By: Howard University
Historian of African and Latin American diasporas spent career dedicated to elevating diversity in higher education
Ben Vinson III, PhD, has a deep passion in two areas: studying and elevating the diversity of the African diaspora in academic spaces, for students and faculty alike. With both, Vinson is poised to bring his knowledge and experience to take Howard University to the next level as its 18th president.
He returns to Washington, D.C., the city that shaped his formative years in high school and, later, his academic achievements as a professor and dean of area universities. He is joined by his wife, biochemist Yolanda M. Fortenberry, PhD, and their three children.
For Vinson, coming back to Washington to serve as Howard’s president ties his academic passions in the African diaspora with the opportunity to be in the heart of a leading, historically Black institution, which he calls “the honor of a lifetime.”
“Howard’s incredible legacy, its remarkable trajectory, combined with the fine talent of its faculty and staff, situate Howard at the uppermost echelons of higher education,” Vinson says. “I look forward to returning to the DMV, which I consider home, and working with the broader campus community to fortify Howard and help build upon its incredible tradition of delivering excellence, truth, and service to greater humanity.”
Vinson remembers visiting Howard with his mother, who was an elementary school teacher, and being amazed by the vast number of Black students concentrated on one university campus. He recalls stories from the Mecca shared by family members who attended Howard, and is ecstatic to share the legacy with them.
Though he feels most at home in Washington, Vinson has resided in multiple places around the world. He spent his childhood on military bases in Italy where his father served as U.S. military Air Force master sergeant. In his scholarly pursuits, he studied Black religious festivals in Venezuela and examined the fluidity of race and class in Mexico. He also spent time in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, researching the city’s differences between the growing population of Afro-Mexican immigrants and the existing African American community. He has also lived in New York; State College, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Cleveland. In an article from Johns Hopkins Arts & Sciences Magazine, he described himself as a “living Diasporan,” referring to his unique and diverse experiences as an individual of African descent who has wandered around the United States and the world.
Vinson comes to Howard after serving as provost and executive vice president at Case Western Reserve University where he was responsible for all facets of academic and university research.
He previously taught history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he was founding director of its Center for Africana Studies. At Johns Hopkins, he went on to serve as a vice dean for centers, interdisciplinary studies, and graduate education before becoming dean of George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. He started his career in academia on the faculties of Barnard College and Penn State University.
Vinson is a strong and active advocate for inclusion and increasing educational opportunities for Black students. While at Case Western, Vinson led the university’s “Think Big” strategic planning initiative, which garnered national attention for its innovative and inclusive planning process. He oversaw the increase of underrepresented minority students in the first-year class (from 17% in 2018 to 25% in 2022). He served as co-principal investigator of the Humanities in Leadership Learning Series (HILLS) program, funded by a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to promote leadership development and diversity in the humanities.
At the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins, Vinson developed a three-year collaboration with the Sheridan Libraries’ Center for Educational Resources and the historic Baltimore-based Afro-American Newspapers in a project that also funded the Diaspora Pathways Archival Access Project (DPAAP), a long-term research and instructional effort housed at the center. With a grant from the Mellon Foundation, student interns and library staff carefully mined through hundreds of boxes of the historic news archives, culminating in a searchable digitized database.
Additionally, Vinson serves on the Association of American Universities’ (AAU) Advisory Board for Racial Equity in Higher Education and is a member of the AAU subcommittee on faculty advancement and tenure.
On May 1, the Howard University Board of Trustees unanimously voted to appoint Vinson as president of the University.
“Both his academic research and the initiatives he’s championed as a higher education leader have demonstrated his commitment to elevating the diversity of experiences of people of the African diaspora – a commitment that aligns well with Howard University’s mission and vision,” says Laurence C. Morse, chair of the board.
Vinson’s appointment is the culmination of a rigorous and comprehensive 12-month search, led by the board-appointed presidential search committee and assisted by executive search firm Isaacson Miller. The entire Howard community was invited to participate in this process through a series of listening sessions conducted throughout 2022, as well as an opportunity to provide feedback, suggestions, and questions related to the search, including recommending potential candidates.
“His vast experience and proven track record in academic leadership make him the ideal candidate to lead our esteemed institution into the future,” says Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA, president of Howard University. “I am confident that Howard will continue to thrive under his guidance as a premier center for higher learning and innovation.”
Vinson is an accomplished historian of African diaspora with focus on Latin America, and the recipient of the 2019 Howard F. Cline Book Prize in Mexican History for his book, “Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico.”
He is chairman of the board of the National Humanities Center and a member of the boards of the National Humanities Alliance and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He is a member of the Academy of Arts and Science’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and currently chairs its subcommittee on higher education. He was elected vice president of the Research Division of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2020 and is the elected President of the Conference on Latin American History (CLAH).
Vinson earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College with a double major in history and classical studies, summa cum laude, and a doctorate in Latin American history, with distinction, from Columbia University. He has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Commission; National Humanities Center; Social Science Research Council; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon foundations.
As president, Vinson will be tasked with inspiring, innovating, and strategically leading the Howard community, including faculty, staff, medical institutions, museums, and undergraduate and graduate students. The University has long held a commitment to the education of traditionally disadvantaged persons in American society and throughout the world with a goal to eliminate inequities related to race or color, or social, economic, and political circumstances.
Vinson is excited to be a part of Howard, which he notes is at a “historic juncture,” recognizing the significance of his responsibilities as the next president.
“Combined with the uniquely transformational power of a Howard education, the students, faculty, staff, and alumni constitute a positive force of change in our society,” Vinson says. “Our world needs Howard at maximum strength.”
Others agree, noting that his entrance comes at an important time in Howard’s trajectory. “Under his future leadership, we believe that the University will only strengthen its storied legacy by continuing to embrace and serve our community, being a powerful thought leader on issues of global significance and engaging in scholarship and practice that puts the voices and experiences of Howard students, faculty, staff and alumni at the center,” Morse says. “Building on our strategic plan which has guided the University’s current momentum, I believe Dr. Vinson will take Howard University to new heights.”