College Dropout to PhD: The Bold & Beautiful Marc Lamont Hill

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, 33, is Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and an affiliated faculty member in its African American Studies Department. In 2010, he became host of the nationally syndicated Our World With Black Enterprise, earning the magazine-style television show made popular by Ed Gordon, its highest ratings.  His newest book, “The Classroom and The Cell; Conversations of Black Life in America” [Third World Press] is a series of 15 minute phone calls with Mumia Abu Jamal—the former Black Panther accused of killing a Philadelphia police officer—whose innocence he defends with other activists around the world.

A regular on the cable news circuit, Hill is challenged with bringing nuance to single note, top-of-the-lungs debates with conservative hosts like, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. An inspiring orator (with a style more Baptist preacher than Ivy League professor), for nearly 200 days a year, he travels the country speaking at colleges, universities and labor and student union groups. He does so with sartorial aplomb, which has landed the handsome bachelor on his hometown paper, the Philadelphia Daily News’ “most eligible” list. An early investor in social media as a forum for popular public discourse (See his intriguing timeline on Twitter @marclamonthill), Hill is at the forefront of a new generation of Black scholars poised to become household names. Here he talks balancing the public and the private, the academy and Fox News and visiting his co-author Mumia Abu Jamal on death row.

EBONY.COM: You're a rising academic star. You earned your PhD in your twenties, published your first book by 30. But you dropped out of college as a freshman. How did you get derailed at Morehouse and how'd you get back on track at Temple University before earning your doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania?

When I was at Morehouse I found it to be a really strong community and academic environment. The problem was, I didn't feel connected to it. One of the problems is I was more interested in basketball than school and when basketball didn't work out the way I though it would I lost interest in school. I was still interested in ideas, in education but I wasn't convinced that college was for me. And so I left. I spent time in Atlanta hanging out and getting in trouble. In the meantime there were elders, some of them I knew well, some complete strangers, who wisely encouraged me to get back on track. They told me that I was squandering an opportunity, that I wasn't maximizing my potential and that I was gifted. I went back to Philadelphia, worked a 50 hr job and went to school full time and have been playing catch up every since. In fact, I think the amount of work I do now, this ripping and running, is partly animated by the belief that I haven't caught up yet.

EBONY.COM: During those years you had actually dropped out of Morehouse and were no longer in school,  could you imagine yourself a 33-year-old Ivy league professor?

My freshman year at Morehouse the annual Crown Forum speaker was Michael Eric Dyson. I hadn't heard of him before I got there but he completely dazzled every student in the audience, including me. He was smart and engaging and he connected his academic knowledge to the problems facing our community. It was the first time I understood just how powerful words and ideas could be, it was the first time I understood you could get a PhD and help somebody. Even when I dropped out I held onto my excitement about the world of ideas.

EBONY.COM: You ended up working with Dr. Dyson at Penn...

Yeah, the universe works in awesome ways; my second year in grad school at Penn he came from DePaul and I reached out to him and became his assistant and he's been a very important friend and mentor ever since.

EBONY.COM: What were your earliest experiences in the classroom like? What kind of student were you as a child? Was your love of learning encouraged in the classroom?

I learned to read when I was three. I was always excited about reading. Like a lot of kids I was inquisitive and precocious. In my neighborhood and home that was supported. When I got to school I began to doubt my ability, not as a small kid but as I got older I learned more often than not what I couldn't do. After about 4th grade I stopped getting the benefit of the doubt. I'll give you an example of what I mean. In 4th grade I took a standardized test. I made a mistake and skipped one of the bubbles, so as a result all the answers that followed the skipped bubbles were wrong. When my teacher reviewed the exam, and saw