The former Fulton County Commission chairman and Emory alumnus is the new president of Dillard University

The Education of Michael Lomax

By John D. Thomas

For a decade and a half, Michael L. Lomax '84PhD led a grueling double life. He not only taught a full course load as an English professor at Atlanta colleges, including Emory, Spelman, and Morehouse, but he was also the top elected official in Fulton County, Georgia's largest and most populous. Now, sitting in the relative calm of his bright, spacious office as president of Dillard University, an historically black institution in New Orleans, the former chairman of the Fulton County Commission has a hard time believing he was able to juggle both positions.

"It was an eighteen-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week effort, and it was very difficult to keep in balance," says the fifty-year-old Lomax, who earned his doctoral degree in American and African-American literature from Emory in 1984. "I would teach a class with thirty people in it, jump in a car, and go preside over a public hearing that might have three hundred people screaming and yelling about taxes or some zoning issue. I don't know how I did it for [so many] years. Some days I don't know why I did it for [so many] years. But it certainly makes me enjoy the quieter life of fifteen hundred students and not [having to deal with] quite such life or death issues."

Although Lomax relishes his new position at Dillard, which he has held since July 1, 1997, many in Atlanta are sad to see him go. In a recent article, well-known Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Colin Campbell described Lomax as "one of Atlanta's most distinguished citizens," and wrote "what a pity it is for Atlanta to lose him."

A Los Angeles native, Lomax enrolled at Morehouse when he was only sixteen, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1968. He went on to earn a master's degree in English literature at Columbia University. Lomax began his career as an Atlanta public servant in the 1970s. He held several positions, including director of research and special assistant to Mayor Maynard Jackson, director of cultural and international affairs, and commissioner of parks and recreation.

In 1978, Lomax ran for a spot on Fulton County's board of commissioners. He won and eventually went on to serve as chairman from 1981 to 1993. In that role, Lomax was responsible for a half-billion-dollar annual operating budget and some five thousand county employees.

One of the primary reasons Lomax was inspired to run for public office was his desire to help fulfill the legacy of the civil rights movement. "I was too young to participate in the sit-ins and the marches in any really meaningful way," he says. "I was sixteen when I went to college in 1964, but I was old enough to be a part of the revolution which really realized the goals of the civil rights movement. There was just never any question in my mind that I would do that. It was an extraordinary period when the first black mayor got elected in a major Southern city. And I was the first African American to lead a major county government in Georgia. So there was the sense of the compulsion of history."

Lomax accomplished a great deal as a county commissioner. He helped bring the 1988 Democratic National Convention and the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta. He also spearheaded a number of major construction projects, including building Georgia 400, expanding and renovating Grady Hospital, and constructing the new Fulton County government center. But Lomax's legacy in Atlanta is more than just bricks and asphalt.

He is perhaps best known for his staunch support of the arts in Atlanta through his founding of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, the Fulton County Arts Council, and the biennial National Black Arts Festival. "It is no longer fashionable for government to support the arts," says Lomax. "I think that's wrong. I think it's a mistake."

Dwight D. Andrews, artistic director of the National Black Arts Festival and professor of music at Emory, believes Lomax had a profound impact on the arts in Atlanta. "Michael Lomax has been a tremendous asset to the Atlanta community," he says. "His understanding of the power and potential of art as a vehicle for building a strong community has been a benefit to us all. I have always been impressed by his willingness to involve local government in efforts to strengthen the cultural and educational environment of our city. The National Black Arts Festival grew out of his vision, foresight, and commitment to the arts. Under his leadership, the NBAF has become the largest and most comprehensive presentation of African Diaspora arts in the world."

A two-time Atlanta mayoral candidate who had stopped teaching in 1989, Lomax bowed out of politics in 1993. At that time, he decided to return to a career in education, specifically as the president of an historically black college. To prepare himself for such a position, he took the job as president of the National Faculty, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to linking arts and sciences scholars at the university and college level to their colleagues teaching kindergarten through twelfth grade. Lomax held that job for four years, and it reintroduced him to issues in higher education and gave him the opportunity to meet foundation and philanthropic leadership.

After being a finalist for the presidency at Morehouse, Lomax was offered the job as president of Dillard in early 1997. He had wanted to run a private, historically black college that was in a city and was in sound financial condition, and because Dillard met all of those requirements, he accepted their offer.

For 130 years, Lomax's family had been educated in historically black colleges, and Dillard's new president believes these institutions will play an important role in the future. Lomax says private, historically black colleges "are experiencing a renaissance. There is a resurgence of interest among students and faculty, and I think there is a recognition that there is no cookie-cutter education in America. Various peoples require various different approaches, and for many, an experience which celebrates their racial heritage at the same time that it introduces students to a rigorous academic environment, that's something that works, and it works here. I think there is a role [for these institutions], and I think it will continue into the twenty-first century. We at Dillard are determined to find ways of both retaining the heritage but also mainstreaming, in terms of quality, caliber, and breadth, the programs that we offer our students."

Lomax has a number of priorities for his presidency. Dillard's endowment is currently about $45 million, and by the time he leaves Lomax wants it to top $100 million. He also wants to renovate the campus and build more dormitories and classrooms. But the new president's main goal is more qualitative than quantitative.

"I want Dillard University to be recognized as one of the best liberal arts institutions in America, no apologies, no excuses for racial heritage," he says. "And that means we are going to have an outstanding faculty, competitive students who come very well prepared for college and who leave exceptionally trained for the future. That means we are going to invest a lot of time and effort in building and strengthening our faculty and giving nurturing and structured guidance and support to the students who are here. It's a lot of investment in what happens in that classroom."

Rudolph P. Byrd, director of African American Studies at Emory, believes Lomax is more than capable of meeting the goals he has set. "As a scholar, educator, public servant, and fund-raiser, Michael Lomax possesses all the talents that are required to build and sustain institutions," he says. "Building upon the foundation provided by his predecessors at the university, involving his supporters in New Orleans, and summoning up his many strengths, Michael will realize a vision of excellence at Dillard University that will place it among the elite colleges of the nation."

Photo courtesy Phoenix Communications

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