference in 1994, devotes several hours weekly to meet individually with students—even those who aren’t enrolled in his class—who need support and guidance with academics and the transition to a career. He meets informally with 50 students a week and becomes so involved with their lives that he gets to know many of their parents. Challenges to succeed academically, family problems, help in planning a career: the professor takes on all these issues in addition to his teaching and research.
This is exactly what Dr. Richardson envisioned when he left business to pursue a PhD in marketing. As a corporate executive working long hours, he heard the calling to influence the next generation. When an opportunity to teach arose—first at an ethnically diverse community college serving nontraditional students in a New York City outer borough, then in similar settings in New Jersey—he grabbed it. Leaving his day job feeling exhausted and drained, he would emerge invigorated and energized from the algebra class he taught from 6:00 to 10:00 P.M. “Mental note to self,” he thought: “This is what you will do next.”
In corporate life, he also participated actively in a nationwide program to provide business students at historically black colleges with successful role models. In that program, which was supported by his employer AT&T, he visited at least one historically black college a semester for 17 years. Eventually, AT&T loaned him out to the program, and he ran it full time.
By now he had visited more than 75 of the 100 or so HBCU campuses in the U.S. Consistently, he was inspired by the opportunities awaiting the students at these colleges if they could overcome the daunting challenges they faced.
Upon deciding that his next career turn would be to become a professor, he knew it would be at a historically black institution. It is not the dominant career path choice for most new professors, even those of African-American background, for a wide variety of personal and professional reasons. But it is where Charles Richardson expected to encounter the students whose lives he wanted to impact.
Three quarters of the students he encounters are first generation college attendees. They come with stories: “I’m finding more and more that students on the surface seem to be healthy, productive individuals—and the back story is anything but,” he says.
“Every day I’ve got students, sitting in the front row smiling and engaged—great students. Unless you get to know them a little bit, you’ll never hear the back story. When you do, there is more to it than meets the eye. The specifics vary, but they are facing significant challenges from various aspects of their personal lives—family circumstances, financial hardship, learning disabilities and more. I can see someone sleeping in class, and I know it’s not because he was hanging out at the clubs—it’s because he had to sleep in his car last night. These kinds of backgrounds challenge them in their quest to matriculate. I feel an obligation to be of service to them by sharing my insights and perspectives.”
From where does this sense of obligation spring? “I was not exactly a 4.0 student myself,” Dr. Richardson explains. “Actually, I was a bit of a knucklehead. So now, at HBCUs, where most of the faculty are not African-American, I can stand up and say, ‘I haven’t always been who I am today.’ They can see what their teacher has done, and it creates a greater sense of belief that they can do it, too.”
On the day he was interviewed for this profile, Dr. Richardson was preoccupied by the tangled tale of an undergraduate, her disabled mother, an unscrupulous housemate and an unsympathetic landlord. It was the messy drama of real life, far from the purview of a professor’s job description. But the situation was disrupting the student’s studies, so Dr. Richardson stepped forward to listen and offer help.
“I’m not doing this for the money,” says Dr. Richardson. “I’m doing it to pass it along to the next generation. I’m going to do research. I’m going to get published. But I don’t want my career to be judged solely on the basis of how many journals I’m in.”
Dr. Richardson, now the Dean of the School of Business at Misericordia University, was one of three PhD Project professors named to prestigious American Council on Education (ACE) fellowships for 2014. The ACE Fellows program prepares promising faculty for senior leadership roles in academia.
Excerpts From Dr. Richardson’s Personal Journal of Office Hours: One Typical Day, May 2013:
*Undergraduate junior: Needs job (related issues include possible eviction)—general encouragement, with more long- term support and guidance.
*Undergraduate senior: Failed Finance—advice on summer school and general encouragement on situation and future prospects.
*MBA student: On probation, 2nd semester grades sufficient to restore good standing, but disappointed in individual grade; also making change in major—general encouragement with career advice for new major area.
*Undergraduate senior: Going into Peace Corps—general advice on life/career post-Peace Corps service.
*Undergraduate junior: Failed Statistics—advice on summer school and senior year course selection with tutoring commitment for Statistics in fall.
*Undergraduate junior: General advising on course selection and Study Abroad participation.
*MBA student on probation: Better performance 2nd semester but insufficient to attain good standing—advice on appeal process and other options.
*MBA student: Course advising for summer school.
Dr. Richardson notes that he is consistently impressed by the “tenacity and ability to overcome” his mentees consistently display. “What I provide,” he says, “is a platform to recognize those traits and minimize the impact of their challenges.”