Yale News

An array of unique objects decorates Kurt Schmoke’s ’71 shelves behind his desk. There are photos of his family — one of him and his wife next to Kamala Harris — and shiny, leather books. There is a bright red Coke can, which stands against the brown wood of the bookshelf. And to the left of Schmoke’s head, at least on Zoom, is a plush figure of Dobby the House-Elf from the Harry Potter series.

“I have him there because he reminds me that people from humble beginnings can do heroic things,” Schmoke told the News in an interview.

In the first meeting for a class he co-teaches at the University of Baltimore — the school of which he also happens to be president — Schmoke kept seeing students’ eyes dart over his shoulder, so he told his class about Dobby before switching to a virtual background of the Golden Gate bridge.

The move seems in character for Schmoke, who punctuates his poise with laughs and chuckles that add a lightness to his resume. A graduate of Yale and Harvard, Schmoke also served as the mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999 and as the Dean of the Howard University Law School from 200312. And while he studied at Oxford University following his Yale graduation, he came back in the 1990s to serve on the Yale Corporation, the University’s principal governing body. In 1999, Schmoke became the first Black Senior Fellow — the liaison between the Corporation and the University President. Now, Schmoke works from home running the University of Baltimore as it adapts to education in a pandemic and reckons with diversity and inclusion.

 

Years at Yale 

A recruited athlete who earned a letter for his two years as a football player, Schmoke came to Yale in 1967. On top of his sports schedule, history major and role as class secretary, Schmoke was continuously active in the community. He founded the Calvin Hill Daycare Center in 1972 that remains in operation near the Yale Divinity School today.

Yale history mostly remembers the undergraduate Schmoke, though, as a principal student figure in the May Day events of 1970. A year prior, members of the New Haven chapter of the Black Panthers killed a fellow Panther Alex Rackley on the suspicion of being a police informant. Party chapter leader Ericka Huggins and Panther co-founder Bobby Seale — along with others — were subsequently arrested and put on trial. According to archives from Dwight Hall, the Panthers denounced the arrests and called for their supporters to stream into New Haven to protest.

Called “May Day,” the beginning of May 1970 saw Yale open its gates to the demonstrators under the direction of then-President Kingman Brewster ’41 and former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57.

According to the Yale Alumni Magazine, faculty were divided over whether or not to suspend classes. But in the midst of the tumult, Schmoke appeared before the assembled faculty at their meeting, the first time an undergraduate had ever done so.

According to the magazine — and Schmoke himself — the faculty seemed prepped for angry rhetoric from Schmoke. But instead, Schmoke’s words soothed, rather than inflamed, according to John Hersey ’36.

“In a trembling voice, Kurt spoke only five or six brief sentences, to this effect: ‘The students on campus are confused, they’re frightened. They don’t know what to think. You are older than we are, and more experienced. We want guidance from you, moral leadership. On behalf of my fellow students, I beg you to give it to us.’” Hersey wrote in a book entitled Letter to the Alumni. “Overcome by the filial courtesy and the implacable challenge of these words, the entire faculty stood and applauded Kurt as he left.”

From his own perspective, Schmoke said that he came in and made a plea for faculty to show leadership — ”that’s all … I must have caught them at a good time,” Schmoke said, laughing.

Chauncey also spoke to the News about Schmoke’s role. At the time, Chauncey was a Davenport Fellow and knew Schmoke from the May Day events. The words Schmoke offered at the faculty meeting, Chauncey said, were about much more than a strike. 

“I don’t think it had to do with the faculty strike alone,” Chauncey said. “I think Kurt spoke to them about the concerns of the Black students at Yale about the need for the institution to be responsive to what was happening during May Day and that if we had to cancel some classes, the faculty should be flexible and understanding, so I think it was a much more broad-gauged speech. He absolutely mesmerized them.” 

Chauncey added that Schmoke played a major role in implementing student marshalls, who would wade into the crowds of visitors assembled in New Haven and try to calm smaller pockets of tension between individuals. 

Following Schmoke’s appearance, Yale suspended its usual schedule, and despite the clashing presence of demonstrators and the National Guard, May 1, 1970, ended with few injuries and 21 arrests, according to Dwight Hall records. 

Still, Schmoke added more dimension to May Day — when demonstrators began to flow into New Haven, Davenport College opened its gates, and Schmoke and other students organized childcare and food services for those demonstrators. He was surprised, he said, to see so many children brought into the college’s courtyard, at so many different ages — from toddlers to teenagers. And while bedrooms remained off-limits to protesters, some Elm City visitors slept on the New Haven Green or set up camp on Old Campus. 

 

Time on the Corporation 

After graduation, Schmoke moved on from Yale, attending school at Harvard and Oxford before moving onto careers in law and in Baltimore government. While he did not often return to New Haven to visit his alma mater, he served on some of Yale’s advisory committees and continued to support the daycare center. But during his tenure as mayor of Baltimore, Schmoke was elected a trustee on Yale’s Corporation, and served from 1989 to 2002.

He enjoyed the experience, Schmoke said. He learned more about the relationship between Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital, and he particularly liked selecting recipients of honorary degrees. A colleague of his, he said, described the process as “high-class gossip” — the slates of candidates were very distinguished, and Schmoke was left trying to figure out “which Nobel Laureate should receive a degree. 

According to Schmoke, serving as both mayor of Baltimore and trustee had its challenges. 

“What was a little bit different in my tenure than others was that when it snowed in Baltimore, I had to leave meetings to get back home,” Schmoke said. “Because as mayor you do not want to be out of your city when there is a snowstorm or other natural disaster.” 

After meetings, he said, he would take the train from New Haven back to Baltimore to be ready for the 6 a.m. news. 

But the most important job during his tenure, he said, was selecting a president. When Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 announced he was leaving the University in 1992, the Corporation appointed Howard Lamar as interim leader. Following Lamar, the Corporation selected Richard Levin, who served from 1993 to 2013. And in 1999, Schmoke was chosen as senior trustee, the virtual leader of the Corporation. The position is currently held by Catharine Bond Hill GRD ’85. 

In an interview with the News, Levin called Schmoke a “model Trustee.” 

“He always put the institution first, never a personal agenda with Kurt,” Levin told the News. “It was always what’s best for Yale, he tried to look at that from the broadest possible perspective.”

Levin added that the Senior Fellow serves as the point person in communications between the President and Trustees and counsels the President directly. While his administration did not face challenges on the level of COVID-19 while Schmoke was in office, Levin said that Schmoke was instrumental in the 1995 decision to return the $20 million gift of Lee Bass ’79, a wealthy alumnus. While Bass gave the gift to Yale in 1991 to use for studies in western civilization, critics noted that Yale already had a strong such curriculum and called for the money to be used elsewhere. After deliberating, Yale decided to return the gift.

Though his duties were many, Schmoke told the News that he enjoyed contributing to Yale and trying to meet the challenges it faced. He was able to interact with many people, he said, and he was also able to connect with the Afro-American Cultural Center more than he did as a student, working with the leadership of the center and contributing to physical improvements of the building. And while celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the center have been postponed due to the pandemic, Schmoke told the News that he found it personally satisfying to interact more with the organization. 

 

Looking forward

Today, Schmoke serves as the president of the University of Baltimore — a major institution that primarily aims to meet the educational needs of working adults — which began as a merger between night schools. Though Schmoke and his staff continue to work from home, UB’s prior focus on online education for its 5,000-odd student body means that the school’s adaption to the public health situation was less of a major task than Yale’s.

“There’s a process underway that should continue, that universities ought to view themselves as anchor institutions of cities and their surrounding counties, if the university happens to be located in a more rural area,” Schmoke said. “Which means that they have to view their role as nurturing a new generation of leaders but also reaching out to the community to be involved with current problem-solving.”

One example at Yale, he said, was the creation of the Office of New Haven Affairs, and he also noted the importance of good communication between the University and New Haven police. He added the example of UB’s involvement in Baltimore’s K-12 schools alongside Johns Hopkins University, which, like Yale, serves as a major employer within city limits. 

According to Schmoke, universities must recognize their roles as economic forces, and nurture the symbiotic relationship between town and gown. If the community declines, Schmoke said, so too does the university. 

One project Schmoke and his team at UB are currently working on is the promotion of equity, diversity and inclusion. Even as a graduate of Yale, Schmoke told the News that he has encountered racial prejudice throughout his career. When he and his wife were looking for an apartment in Baltimore, a landlord agreed over the phone to meet with them about an empty unit. But when Schmoke arrived to inspect the property, the landlord told them that the particular unit had been sold — all in about 15 minutes. His son, who wears dreadlocks, has also been pulled over multiple times while driving, Schmoke said. 

Still, he told the News that he remains optimistic. While he said that he is “still scratching [his] head” about how the same country that elected Barack Obama could also elect the “current occupant” of the White House, Schmoke says that he has seen improvements. 

On Zoom, Schmoke pointed out the photo of Kamala Harris, for whom he and his wife gave a fundraiser. He has known her over the last decade, he said, and the fact that Harris is on the ticket for the November election is another sign of progress despite challenges that remain.

“I see progress,” Schmoke said. “We’re not there yet but I think the country, even with the George Floyd issues and some others, that on the whole, we are making progress.”