Vernon Jordan will always be a warm, familiar face in the thoughts of civil rights advocacy, business, and political power. But he’ll never be remembered for his greatest professional and philanthropic work; his service as a trustee at Howard University.
The Howard Law graduate who made a career out of legal expertise and Black advocacy with top-flight firms and nonprofit organizations has been remembered fondly in lofty obituaries, tributes, and remembrances. Few of them, if any, will bear any historical record for his prolific work as a trustee at his alma mater.
His skill as an interpersonal politician, diplomat, and adjudicator made him a prolific figure on Howard’s board for more than 20 years, during a time when society and industry faced a renaissance of how it would view African Americans and our institutions.
Jordan began his executive service at Howard two years after the beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles police officers, and one year before a speech by former Nation of Islam Minister Khalid Abdul Muhammad earned the campus unfairly assigned national criticism as a breeding ground for antisemitism.
His profile as a Washington political and social elite was just beginning to climb through the election of Bill Clinton, for whom Jordan was a long-time friend and advisor and key cog in the machine which made the Arkansas democrat a once-in-a-generation candidate in galvanizing the national Black voting bloc.
All of these things collapsed in and around Jordan to add to a legacy of gravitas and influence, which he used to leverage with, and sometimes against, his fellow HU trustees. Presidential hirings and firings, managing student discontent, and positioning Howard as a target for corporate and civic support; if it was big for HU, Vernon Jordan was probably at the center of it.
"The River Jordan," as one of his friends likes to call him, is a mighty current in Washington. He's brokered jobs for the likes of IBM chief Lou Gerstner and World Bank president James Wolfensohn. No other private lawyer in America sits on so many major corporate boards. No other black man in America can boast so many influential friends, from senators to studio heads, people who seek his counsel on everything from jobs to marriages. And probably no man is as trusted by Clinton. Last week, while the rest of the nation was reeling from the allegations against the president, Washington insiders were having a harder time believing that Jordan could have been reckless enough to risk his career. After all, a lot of people say a lot of things about Vernon Jordan--but no one ever said he was careless.
No one was a better reader of time and writing on the wall, and no one was a better leader of powerful Black people. There is a reason that Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick called him a ‘father’ in his HU leadership journey.
Even in arriving at the end of this piece, you may be frustrated by having read through and not being rewarded with details or anecdotes about how Jordan impacted Howard. That was the design of his personality; equal parts larger-than-life and behind-the-scenes. If Vernon Jordan was asking your opinion on a matter or soliciting your help in solving a problem or convincing you to take a job, chances were good that the deal was sealed before you even had time to process if you had a choice in the matter, or to realize that you were never actually involved in the decision to begin with.
There is a saying within the HBCU community that the hardest thing in the world to do is to close an HBCU, but rarely is any thought given to how difficult it is to keep a Black college open or even in a position to thrive. The system that is Howard University may tremble now and then, but it will always loom over others in large part because of Jordan’s presence, even in the years after his service to the university officially ended.
It is a lesson for every HBCU trustee; how do you refine ego, intellect, and experience to become fuel for the betterment of an institution and its community? How does the greatest among us strive to become the least regarded? How much can you invest and how much good can you do in such a way that your work persists and never bears your name?
Can you be a fixer without the yearning to become a fixture?