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Ben Vinson III Believes In The Howard Way

Recently named Howard University’s 18th president, Vinson has promised his authentic self in the role. As he completes his first 100 days, we contemplate his journey to The Mecca — and his ambitious vision for its future.

by Larry J. Sanders
Photography by Cheriss May (BA ’94)
President Ben Vinson III with first-year students

It is just past 9:00 on a brisk Monday November morning: not quite frigid but certainly wintry enough for an unwelcome chill in one’s bones, especially to start the week. Yet Howard University’s new president Ben Vinson III is all smiles as he exits the elevator onto the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building’s fourth-floor suite.

Vinson’s agenda is already chock full with meetings and appearances, opening with members of his presidential cabinet, then colleagues from the broader D.C. community, and lastly various stakeholders across Howard’s main and west campuses. But first, he stops to check in with one of his student employees, Jolie Fuller, on how her Spanish studies are progressing.

“Let me see what you’re working on!” Vinson exclaims, ambling behind her workstation to review her highlighted notes.

Before heading into his office, Vinson – an eminent Latin American scholar – playfully offers to quiz Fuller before her upcoming exams. Fuller, a third-year political science major and Spanish minor, notes how Vinson’s sunny disposition has quickly charmed her and her fellow undergraduates. “Our first encounter at [opening] convocation, he immediately exuded tremendous positivity and relatability,” Fuller recalls.

Between his kindness and visibility, Fuller deems Vinson an early hit among the student body. “It is always funny to go on social media and see the student body take selfies and pictures with the president,” she laughs. “Students are eager to see all the incredible work that President Vinson will do throughout his tenure.”

Murphy Jones, also a third-year political science major, likewise sees Vinson’s vibrant personality already galvanizing the Bison community, despite his newness to the space. Jones, the vice president of the Howard University Student Association, was admittedly anxious about how Vinson would acclimate to the institution.

“I was concerned about him never working at an HBCU before,” she divulges. “Our institutions face unique challenges, and I was nervous how he would change our distinct culture.”

An early semester interaction at Rankin Chapel provided Jones the opportunity to make a personal assessment of Vinson, and Jones left impressed. “His charismatic spirit and witty jokes provided a breath of fresh air for Howard University,” she recounts. “President Vinson has embraced Howard’s culture and been eager to learn all that it entails.”

President Vinson with executive chauffeur Marvin Fennell

CATCHING A RIDE. President Vinson greets driver Marvin Fennell as he climbs into his car for his morning schedule.

President Vinson chatting with his student employee Jolie Fuller

GOOD MORNING MR. PRESIDENT. President Vinson chats with his student employee, Jolie Fuller.

President Vinson with vice president of development and alumni relations David Bennett

MEETINGS, GREETINGS. Wrapping up a meeting with David Bennett, senior vice president of development and alumni relations.

Ben's Backstory

A true global citizen, Vinson was born in South Dakota but has resided abroad in Italy (he spoke his childhood neighbors’ names with an impeccable Italiano flourish during opening convocation), Mexico, and Venezuela; and domestically in New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and now for a third time, the District of Columbia. His travels sparked a deep passion for diaspora, prompting Vinson to dedicate his scholarship to the mass exodus of Africans with an explicit focus on Latin America. He would subsequently earn a bachelor’s degree in history and classical studies from Dartmouth College in 1992, and two masters and a doctorate in Latin American history from Columbia University in 1998.

Ironically, Vinson says growing up he never considered academia a viable career path. He began his Dartmouth studies eyeing the legal field, but an unexpected introduction to the prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program – named after the founding dean of the Howard University School of Religion Benjamin Mays – widened the aperture to his possibilities. Because Mellon Mays encourages its fellows to pursue PhD programs and professorial careers, Vinson consequently began to realize that he could maintain a career in history.

Around this time, he also started to learn Spanish and received valued mentorship from his professor, Raúl Bueno Chavéz. Vinson confesses that he was “hooked” on Afro-Latin American culture after completing a research project in Venezuela, enchanted by the country’s people and cultural history. Vinson also cites experiencing an annual fete in honor of Saint John the Baptist as instrumental in cementing his concentration. “The festival preserves elements of African tradition melded with Catholic rites,” Vinson says. “The drums and the dances made me want to explore more deeply the roots of Afro-Latin American culture.”

Vinson arrives at Howard after five years as provost and executive vice president at Case Western Reserve University, where his accomplishments include administering the university’s “Think Big” strategic plan, increasing underrepresented minority first-year students from 17% in 2018 to 25% in 2022, and operating as co-principal investigator of the Mellon Foundation-funded Humanities in Leadership Learning Series program designed to promote leadership development and diversity in the humanities. Additionally, his seventh book, “Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico,” earned 2019’s Howard F. Cline Book Prize in Mexican History.

“That Ben was selected to lead Howard University did not come as a surprise to us,” says Case Western Reserve president Eric W. Kaler, PhD. “He is a strategic and collaborative leader, an accomplished scholar, and he is deeply committed to success for all students. He has the balance of courage and compassion to lead with confidence.”

Before Case Western Reserve, Vinson held appointments at George Washington University as dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences; and Johns Hopkins University as director of the International Studies Program, vice dean for centers, interdisciplinary studies, and graduate education, and founding director of the Center for Africana Studies. He has also been faculty at Barnard College and Pennsylvania State University.

He understands the key challenges and opportunities facing American higher education in general and HBCUs in particular.”

In 2005, Vinson wed renowned biochemist Yolanda M. Fortenberry, PhD; they are the proud parents of three teenagers: Allyson, Ben IV, and Brandon. The University’s new First Lady remains an associate professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University, where she recently earned an award for her research on therapies for sickle cell disease. “Howard University is an incredible institution with an amazing history,” Fortenberry says. “Having our family share in this legacy is tremendous.”

Fortenberry says she and the children are ecstatic for Vinson. “I know that he has been working hard throughout his career to take on a moment and role like this,” Fortenberry says of her husband. “That work ethic, and his devoted passion for education, will be of great value to Howard.”

The family recently added a sixth member: their labradoodle, Sully. “I had been resisting for years to get a dog,” Vinson chuckles, conceding that the family’s insistence over the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately swayed his decision. Now proficient in soccer, lacrosse, and football, Sully has unquestionably been a joy to their household – and specifically to Vinson. “I’m a complete dog guy now,” Vinson says, smiling at the trove of Sully photos on his phone. “We wound up with the nicest dog you could imagine.”

Off-the-clock, Vinson’s hobbies include connecting with family, attending sporting events, and reading. Two of his current literary suggestions are the works of a fellow Howard neophyte. “I just read ‘Rogue Justice’ and ‘When Justice Sleeps’ by Stacey Abrams, and they were outstanding,” Vinson effuses of the recent novels by the University’s inaugural Ronald W. Walters Endowed Chair for Race and Black Politics. “Those books I highly recommend.”

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, PhD, has known Vinson for over 23 years, dating back to Vinson’s tenure at Barnard, where Zeleza was interviewing at the time. Their abiding relationship influenced Zeleza’s decision to join Vinson’s cabinet as the University’s senior advisor for strategic initiatives. Zeleza knows Vinson beyond academia, and believes his interpersonal strengths have been instrumental to his success.

“He’s one of the most dedicated parents I know. As busy as his schedule was as provost, he never missed his children’s school games and events and asked for their opinions on various matters,” Zeleza says. “He brought the same level of attentiveness, dedication, care, and respect to students, staff, faculty, and fellow administrators at Case Western Reserve.”

Zeleza has witnessed Vinson’s personal and professional growth firsthand, and he believes these experiences have rendered Vinson the ideal president for Howard University.

“He understands the key challenges and opportunities facing American higher education in general and HBCUs in particular,” Zeleza says of Vinson. “I’ll single out research, which I believe will be greatly enhanced with him at the helm. He’s himself a top-notch researcher and scholar, and Howard already has excellent faculty and researchers. So, all is aligned for the research enterprise to thrive under his focused leadership.”

Vinson appreciates the myriad ways his past positions have prepared him for Howard’s presidency. “It’s a deep appreciation for faculty culture, for elevating student excellence, and for understanding the dynamics of administration,” says Vinson. “I’ve picked up various lessons at each institution.”

President Vinson alone at his desk

SOLITUDE. President Vinson spends a quiet moment at his desk before starting his day.

President Vinson with Bunche Center director Tonjia Hope and staff

MAKING NEW ACQUAINTANCES. President Vinson visits with Tonjia Hope and her staff at the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center.

President Vinson with Mayor Muriel Bowser at HBCU Public Service Apprenticeship Program press conference

MORNING WITH THE MAYOR. President Vinson laughs with Mayor Muriel Bowser during the launch of her HBCU Public Service Program at the University of District of Columbia.

Welcome to The Mecca

Vinson’s involvement in Howard’s presidential search began around December 2022. He admits he became instantly intrigued once contacted by the search committee.

“From the outside, the mission of the University – and the combination of that mission and the moment – really resonated with me,” Vinson says. “Despite being very comfortable where I was, I took a chance and engaged in the search process.”

Laurence C. Morse, PhD (BA ’73), Howard University Board of Trustees chairman and presidential search committee member, attests that the cohort swiftly warmed to Vinson. “Dr. Vinson became a candidate of serious interest after his very first interview with the search committee,” Morse says.

“In addition to his sterling credentials as a scholar and administrator, his personal warmth, deft people skills, and sparkling intellect were quite evident,” adds Morse, “and his thoughtful, clear, and direct responses to questions from committee members cemented our interest in wanting to engage further.”

“From our earliest interaction, Dr. Vinson struck me as affable and serious at once,” says Dana A. Williams (MA ’95, PhD ’98), fellow presidential search committee member and dean of the Howard University Graduate School. “I appreciated his administrative experience and the way it translated to vision for the academic enterprise.”

Williams, a Grambling State and Howard alumna, acknowledges some curiosity around Vinson’s novelty to the HBCU scene, but contends she has found Vinson invested in learning the necessary nuances. “There’s an evidence-based commitment to Black people and Black institutions, too, that I see President Vinson as having,” she says, “and that bridges the gap created by the lack of HBCU experience.”

There is a pride about Howard. There is an energy in the staff, students, and faculty. There is an excitement about the educational mission. And there is a seriousness about Howard’s impact that has really resonated with me.”

On May 1, 2023, Howard’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to appoint Vinson the University’s 18th president in its 156-year history. The moments immediately after learning he had been selected remain a blur. “It was complete euphoria,” he reminisces. “A happiness you can’t even begin to describe.”

Incredible news notwithstanding, Vinson did not have much time to celebrate. His first day as Howard’s president was scheduled for September 5, affording him a mere four months and four days to close one chapter at Case Western Reserve and begin anew at the Mecca.

“Look, transitions – it’s jumping off a cliff, you don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Vinson quips. “What has been amazing are the interactions that I’ve had with the Bison community. There is a pride about Howard. There is an energy in the staff, students, and faculty. There is an excitement about the educational mission. And there is a seriousness about Howard’s impact that has really resonated with me.”

“I believe that he is enjoying the energy that the campus provides and getting to see why Howard is such a special place,” says Allison Morgan Bryant, PhD (BA ’01), Vinson’s onboarding chief of staff and Howard University’s vice president of corporate relations. “He greatly enjoys meeting new people and learning about their stories.

“As we tried to walk across the Yard to get to meetings, I found that we needed to build in extra time to make sure that Dr. Vinson can meet and engage with as many people as possible,” Bryant says. “I believe that the campus community truly appreciates that.”

For Vinson, these interactions are what he loves most about the role. “You don’t know what’s going to happen every day on this job,” Vinson adds, “but the one thing you know is that you’re working with good people, and that you’re doing the right thing. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but that’s kind of what moves me, if that makes sense.”

Howard University formalized Vinson’s presidency at his November 3 inauguration ceremony. The occasion was an emotional whirlwind for Vinson and his loved ones, and he says they remain blown away.

“For the person being inaugurated, you’re seeing basically your entire life history in front of you,” Vinson explains. “But what’s so fascinating is that some of these people have never interacted personally before, so seeing their chemistry at work in this brand-new community that you’ve entered with the friends that you’re making, you begin to see the overlap, and that’s probably the most compelling thing for me.

Vinson’s parents Lillie and Ben Jr. were in attendance, as were Dr. Fortenberry, their children, and a host of extended family and friends. Though Vinson previously attended various major University events, including opening convocation and Homecoming weekend, the inaugural exercises were incomparable to anything else he has seen or felt as Howard’s president.

“And in the middle of all that is my family!” Vinson says. “My kids, seeing people that they’ve only heard of, also sharing in the moment of what the potential is for Howard with me. It was an incredible, incredible experience.”

W. Toni Carter, a pioneering Minnesota civic leader and one of Vinson’s closest relatives, was palpably joyful the entire weekend – for Vinson of course, but also their entire family. She shares that Vinson’s upbringing deeply informs the person and president he has become.

“A descendant of civil rights-era parents from the segregated South, Ben was always aware of the unique challenges his parents and grandparents had faced, and of those he too would encounter as a young Black man striving to be the best that he could be,” Carter says. “His parents taught him that, for his achievements to be recognized, he’d need not just to be good, but to excel. In all his endeavors, he has done just that.”

President Vinson with Mesi Bakari-Walton at COAS Freshman Seminar

SHARING KNOWLEDGE. President Vinson talks with students during the College of Arts and Sciences Freshman Seminar led by Mesi Bakari-Walton, PhD.

President Vinson with Howard students outside Cramton Auditorium

MAN OF THE PEOPLE. President Vinson greets students outside Cramton Auditorium after his Freshman Seminar fireside chat.

President Vinson with members of the Howard University Leadership Academy

GUIDING THE UNIVERSITY. President Vinson meets with the Howard University Leadership Academy at the School of Law.

President Vinson's Vision

Maurice D. Edington, PhD, met Vinson in May 2021 while provost and vice president for academic affairs at Florida A&M University (FAMU). Edington says he immediately recognized Vinson’s “strong commitment” to historically Black colleges and universities nationwide.

“Ben established a very unique and innovative initiative at Case Western Reserve to support HBCUs,” Edington imparts, noting that Vinson reached out to gauge his interest in having FAMU participate, developing a solid working relationship between them.

That initiative, the North Star Award program, continues to offer tuition awards to qualifying graduates from eight partnering HBCUs, including Howard and FAMU. “It was designed to create meaningful partnerships between HBCUs and Case Western Reserve,” Vinson says. “Research partnerships, student mobility, and even potential faculty exchange – we were exploring it all.”

My hope is to radiate our unique educational experience widely on the national scale, and to explore innovative areas of strength in areas of social justice, health disparities, and social equity.”

Edington commenced his presidency at the University of the District of Columbia in August 2023, just weeks before Vinson began his own at Howard. Currently leading the only HBCUs in the District, the two are already working in tandem with DC Government to launch the HBCU Public Service Program, an apprenticeship and professional development venture toward each institution’s graduating students. For Edington, Vinson’s excitement about the program further speaks to his longstanding enthusiasm for HBCUs specifically, and academia in general.

“When I learned that he was selected as Howard’s new president, I immediately sent him a note to let him know how fortunate the HBCU community is to have someone with his character and passion at the helm of one of the nation’s leading HBCUs,” Edington says.

Vinson’s early goals for his Howard presidency include everything from elevating the University’s research profile, to innovatively associating with the African diaspora, to increasing the institution’s interdisciplinary approach to its instruction. “My hope is to radiate our unique educational experience widely on the national scale, and to explore innovative areas of strength in areas of social justice, health disparities, and social equity,” Vinson says.

Ever the historian, Vinson is loath to project too far into the future, even concerning his own Howard heritage. In the immediate, however, Vinson is steadfast that succeeding in this role demands being himself – unapologetically. So far, the results have been resoundingly positive.

“I am who I am,” Vinson declares. “I am on this job to be me, and to bring everything I am to really help and work with this community.

“I will always be my authentic self,” he concludes. “You can’t say that on every job, but I feel that here, and I just relish the opportunity to be on this journey with the rest of the University.”