Michael Alexander

As one of a small number of African American males in a class of about 500 students at Lewis University in the 1970s, Michael Alexander ’72 drew on his skills and experiences from Lewis to become a transformative leader throughout his career.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Michael now lives in Portland, Oregon where he was recently appointed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown to the Port of Portland Commission. In his new position as a Commissioner, he is responsible for managing airport operations, supporting marine terminals, and overseeing industrial development.

“I feel like I am a kid on a big playground in this new position,” says Michael. “It is refreshing to do something different every day. I get to travel unique places, try new things, and meet different people every day.”

Michael enjoys being surrounded by individuals who live openly and welcome difference.  He sees Portland as a place that has a spot for everyone at the table. “There is a very common bumper stick in Portland that reads ‘Keep Portland Weird’ which allows individuals to represent themselves and what they believe in, while continuously learning to understand others,” Michael adds. 

Michael believes his life-changing experiences at Lewis allowed him to grow into a successful leader in his professional roles. “I was lucky enough to have grown up during a very transformative time,” says Michael. “It was a very challenging time at Lewis as we began to diversify, but it gave me the chance to mature and think and act like a leader.”

Michael was attending Lewis during the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination in 1968 and found himself struggling with all of the rising problems regarding prejudice. This motivated Michael to work hard and make a difference, starting with Lewis. “It was us or it (Lewis University) that had to change, and we made it pretty clear that it was not going to only be us,” Michael says. (Photo below courtesy of the 1972 Lewis University yearbook. Interested in more yearbook photos? Check them out online!)

Heavily involved in student activism, Michael focused on working with several administrators to diversify campus including the student base, curriculum, faculty, staff, and other areas. For many students, college is a time to kick back and relax, but for Michael, it was much more.

“I knew what I stood for and understood what I had to do,” says Michael proudly. “While most people could not comprehend what we were doing and put us down, there were a few who welcomed the difference that we represented.”

Michael attributes much of his hard work and perseverance to two individuals at Lewis: Tom Kennedy ‘62 and Charles Jones ‘66. Charles was hired as an advisor to the President and Administrator for Student Affairs in 1968, and acted as a mentor to Michael and other members of the newly created Black Student Union. Tom acted as a voice of conscience and deacon of integrity for Michael. He always was there to reassure Michael that the world was a better place than he thought. “Tom always comforted me with the idea that not everybody I trusted had to look like me,” Michael says.

After being suspended for a semester for activities associated with student protests on campus, Michael returned to finish what he started at the university. He graduated in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Lewis College, before continuing on to obtain his master’s degree at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Michael found that Lewis not only provided him with a solid foundation of knowledge, but also prepared him to address problems he would face after graduation.

One of his proudest moments was returning to the campus in 1994 to receive the Alumni Achievement Award for Leadership. The plaque has been proudly displayed on his home office wall for over 20 years.

“I had many painful experiences at Lewis, but with those, came rich experiences as well,” says Michael. “I know that if I would have attended a bigger school, I would not have learned so much.”  

Michael stays busy as Commissioner of the Port of Portland and actively serving on the boards of Black United Fund, the American Leadership Forum of Oregon, and the Northwest Health Foundation; community boards for BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and Wells Fargo; and committees for Black Male Achievement and Oregon Healthiest State. In his spare time, Michael loves to spend time with his wife, Nancy, his three children and four grandchildren.

Michael has had a very fulfilling career as a skilled healthcare-industry leader, holding several different executive roles at companies such as Regence BlueCross BlueShield, Magellan Behavioral Health, and Aetna. In 2012, he assumed the role of President and CEO of The Urban League of Portland, one of the oldest African American service, civil rights and advocacy organizations in the area. There, he was dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans and achieving equality in education, healthcare, employment, and economic stability, before retiring in 2015.

January 2017

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