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Morehouse president moves college ahead

Bridgit Brown
Morehouse president moves college ahead
John S. Wilson Jr. was named Morehouse president on Nov. 12, 2012.

Dr. John Silvanus Wilson is no stranger to Boston. The Morehouse graduate came to Harvard and received a master’s degree in theology, as well as master’s degree and Ph.D. in administration, planning and social policy.

He then went on to serve as director of foundation relations and assistant provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was not long before he was tapped by the Obama Administration to serve as White House director for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

While in Boston this past weekend, Wilson attended the Morehouse Glee Club performance at the Old South Church on Friday and spoke at the Young Men’s Leadership Conference on Saturday at the Joan Kroc Corp Community Center in Roxbury.

The conference was designed to encourage middle and high school boys to think seriously about college.

Dr. Wilson spoke about the dangers of ignorance in today’s knowledge economy, and then he spoke to the Banner about the importance of HBCUs, funding challenges in higher education and his bold idea to make Morehouse a world-class educational environment.   

Why is it important to have a Morehouse, or any historically black college or university today?

Because you have black colleges, [that] does not mean that black colleges are exclusive. Black colleges were never segregated or never segregating institutions. You can’t name an HBCU that has ever had a policy that said only blacks are allowed to be educated here. In fact, it was white institutions that had those policies and HBCUs were created as places where African Americans could be educated, but they have always had an open door for others — and that’s really important to understand.  

In fact, many HBCUs have white and Hispanic students attending them now. For those who would question HBCUs in this time, there are two responses: one is, it is important to know that in the Obama Administration, we never wondered whether HBCUs should exist. HBCUs are doing a great job for America and producing graduates who are ready for the world.

The other response that I have about HBCUs and diversity in American higher education is very straightforward: HBCUs need to exist as an option in higher education just as much as a Brandeis University needs to exist as an option for those of the Jewish religion that wants to be educated in an environment that is more tailored for them than for others.

In the same way that Notre Dame needs to exist as an environment that is an option for those who want to be around a disproportionate number of Catholics; in the same way that Brigham Young University needs to exist for Mormons and the same way that Wellesley College needs to exist for women. There’s a lot of diversity that is still in higher education and there are still, in America today, a lot of niche institutions that provide environments that are especially made for a subset of the population. And we believe firmly that that ought to be celebrated rather than criticized, because it makes America strong and it makes America unique.

What are some of the specific funding challenges that HBCUs face?

In terms of funding challenges faced by HBCUs, it’s not terribly different from other institutions. The federal government is shrinking a bit, but in general there is less federal funding available to higher education. States are withdrawing their support. More than half of the HBCUs are state-controlled colleges.

There are challenges in the private sector as well. I wrote about that in particular in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I want to speak specifically though, in terms of funding challenges, about alumni giving.  

The national average on alumni giving is roughly 13 percent. HBCUs average around 8 percent of alumni giving. Morehouse is roughly at 30 percent, so we are higher than the national average on alumni giving, but we’re not as high as we want and need to be and so in looking at the financial challenges that we have at Morehouse, we are looking at it holistically.

Sure, we would like to get more federal support in terms of research. We’d love to be embraced more by the philanthropic community in general, and we’re also pressing to get our alumni to give even more than they do now. We’re not content to be above the alumni or the average for HBCUs. We want and need them to give a whole lot more.

I am going to work hard to engage more of our alums. I’m going to get out and ask for their support, and I’m going to be very clear about the reasons why we have a great value proposition and they ought to support us. And I should mention that we also have a lot of excitement growing in our alumni base because on May 19, 2013, we’re going to be visited by the President of the United States as our graduation speaker at Morehouse College.

This will be the first time that any college or university in the state of Georgia has been visited by a sitting United States president to be the graduation speaker. There are a number of states in America that have not had that, so we’re going to make history in May. We’re proud of that, and our alumni are very excited, and the excitement is growing. We’re going to see an uptick in support from alumni on that basis.

Can you talk about the broken financial model in higher education and explain some solutions that you have for preparing the model at Morehouse?

There’s been a lot of recognition on some high-profile platforms that the financial model in higher education is broken and many colleges and universities have reached a price point that is very difficult for most of the families in America. The tuition is way too high and it is very difficult for many families to figure out how to pull together the resources through a combination of loans and grants and just spending their hard-earned money.

How to figure out how to do that for four years straight and get one student through college — never mind multiple students through college — and that’s the basis for which there has been a recognition that the financial model is broken.

We’re challenged at Morehouse with that same question, and because we have that question and because of a new president, we’re going to zero in on helping to meet that challenge by being most creative and innovative as we think about how to ensure that the education that we provide remains of high quality but is more affordable.

So we’re thinking of ways to take a hybrid approach. Our tuition is not as high as many others, but it is a challenge for many of our families. We’re thinking about if some families have to stop, we don’t want it to be a drop out but a ‘stop out’ while they need a little more time to build up some resources.

We’re thinking about offering a subset of our courses online, and for free so that they could ‘stop out’ and take a break from paying tuition and being on campus.

What are some new initiatives taking place at Morehouse?

We’re on a mission now to create, at Morehouse College, a cathedral, and we’re going to be engaging a lot of people in the philanthropic market place with the creation of this cathedral — that being a world-class educational environment. We believe that we already have character preeminence.

We know how to produce smart people who are also good, and as evidence of that our most illustrious graduate, Martin Luther King, Jr., is now memorialized in granite on the National Mall. Of course we have a national holiday named for him as well. We want to produce more Martin Luther Kings, but we want to produce a Martin Luther King of biology, chemistry and of political science.

We just want to do more of that in various areas, so we believe we have the infrastructure for creating more tgame-changers for the world in various areas. What we don’t have is, to put aside that character preeminence, is what I call “capital preeminence” and that’s when you have a great endowment and you’re able to pay your faculty at competitive rates.

We have a great physical structure and that all goes to the physical capital and the information capital and the academic capital. We just need a larger endowment and a larger flow of revenue into the institution. So the big idea is to build a cathedral and you don’t have a cathedral unless you have both character and capital preeminence in the same place at the same time.

What are your thoughts on being president of Morehouse College at this particular time in history?

I’m beginning my presidency at Morehouse at a very auspicious time. It’s the year 2013, and not only is it significant that we have a visit by the President of the United States this year, but also 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, so you have a new kind of freedom in mind for Morehouse.

2013 is also the 100th anniversary of Morehouse being called Morehouse. It was changed from Atlanta Baptist College to Morehouse College in 1913, so being the 100th anniversary of being called Morehouse, we believe it’s the ideal time to rethink and reconsider our institutional identity and to surge forward toward some new thinking about that.

Most people believe that W.E.B. Du Bois is the one who came up with the concept of the Talented Tenth, but that’s not true. It was Henry Lyman Morehouse — after whom the college was named — who originated the idea of the Talented Tenth. We need to think about where we are vis-à-vis the Talented Tenth of African American males in this day and age.

As a new president starting out in 2013, it’s an auspicious time, and I’m glad the President of the United States is going to visit this year — we are going to use this as a launch point for our quest to become a cathedral in American higher education.