Earl Lewis, c. 1978 (1955 - Present)

Earl Lewis, a 1978 Concordia graduate and President of the Board of RegentsBorn in Norfolk, Virginia, Earl Lewis came of age during the hard struggle for school integration in the South, and nationwide, that followed the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decisions (1954-1955). When Lewis studied at Concordia College between 1974 and 1978, the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Student Movements had already instigated momentous racial reform in the country’s colleges and universities. He participated in the Black Student Strike in the spring of 1976, a memorable marker in Concordia’s history as black student enrollments reached high tide before receding. Lewis’s academic achievements as an undergraduate anticipated a storied career as a scholar, administrator, innovator and entrepreneur, and leader in higher education. Serious and steady, yet affable and down-to-earth, Lewis embodies Concordia’s commitment to influence the world through studied preparation and dedicated service. Recipient of countless honors and awards, Lewis joined the college’s Board of Regents in 2008 and became chair in 2018. 

Earl Lewis was born in 1955 in Norfolk, but went to school in Virginia’s Tidewater city of Chesapeake. He happened upon promotional literature from Concordia early in his senior year (1973-4) of high school. Curious what the college might offer him, and preferring not to reprise the integration battles of his primary and secondary school years, Lewis boarded a bus with family members to visit Moorhead in the early summer 1974, a long and tiresome journey that nonetheless validated his interest in attending Concordia. A promising student—voted most intellectual by his high school classmates—Lewis returned to campus that fall, eventually deciding on a double major in psychology and history. [1] 

Well before undergraduate research came into vogue, Lewis seized opportunities to engage the life of the mind. He first worked as a research assistant in psychology before becoming a teaching assistant for introductory psychology during his senior year. As a senior he also served as an undergraduate assistant in Black American history, helping junior faculty member, David Sandgren, to shape content and to evaluate student work in the course. By the time Lewis received his BA in history and psychology, he was a published author in both fields, and primed for advanced study. [2]

Lewis showed studiousness, but he also shined socially. A member of several different student organizations, clubs, and societies, he served as a Resident Assistant, a member of the Judicial Court, and relished recreational outlet in intramural sports, flag football and basketball. Lewis’s years at the college were marked by a critical mass of Black students, hitting a crescendo at seventy-five just before he matriculated. A time of racial ferment at Concordia as around the nation, Lewis along with many other students of color at the time, affirmed collective racial pride while also accepting the burden and the need to introduce majority students to Black culture and consciousness on a largely white campus. Lewis was active in Harambee Weuse (“let’s pull together” in Swahili), Concordia’s Black student organization founded in 1971, and helped to promote Black history week events, special chapels, and other campus activities designed to enhance understanding of Black culture and identity. Disappointed with the pace and depth of change at the college and precipitated by disciplinary action taken by the college administration against two of their own, Black students staged a walkout from classes in early April 1976, Lewis among them. In retrospect, Lewis witnessed a Concordia trying very hard to be welcoming and hospitable, but unware that it also needed to be inclusive. [3]

Following graduation Lewis attended graduate school in history at the University of Minnesota where he studied American social and demographic history with Russell Menard, John Modell, and Brenda Gayle Plummer, completing his PhD on Norfolk’s Black community in 1984. He then joined the African American Studies faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1989, Lewis took a position at the University of Michigan, developing his scholarship and leadership skills. At Michigan he headed the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (1990-93) before eventually becoming dean of the Rackham Graduate School from 1998 until 2004 and the Robin D.G. Kelley and Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor. Academic stop three took Lewis to Atlanta’s Emory University where he assumed roles as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and became the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies. In 2013, Lewis accepted a call to steer the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City, a position he held for five years. There Lewis spearheaded several key initiatives, among them establishment of the Mellon Research Forum; creation of the Our Compelling Interests book series, inaugurated in 2016; and dispersal of grants totaling over $1.2 billion to promote the common good through humanities scholarship and creative sponsorship of diversity in higher education. Lewis returned to the University of Michigan in 2018, rejoining the history faculty and forming the Center for Social Solutions (CSS) as first director. Housed at Michigan, CSS is a unit focused on solving major societal challenges associated with clean water, diversity, slavery and its aftermath, and the future of labor in American society. The university recently named him the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy. [4]

Lewis’s successful career as a national academic leader and educational administrator might overshadow his scholarship in the fields of social and urban history and African American Studies. They should not. With Robin D. G. Kelley, he is author and editor of a one volume award-winning collection of synthetic, comprehensive, interpretive essays, To Make Our World Anew: The History of African Americans (2000), out of which developed the heralded eleven-volume collection, Young Oxford History of African Americans. Lewis has also authored and co-edited several other book-length studies that include In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth Century Norfolk (1991); The African American Urban Experience:  Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present (2004 with Joe William Trotter and Terra W. Hunter); Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (2004 with Jeffrey S. Lehman and Patricia Gurin); Love on Trial:  An American Scandal in Black and White (2001 with Heidi Ardizzone); and the University of California press prize-winning series, American Crossroads. In light of scholarly and other contributions, he just completed his term as the elected president of the Organization of American Historians. [5] 

Lewis boasts an impressive list of awards affirming his work over a distinguished career. The recipient of eleven honorary degrees, in 2015 alone he was awarded honorary degrees from Rutgers University—Newark, the University of Cincinnati, and Dartmouth. He received an honorary Doctor of Humanities from his undergraduate alma mater in 2002. Previously he received the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award from the University of Michigan in 1999, and Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota in 2001. Since 2008 Lewis has been a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Obama administration appointed him to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Lewis joined Concordia’s Board of Regents in 2008 and was elected chair in 2018. During Lewis’s tenure at the Mellon Foundation, the college and Language Villages were awarded several competitive grants earmarked for digital humanities, language instruction, and diversity development projects. Upon Lewis’s departure, the college received a one million dollar grant honoring his leadership at Mellon. In 2016, Lewis and fellow regent, Fay Holmes Ferguson, c. 1973, partnered to establish a new scholarship program for students of color at Concordia College. [6]


Authors: Dr. Richard Chapman, Emmanuel Ngoma, and Nate Symens. 


[1] Earl Lewis, biographical files, Concordia College Archives (CCA); Earl Lewis telephone interview with Richard Chapman, 16 August 2017, audio file and transcript (Emmanuel Ngoma & Nate Symens) in Concordia College Archives (CCA). 

[2] Earl Lewis interview; David Sandgren interview with Richard Chapman, 6 June 2017, Minneapolis, audio file in CCA.

[3] Lewis interview; Black Student Strike images and Harambee Weuse photograph, 1976 Cobber Yearbook; Black History Week images, 1976 and 1977 Cobber Yearbooks; “30 Black Students Protest at Concordia,” Fargo Forum (5-6 April 1976); “Black demands Being discussed,” Concordian (23 April 1976), front page.

[4] Lewis interview; History of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Foundation Presidents, Summer 2018, https://mellon.org/about/history/#!/lewis; “Earl Lewis to Launch the Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan,” 20 February 2018, https://mellon.org/resources/news/articles/earl-lewis-launch-center-soci....

[5] “History of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Foundation Presidents.” 

[6] Lewis interview; Concordia College 2017-2018 Annual Report, https://issuu.com/cordmn/docs/922357_adv18_annual_report_2017-18; Amy Kelly, “Concordia Receives One Million Dollar Grant,” Concordia Alumni News, 25 April 2018, www.concordiacollege.edu/news/release-detail/concordia-awarded-andrew-w-... History of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Foundation Presidents.