Girard College: Power Lunch: Schooling the City

Autumn Adkins, Girard College’s new president, talks about revamping the institution’s reputation, the mission of urban educators, and why a black woman is the perfect person to run a school endowed strictly for young white men

For more than a century, Fairmount’s Girard College — the private boarding school for elementary students through high-schoolers — followed the dictates of the will of its benefactor, Stephen Girard. But a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board school desegregation case, following a lengthy legal battle, Girard ceased to be exclusive to “white, male orphans,” which had been Girard’s directive, and now accepts children of both genders, all races, and varying familial backgrounds. Earlier this year, the school appointed as president 37-year-old Autumn Adkins, whose bona fides include degrees from UVA and Columbia and stints at Mercersburg Academy, Friends Seminary and Sidwell Friends. The first African-American and first woman to hold the role is now settling in at Philly’s least understood private school, and agreed to talk about the task and her vision for the future over a meal at Capital Grille.

Autumn Adkins: Before we get started, let’s take on the obvious. I am not a white male. I know the school’s legacy, and what Girard’s will said. But setting aside an enormous sum of money for a school to operate in perpetuity in the 1830s was a hugely progressive notion. That it was to be for orphan boys was equally unique, because that group would not have had access to this kind of education. Girard knew that if we didn’t address the needs of this part of a young nation’s society, the whole democratic experiment would fail. For the times, including orphans was revolutionary — the most aggressive form of inclusion possible. I see my appointment as just another step along that continuum of Stephen Girard’s forward-thinking nature.

Sam Katz: So much for my first question. How is it that you were able to get comfortable with the exclusionary nature of the will?

AA: I came here with a historian’s understanding of Girard’s times. Women were not even legal entities, so this wasn’t going to start off as a co-ed school. Blacks were also not legal entities in 1831. But Girard recognized their humanity. One of his first acts in the will freed Hannah [his slave] and provided for her financially. People haven’t wanted to acknowledge that America wasn’t really yet a democracy. It was still an ideal. I’m not saying I’m “comfortable” with the language. It’s just how I understand it.

SK: Philadelphians know so little about Stephen Girard. Should something be done about that?

I’m determined to change how the city understands Mr. Girard and this school. Lawsuits and controversy caused us to retreat behind these walls for many years. I think we wanted to avoid attention, and the pain that comes with it. But we’re ready to adjust that thinking and tell our story. Great things go on here. Girard College is Philadelphia’s school, and we want the city to be proud of it.

SK: Do you find that people are uncomfortable with untraditional schools like Girard?   

AA: Schools exist to serve children, not to make adults comfortable. I don’t understand why some are so critical of charter schools or school choice. We should press them, and not let surface answers like “They take funds from public schools” be the end of the conversation.