BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Interview with Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Pres. of Morehouse College
By Dr. Pola Rosen & Lydia Liebman
Transcribed by Lydia Liebman
Education Update (EU): Where would you like Morehouse College to be in five years?
Dr. John Silvanus Wilson (JSW): In five years I want Morehouse to be measurably on the way to what we strive for. My inaugural address was called “The World of Our Dreams” and I contend that as soon as we have the world of our dreams on campus it will be much easier to realize the world of our dreams on earth: this means capital and character preeminence. We need to produce first-rate men and we need to do it on a first rate campus. Capital preeminence means a first rate campus and that means a great endowment, well paid faculty, top notch facilities and generous financial aid… basically, the infrastructure. Character preeminence means where educated men who are not only smart but good, who are able to compete in the world now and work toward a new one.
EU: What are your thoughts on a tuition free education like Minerva College in California?
JSW: There is no question that we need to drive the cost of education down. Morehouse College and HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities) have not been as pricey as a lot of other options but relative to our constituency it’s been an enormous challenge. We do not have the option to let our costs keep growing. We have to disrupt the financial model that we have which means also disrupting the financial model in higher education. There’s diversity in higher education and I think you have a number of options that are pricey and not so pricey so there ought to be some options that are free. I’m confident that we’ll successfully flatten and then reduce the cost of education at Morehouse but I’m not guessing we’ll be able to offer it free on my watch. I admire Minerva.
EU: What has been the greatest challenge you have faced?
JSW: Capital impairment. Most small liberal arts colleges have this issue and we certainly don’t have a large enough endowment. You don’t have the freedom to go where your imagination will take you as we did at Harvard when I attended there. I would like to see Morehouse College and a few other HBCU’s shift from funding being the problem to imagination being the problem instead. That’s a challenge I would love to overcome.
EU: What has been your greatest triumph?
JSW: I think the most significant triumph has been hosting the president of the US on campus. On my sixth day in office I received a phone call from the White House that led to the president being the graduation speaker of Morehouse in May 2013. Five months later, for the first time ever, a sitting president came to Morehouse College and it’s the first time in Georgia for any college—black or white. That was a triumph and a signature moment for the college. The first degree I ever awarded as president was to President Obama. I gave him an honorary degree and then proceeded to hand out the degrees to five hundred African American males, Secondly, I would say, in the area of capital preeminence: I had an anonymous donor, a billionaire, get in touch with me. I think he saw the article in Harvard magazine and was intrigued. After a number of conversations he asked what our most important needs were and on the list of things I shared with him was our need to upgrade the technology infrastructure on campus. He asked how much it would take and I told him we had done an analysis that showed we needed 6.8 million dollars. He said he would give us a quarter if you could get the board of trustees to match it in 3 months. We did it!
EU: It is difficult to maintain the integrity of a single sex school. Is coed on the horizon for Morehouse?
JSW: You probably know that the all female Spelman is right across the street. This is basically a coed environment. We cross register. It’s pretty much like Harvard and Radcliffe were. The question about why we need HBCU’s is on the minds of a lot of people, and understandably, since the quest was for integration. It’s understandable for some to think that same sex and same race institutions should go away. The definition of progress has HBCU’s disappearing now that the doors of other institutions are wide open, even though I don’t think they are. It’s an obstacle because if people have a question whether or not you should exist, it’s a longer pathway to get people to invest in you in order to be world class. You’re going from non-existent to state of the art. So for people who ask about being predominately black or being all male I would say that when I was in college, graduating in the late 70’s, there were over 300 women only colleges in the country. There are now 50. Nobody would ever ask if Wellesley should be coed. Single sex women’s institutions have gotten themselves to a place where it is very clear they contribute enormously to this country and to this world. Do we need 105 HBCU’s? Probably not, but there is no question in my mind that the nation and the world needs Morehouse College.
What we have done for this nation and this world is incomparable with graduates like Spike Lee, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jay Johnson… all kinds of political leaderships from Maynard Jackson to a number of other mayors and congressman. We have also graduated a large number of religious leadership at the major pulpits of this country. I’m a big fan of what we do here, and what a school like Barnard does. I think the women only colleges have established themselves and that the HBCU sector will rise in a few years due to the disruption in the climate right now.
EU: Have we made progress in racial equality? Can you comment on what’s been going on in the news and on the film Selma, if you have seen it?
JSW: First, let me say that I saw Selma just yesterday. There is no question that we have made significant progress. But that film depicted killings by the authorities, by law officers, with impunity and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with now. There were no indictments back then and there wasn’t even a proper court system for those crimes. It is ironic, at least, that we’re dealing scenarios in Ferguson and in New York and in Cleveland and elsewhere where you have a video tape of the killing and what we’re being told is that looking into whether this is a crime is not necessary. That is an echo of the earlier era, which was tragic in and of itself and fundamentally at odds with what we’re supposed to be about. We must not go back there.
EU: In your opinion, what is the best way to overcome hatred, inequality, lack of education and financial hardships?
JSW: Things we can do now for immediate results. One, the thing that struck me most about the recent events involving the black males was the presumption of guilt and villainy here. This can be combated by education. We need a new conversation in this country and I am proud that Attorney General Eric Holder visited several cities, Atlanta included, and started a conversation about this presumption of guilt and the need for all Americans to receive the benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty. To overcome the inequality we need a new conversation. I was proud of the reaction and the protests around the country and how multiracial they were. There were a lot of people who were outraged. This can’t be episodic… this has to be extended into a long-term set of conversations. Morehouse College is going to be a platform these conversations on the road ahead. In terms of overcoming financial hardship and inequality, the agenda of the current secretary of education is well designed to, over the long haul, change trajectories for black and other minority and poor Americans. You can see that if you take a careful look at what this department of education has done and what it has been doing about advancing the educational agenda in this country. They are getting resources to people who could not get access to them before. They require any state that wanted to compete for the funds as the core part of their proposal show how they were going to get resources and change the educational trajectory for the least well served in their state. We had to reach into the inner cities. Forty percent of the funding that has been distributed in that particular initiative is reaching minorities, which is unheard of for a federal program. That will change the education trajectory of a million of Americas and I think for the better. And that is in that strategy. We are going to overcome financial hardships, hatred and equality through a more competitive education going to Americans who have found it difficult to get a competitive education.
EU: I have come across many success stories with African American children being raised in single parent households with tremendous hardships and then going on to very successful careers while attaining the highest levels of education.
JSW: I believe in second chances. This is the beauty of not just America but many religions where everyday can be a new day. Every day is a new opportunity to answer the call on your life to discover why you’re here. Whenever I hear stories like that I think everybody is here for a reason and unfortunately, many people in this world never discover that reason. The kind of stories told about people coming out of profoundly negative circumstances and emerging to achieve voice in life is just great. At Morehouse we have a number of students who come out of women led households and have never had a father in the picture. And they come out of circumstances, family, educationally, and otherwise, that would cause most reasonable people to predict negative outcomes and yet it is our privilege and our challenge to create for them, an environment here that trumps every negative circumstance they ever had and positions them to move in and shape for themselves thoroughly positive circumstances. I believe in that story. I could not be president of this college if I didn’t believe that you could make a phoenix rise from the ashes.
One thing to add is that as soon as we say we turn a lot of lives around it creates the impression that those that we enroll are largely coming out of broken circumstances. The beauty of this environment is that we can find those that came in as the best and brightest and are looking at Morehouse to prepare them for ivy leagues, and then we have those that are striving to be the best and brightest. We’re doing both here and that’s the true beauty of Morehouse College.
EU: What is the key to your success?
JSW: Parenting. Growing up for me, home was a learning environment. My wife and I have raised our three children with home as a learning environment through and through and in some ways even more than school. Parenting is critical. If you want to try to understand why there’s been such challenge in a lot of minority communities you can look at the breakdown of the family and the home environment. When you don’t have strong families the key is mentoring. You can look at most of the successful people in the world and they are able to point to the one or two people who made a significant difference. It only takes one or two mentors to make a difference. #