Content Warning: This article contains a racial slur presented as part of a historical recollection.

Jan Barker Alexander at Ujamaa. (Image credit: Sean Mckibbon-Ray / Student Affairs)

Jan Barker Alexander built her career on shepherding and growing Stanford’s Black Community, empowering students to become innovative leaders in a complex world.

Over 27 years – a fifth of the university’s existence – Barker Alexander curated experiences for students that pushed them intellectually and created programs that serve as a national model for intellectual engagement, cultural awareness, leadership development, and social justice. She helped shape the Black Community Services Center, and Ujamaa House; and made key contributions to the IDEAL initiative, development and fundraising, and Black alumni networks.

Barker Alexander, assistant vice provost for inclusion and community, and executive director of the Centers for Equity, Community, and Leadership, is retiring from Stanford. In this role, she has overseen each of the university’s seven community centers, the Office of First-Gen and/or Low Income, and the Office for Military-Affiliated Communities.

In a letter to staff from Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker Cole and on behalf of the new Associate Vice Provost for Inclusion, Diversity, and Integrative Learning Samuel Santos Jr., Brubaker Cole wrote, “it is impossible to come up with words to describe the deep impact Jan has had during our respective times at Stanford and how much we’ll miss her presence. For me, Jan has been here throughout my tenure as vice provost, lending wisdom, strategy, and innovation to the many opportunities and challenges these five years have brought.”

Board Trustee DeAngela Burns-Wallace, ’96, first met Barker Alexander as an alum volunteer and describes her as a leader and visionary at Stanford, in Student Affairs, and for the university’s Black community since the mid-90s.

“Jan had a knack not only for deep, rich student engagement but she understood the power of the Stanford alumni and fostered those relationships just as strongly,” Burns-Wallace said. “Jan would say that the Black Community was interwoven into the fabric of the university. Her passion for the communities for which she served, her unwavering commitment to equity in all strides, and her keen ability to create sustainable change and opportunities for students, staff, faculty, and alumni are what make Jan Barker Alexander a treasure in Black Community and to Stanford as a whole. The generations of lives she has touched are innumerable and her true impact on Stanford is immeasurable.”

Forever shaped

Barker Alexander grew up in the 1970s in a family of educators in Franklinton, Louisiana. Her father had been a leader involved in the integration of Franklinton schools in the 1960s. “My grandmother received phone calls saying, ‘He’s going to be the first n— we shoot,’ ” she said. “Federal Marshals came to escort my father and other teachers into the school.”

The staff of Ujamaa pose with resident fellow Jan Barker Alexander during move-in day in 2014. Barker Alexander is second from left in middle. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

When she graduated from high school in 1984, students had a Black prom and a white prom. Ten years later, they nearly didn’t have an integrated high school reunion.

“That has shaped who I am,” Barker Alexander said. “It feels like a movie, but that is the sort of lineage I come from. I have been forever shaped by those things, but not in a way where I don’t understand and love humanity.”

She earned her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Louisiana State University (LSU) and her master’s in education from Southern University, a historically Black university.

Barker Alexander began her career at LSU’s admissions office where she engaged in outreach efforts focused on rural, urban, first-generation, and low-income students.

Then, after ten years of no contact, she reconnected with her high school sweetheart Fredrick Alexander, who was living in California at the time. Her uncle, Stanford Professor Lucius Barker, and her aunt, Maude Barker, mailed a job posting at Stanford to her, and in 1995, Barker Alexander joined Stanford’s undergraduate admissions team.

She represented the university while traveling across the nation, working with alumni groups on outreach efforts, and reading thousands of admission applications. Barker Alexander also worked with the office’s diversity team to bring awareness and sensitivity to issues facing students from underrepresented groups.

Barker Alexander joined the Division of Student Affairs in 1998, and as associate dean of students and director of the Black Community Services Center (BCSC), also known as the Black House, she continued her work in engaging in difficult conversations with colleagues and others.

Barker Alexander recalls many meetings around issues involving race and people feeling uncomfortable. A dean told her, “When we’re in meetings, your colleagues might be thinking it, but you’ll say it,” Barker Alexander recalled.

“As a Black woman, integrity, justice, and fairness are squarely fixated on,” she said. “You want to have honesty about what’s not working, and it’s not just about you, but for protecting other people, and that can come at a high cost.”

Barker Alexander’s passion led to transformative experiences for all BCSC stakeholders. She shared that her personal transformative experience was working alongside former trustee V. Joy Simmons and the Stanford National Black Alumni Association in the first fundraising campaign focused on affinity giving at Stanford. It raised nearly $1.3 million, supporting renovations and creation of a 2,500 square foot multi-purpose facility and 3,000 square foot deck for outside activities at the Black House.

Lori S. White, PhD ’95, is president of DePauw University and met Barker Alexander more than 25 years ago when White was assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and director of advising at Stanford.

“I could tell from our very first meeting Jan was something special,” White said. “In her incredible career at Stanford she has been a force of positive energy – she is a visionary leader who will not take ‘no’ for an answer when she knows there is important work to be done.”

Barker Alexander raised the bar of expectations for the role and impact of the cultural centers on campus and nationally, White said.

“She audaciously believed a large sum of money could be raised from African American alumni and friends to expand the Black House and demonstrated that alumni of color will step up and contribute our time, treasures, and talents to Stanford for the projects and experiences we most care about,” White said. “Her dedication to generations of Stanford students and to the university is unmatched. The Stanford student experience and my own relationship with my alma mater are stronger because of Jan’s significant contributions.”

Barker Alexander became a resident fellow at Ujamaa House in 2006 and worked to foster intellectual engagement at the undergraduate residence, which focuses on the histories, issues, and cultures of the Black diaspora. She co-taught classes, Black Sitcoms: An Examination of Blackness on Television, Black Cinema: A Critique of the Portrayals of Blackness on the Silver Screen, and Living Single Revisited. She also took students on immersive learning experiences to New Orleans, including Research, Policy, and Personal Narratives after Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras through a Black Lens in 2018.

Barker Alexander and her husband raised their sons Hudson and Armstead at Ujamaa House. Over the years, it wasn’t unusual for students to knock on their door late at night to go over an existential crisis, and her family patiently supported her work. “The things I’ve done, the impact I’ve had, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my husband and him being willing to share me with so many people,” Barker Alexander said.

In 2020, the Ujamaa RF position became the first-ever endowed position in residential education and was named in her honor.

Tireless devotion

In the Black House and Ujamaa House, Barker Alexander said she’s been able to walk the halls of history, legacy, and change.

Barker Alexander firmly believes that people must sit in discomfort to learn and that’s where the most valuable learning comes from. “I like to say that we are the sweet spot where emotion and intellectual vitality collide,” she said. “It’s just not right to carve out a section of ourselves to make you comfortable. That’s not how you learn.”

In recognition of her work at the Black House, Barker Alexander received the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Distinctive Contributions to Undergraduate Education in 2011. In 2012, the College Board honored her with the Dr. Asa G. Hilliard Model of Excellence Award, which recognizes individuals and organizations that have developed successful methodologies positively impacting African American students.

In 2021, Barker Alexander won the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award, which is the highest honor for a staff member at Stanford. She is the only woman to receive both the Dinkelspiel and Cuthbertson awards.

It’s not easy to leave The Farm, but Barker Alexander will return for a celebration on Sept. 30 and Reunion Homecoming when she will be inducted to the Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame. This distinction is for alumni and affiliated faculty or staff who have contributed greatly to their communities.

Next, Barker Alexander heads home to Louisiana where she has accepted the position of executive associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at her alma mater, Louisiana State University, beginning in October.

“God placed an opportunity in front of me that I didn’t go looking for,” Barker Alexander said. “I’ve looked over my career here, and I feel pleased. God has ordered my steps and allowed me to see my flowers. I’m looking forward to my next chapter.”