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Dedicated Young Leaders: SGA Honors One of Their Own, Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx ’93

Anthony Foxx '93 stands with Dara Ferguson ’17 and Jada Wiggleton-Little ’17 in front of the SGA office
Anthony Foxx '93 (center) stands with Dara Ferguson '17 (L) and Jada Wiggleton-Little '17 in front of the newly-dedicated Student Government Association Office in the Alvarez College Union.

The Student Government Association (SGA) Office is a space for conversation, compromise and problem solving, and fittingly, this week was named in honor of Anthony Foxx '93. The former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation also served as Davidson's first African-American student body president.

The dedication was the result of a joint effort by former SGA President Dara Ferguson '17 and former Black Student Coalition President Jada Wiggleton-Little '17 to create more campus spaces that honor black alumni. Both students spoke at the dedication ceremony held May 2, along with College President Carol Quillen and Foxx.

After receiving a history degree from Davidson, Foxx earned a law degree from New York University in 1996 and then returned to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, to explore the possibility of a political career.

He was elected to the Charlotte City Council in 2005 and served two terms before being elected the youngest mayor in the city's history in 2009. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama appointed Foxx as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and the Senate confirmed him 100-0.

In her remarks, Quillen thanked Foxx for setting an example for the Davidson community and truly living out Davidson's primary purpose: to help students develop humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.

Here, Foxx reflects on his career and discusses his plans for the future.

As someone who assumed leadership roles at young ages–first at Davidson and then in Charlotte–what value do young people bring to elected leadership positions?
I think it's incredibly important for young people to get involved in society. Their voices are so critical, not only for the future but actually to the present because, as I'm finding out now, the older you get the shorter your horizon is, and while you can think inter-generationally as you get older in some respects, younger people bring a freshness and a vitality and an ownership of the future that's quite different. Young people are still brash–still full of vinegar, let's say–but that's a necessary part of the whole of a strong society: to have young, engaged people.

My experiences were atypical in the sense in that I was in roles of leadership at relatively young ages and I had to prove myself in terms of electability and vitals, if you will, and I had to also occupy positions that required a lot of breadth. It can be done. And currently we're seeing young people in business who are billionaires, who are doing things it used to take 20 or 30 years to do. So it's natural that the same could occur in the political sphere.

Looking back, is there a moment or a part of your career of which you are most proud?
You know I'm mostly proud that I took the leap. Even here at Davidson, I always asked myself if I was dedicating myself enough to my studies as opposed to my other activities, and then when I was in law school I decided to withdraw from outside activities and just focus on schoolwork, and I actually found that I didn't do as well when I had fewer things to do.

It takes a certain amount of courage to offer yourself for any kind of role that your peers elect you to, because you have to risk losing and losing is embarrassing. Particularly on a small campus. So I think I am most proud of the fact that I trusted myself enough to put myself into the fray, and things turned out pretty well.

Anthony Foxx '93 speaks at a podium in front of the Student Government Association office
Foxx speaks during the dedication ceremony May 2.

When looking back at your tenure as Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation, what, if anything, do you wish you had done differently?
I happened to be attending a transportation minister summit in Japan back in September when CNN was running 24-hour loops on the unrest in Charlotte. And much of my tenure in Charlotte was punctuated by a desire to bring the whole city together and lift up parts of the city that had historically been underserved, while also continuing to build upon the areas of the city that were strong. And my greatest fear for the city is what occurred in September, which was that rather than being healed, fissures within the community were exposed. I tried as hard as I could–some would say I tried too hard in some cases–to deal with some of those issues. The economic issues, the issues of folks having a sense of investment in the whole community, building new transportation facilities in underserved areas, I mean there were a lot of things I tried to do to get ahead of it but unfortunately things happened.

You hinted on Twitter that your next project was studying the rural/urban divide in America. Why do you think this is important, and will you focus on your home state of North Carolina?
I want to use North Carolina as a laboratory, and I haven't exactly figured out how to do it, but I'm talking to some very smart people who can help me figure that out. Here's the thesis: underserved people exist in both urban settings and in rural settings, and what the last election exposed was a level of disaffectation among particularly our rust belt and rural citizens that actually mimics a lot of what I hear in urban settings. And the question I am interested in answering is whether there is a symmetry there that we are missing as a society. Is there a coalition to be built of people who want better education for their children and aren't getting it? Who want better medical services but aren't getting them? Who want better access to transportation, or to jobs, and aren't getting it? Why does that have to be a rust belt problem or a rural problem? Why can't it be a problem that's shared across people, even people who don't look like each other?

Within that exploration there's also an element of some of the racial divides that have plagued our country from its beginning. And getting urban African Americans in conversation with rural white Americans–among others, as our country is much more diverse today–and finding ways to create those strands of connection between people that seem to be frayed today is a very interesting thing for me. It's what I tried to do in politics, but I've become more skeptical that politics by itself can really bridge that divide.

What do you see for the future of transportation in the United States over the next five, 15, and 25 years? What needs to happen, and what major changes do you foresee or hope for?
Well, I-77 is a good example of what's happening to transportation right now. We have far too many cars on the road for the system we have today, and every statistic I see suggests that in fast growing parts of our country like the Southeast and areas of the West we're going to run out of roads that can be built. The country is going to have to become more multi-modal, with more of everything from bicycles to walking to trains to maybe even some of the new technologies that people are talking about like drones. The country invests heavily in roads, but roads are going to be of limited utility to reduce congestion. That reality hasn't hit policy makers in the face quite yet, but what you're seeing on I-77 is emblematic. We're really, at this point, talking about mitigating the increases in congestion; it's not a matter of reducing congestion anymore.

At a time when many citizens have lost trust in the government's ability to get things done, what issues should a government agency handle?
Well it's a self-fulfilling prophecy to under-invest in something like transportation, and then to have high levels of congestion, and then to say that government doesn't work. It's one of the most common things I hear, from Donald Trump to Barack Obama. Anyone who has studied U.S. transportation knows we are chronically under-investing in it. And you can argue that the government isn't working, but the argument would have to be punctuated by saying it's not working because we aren't investing in the right things and we're not putting enough money in the kitty to do it, because our politicians don't want to be straight-up with us that it actually costs money to have a system with no congestion. So, I think too much of what I see right now is this same self-fulfilling prophecy playing itself out in areas other than transportation.

Bridget Lavender '18
brlavender@davidson.edu