The first thing you notice in Dr. Gladys Francis’ office is the height of the desk. The associate dean of Howard University’s College of Arts and Sciences works standing up. Then there is the scooter she uses to get around, leaning against a wall. On campus, she is known as “the dean on wheels.” Gladys Francis loves movement in all its forms – just look at her research and books on dance, exile, and transgression. What’s more, her American career could be described as a long journey.
The dynamic fortysomething with long braids was born in Guadeloupe, and has always remained very attached to her island. While many of her classmates left to study in mainland France after high school, the young woman decided to stay in the West Indies and pursued a literature degree in Martinique. But even her professors encouraged her to leave. One day, by chance, she met a group of American teachers walking through the campus, and they invited her to spend a year at Purdue University between Chicago and Indianapolis. She spent eight years there, completing a master’s degree in French and Francophone studies and a doctorate in philosophy.
Indiana was an exciting and confusing culture shock. She moved there in 2001 in a highly xenophobic context following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Purdue was conservative and very White. “There are a lot of people of mixed heritage in Guadeloupe, and I saw myself first and foremost as a woman,” she says. “But in the U.S., people only saw my skin color, even though they told me: ‘You’re not really Black, you’re French.’ Being constantly aware of your skin color is a constant psychological and emotional strain. I spent all my time wondering if I hadn’t got what I wanted because I lacked the skills, or because I’d been penalized for being Black.”
This identity crisis was made worse by a traumatic experience when her landlord attacked and tried to strangle her. But Gladys Francis is a fighter. After briefly returning to Guadeloupe, she traveled back to the United States, “determined to speak on behalf of [her] community: women of color.” She still carries this with her today, and she often uses the word “mission.” After refusing several offers from prestigious institutions, she accepted a position as assistant professor at Wesleyan College, a small women’s school in Macon, Georgia, in 2008. “There was a human need there,” she says, and with good reason, as she became the establishment’s first Black professor.
“Building Bridges” between Black and White Students
The racism that she discovered in the South was even more blatant than in the Midwest. Whether walking or driving, she was frequently stopped by the police as she was living in faculty accommodation in an upscale, predominantly White neighborhood. Despite these challenges, she tried to change things at the university’s French department. She wanted to “build bridges” between her White and Black students, bringing them closer together while getting to know each other. However, after a few years she was mentally exhausted. Eager to experience something different, she moved to Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. The school had ample resources and offered a diversity-led curriculum. “But was I really needed there?” says Gladys Francis. “Was I carrying out my mission?”
She returned to the South, this time to Georgia State University in Atlanta, a predominantly Black institution where she finally “found her voice.” She modernized the French department’s curriculum, introduced comparative literature, and insisted that courses be taught with a Francophone perspective, not just a French one. She also changed the admissions rules so that grammar and grades were no longer the sole criteria for recruiting applicants, many of whom were from underprivileged backgrounds or countries. And it was here that she discovered historically Black colleges and universities – institutions born of segregation that continue to welcome mainly Black students. In Atlanta, the young Guadeloupean woman was fascinated by the confidence of the students at Spelman College. “The courses there are designed from an African-American perspective, and the students are taught self-esteem.”
After heading up the French department at Georgia State and overseeing the exchange program with Paris, Bordeaux, the Caribbean, French Guiana, and Morocco, Gladys Francis was back on the road. In the spring of 2022, she accepted a position at Howard University, Washington D.C.’s “Black Harvard,” founded in 1867. Among other things, the associate dean manages student affairs for the 4,000 people studying at the College of Arts and Sciences. “They tell us that they come here to feel safe,” she says. “In this setting, they can concentrate on their studies, flourish, and be better equipped for whatever comes next.”
Gladys Francis no longer has time to teach, but she is fully committed to her new mission. “At Howard, I want to change the way students see things. I want to motivate them, tell them that anything is possible, and open doors for them. The danger is that Black universities become bubbles instead of sponges.” To foster a dialogue with the outside world, the associate dean has launched a leadership program. Thanks to a series of scholarships, some 40 students will be able to study abroad, gain access to mentors, or lead projects in communities in need. She is also directing an initiative to increase the number of African-American graduates within the National Security Agency. On top of these ambitions, her next mission is to launch international Howard University branches – one of which she hopes will be in the French Caribbean.