By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Malia Cohen
Malia Cohen was elected as the first African American State Controller in California history. Courtesy photo

Malia Cohen is another prime example of why African Americans pursue a rewarding, beneficial, and productive education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The San Francisco native and a product of the city’s unified public school system is a graduate of Fisk University, a private HBCU liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee. 

A member and chairperson of the State Board of Equalization (BOE), was elected last month as the state’s first Black controller. Cohen convincingly beat Republican Lahnee Chen, a former policy adviser to the U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s run for president in 2012.

Cohen will be sworn in as state controller on Jan. 6.

“I’m proud to be a product of an HBCU. It was a great experience,” Cohen said. “I think you’ll continue to see outstanding leadership emerging out of HBCUs more than ever. It’s almost like saying the trees are naturally bearing fruits.”   

Founded in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War to educate the formerly enslaved, Fisk University has received a top 10 ranking among HBCUs, according to the 2019 U.S. News and World Report. 

Cohen earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Fisk University and a Master’s in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Sixty-one percent of students who earn a Fisk degree enter graduate or professional school within one year of their graduation, ahead of the national average of 23%, according to information provided by the HBCU.

Cohen “stands on the shoulders,” she said, of Fisk’s influential writers, journalists, attorneys, judges, intellectuals, academics, activists, politicians, musicians, scientists, activists, inventors, and media personalities, etc.

Powerful individuals such as prolific author W. E. B. DuBois, educator and investigative reporter Ida B. Wells, the first African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary Constance Baker Motley, poet and playwright Nikki Giovanni, civil rights activist Diane Nash, inventor of electrical resistors Otis Boykin, and educator and historian Mary Frances Berry all have an academic connection to Fisk University. 

Wildley known dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison, historian John Hope Franklin, opera pioneer Robert McFerrin Sr., former U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, novelist Nella Larsen, painter Aaron Douglas, artist Terry Adkins and a host of other students and educators are historically tied to Fisk. 

In the summer of 2020, Fisk University renamed its social justice institute in the honor of politician and civil rights icon John Lewis. Lewis was the leader and participant in student sit-ins that led to the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters in the 1960s. He passed away on July 17, 2020.

In 2017, Fisk’s total student body was 630 students. In September, the HBCU reported that it exceeded 1,050 students with an incoming class of just under 400 students. The students comprise of 33 states in the country and five countries.

“Fisk University has always been synonymous with a global concern for equality, inclusion, and prosperity. From W.E.B DuBois to Ida B. Wells, and civil activist Diane Nash, Fisk has helped shape a better world for more than one hundred and fifty years,” Fisk University President Vann Newkirk said in a February 2022 written statement. 

Fisk has solidified a series of unique corporate partnerships including with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, HCA Healthcare, the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, Google, Marsh McLennan, Asurion, Equinix, and Ryan Specialty Group.

Many of these partnerships provide reverse-engineered coursework that directly prepares students to excel at the highest level upon graduation. Some of these courses include coding, big data analytics, and risk management.

Fisk freshman Jeremiah Armstead, from Long Beach, California, said the HBCU provides a “support bracket” that helps him adjust to college life and the classrooms. 

“I wouldn’t get through most obstacles without outstanding support,” said Armstead, who according to the September report, was recruited through a “highly personalized process.”

In 2020, there were 101 HBCUs located in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of the 101 HBCUs, 52 were public institutions and 49 were private nonprofit institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 50% of Black doctors and Black attorneys, 40% of Black engineers and Black members of Congress, and 80% of Black judges graduated from HBCUs. 

Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were the first two HBCU graduates to earn national respectability. Marshall attended Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the oldest Black, first-degree-granting HBCU. Marshall, who litigated and won the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, was confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice On Aug. 30, 1967.   

MLK walked through the gates of HBCU Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, at age 15 and graduated at 19. The scholar and minister led the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s and 1960s. His role was pivotal in ending legal segregation and Jim Crow laws. 

On Jan. 20, 2021, Kamala D. Harris became the first woman, the first African American woman, and the first graduate of an HBCU to be sworn in as the Vice President of the United States of America. Years after she attended Howard University, she was elected District Attorney of San Francisco in 2004, California’s Attorney General in 2011, and U.S. Senator in 2017. 

Now another San Franciscan, Cohen, embodies the spirit of Fisk University and HBCUs’ commitment to the success of scholars and leaders with a global perspective.

“Fisk has been around since 1866. It has taken time for where we’re reaching national prominence,” Cohen said. “But we’ve been dominant, individually, in every sector of society.”

Cohen serves as a chair of the BOE, California’s elected tax commission. She was elected to the BOE in November 2018, served as chair in 2019 and was reelected Chair for 2022, and is the first African-American woman to serve on the BOE.

Prior to being elected to BOE, Cohen served as President of the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco. She was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.

Cohen sponsored the ordinance that eventually banned the retail sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. In the recent election, California voters approved a law banning the sale of tobacco products, including fruit flavor and menthol cigarettes 

As the BOE Board Member for District 2, Cohen represents 10 million constituents living in all or parts of 23 counties extending from Del Norte County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south Previously, she served as a Commissioner of the San Francisco Employee Retirement System (SFERS). 

When she takes over the helm of the controller’s seat she will run the state agency responsible for representing taxpayer interests and making county-by-county tax assessments and adjustments across the state.

The controller’s office is the state’s independent fiscal watchdog, providing oversight and managing more than $100 billion in receipts and disbursements of public funds a year. 

Cohen announced her candidacy for Controller during the California Democratic Party (CDP) 2021 convention, held online from April 29 to May 2. She was endorsed by outgoing controller Betty Yee, who was first elected in November 2014.

“I am not standing in this space by myself. I did not get here by myself. I had a lot of support,” Cohen told The OBSERVER. “I am proud of the relationships and alliedships that we’ve built. This campaign was about equity and the distribution of tax dollars. Though I was criticized for it, the voters proved me correct that they want to see responsible spending. They want transparency.”