This story is a part of the series “Presidents Corner” about the unique experiences, vision and leadership styles of each president at our nation’s 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Morehouse College’s president is Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr. He is the university’s 11th president. He is the former Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

He chats with The Buzz about his leadership at the White House, what he’s learned in over 25 years of experience in higher education and much more.

Robert: You have successfully been the leader of the White House Initiative on HBCU’s from 2009-2012. What did you seek to accomplish during your tenure?

President Wilson: In a role like that, it makes sense to seek to accomplish only one thing – that is, look to fulfill the mandate of the office as defined by the President of the United States. As executive director, my charge was to work with the government’s executive departments, agencies and offices, the private sector, educational associations, philanthropic organizations, and other partners to increase the capacity of HBCUs to provide a high-quality education. My team and I sought to promote excellence, innovation, and sustainability at HBCUs.

On my watch, we chose four strategies and we were measurably successful in each area.

Regarding perception enhancement, I rarely missed an opportunity to speak publicly about the critical need to heighten the value proposition of HBCUs. In addition, we worked to get Obama administration officials on HBCU campuses, usually as commencement speakers, to tell them and others that we can’t maintain our nation’s competitiveness without the enhanced productivity of HBCUs. In addition, on two separate occasions, I had the privilege of promoting a new kind of HBCU messaging on the back page of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Regarding campus enrichment, we successfully worked with the federal agencies to make available to HBCUs far more funding for initiatives in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Regarding strategy development, we convinced a private philanthropic agency to provide one HBCU with a grant of over a million dollars to engage in what is called a “blue ocean strategy,” or a radical attempt to help generate “value innovation” in a frame-changing way. That experiment is still underway.

And, perhaps most importantly, in the area of capital enlargement, we greatly increased the overall federal funding to HBCUs. Just before President Obama took office, the total federal funding to HBCUs was a little under $4 billion. Just after President Obama’s first term, as I shifted from the White House to Morehouse, the federal funding had risen to over $5.3 billion.

Robert: What do you have to say about the career trajectory of those who seek to someday lead HBCU’s and the White House Initiative on HBCUs? What preparation and education must happen?

President Wilson: The pathways to the presidency in higher education have always had two main prerequisites– academic and administrative heft. I am not sure that will ever change that much. On the academic side, it helps enormously to be able to generate great knowledge (research and scholarship) or effectively convey it as a great teacher. Being able to do both well is an obvious advantage. But academic heft must also be paired with administrative heft, with an emphasis on sound management and fundraising. Leaders today must understand the private sector and what makes it tick. They must be able to convert campus-based ideas, initiatives and projects into attractive investment opportunities for alumni and potential friends.

But there really is no such thing as “the right preparation.” That is, there is no guaranteed formula for a successful rise to a college or university presidency. Instead, there are strengths and experiences that I think the most successful presidents tend to have in common, and academic and administrative heft are at the core of that. Around that core should be attributes, outlooks and skills that are responsive to the demands and imperatives of this new century. For instance, it is quite clear that today’s college leaders must be visionaries with entrepreneurial interests and a strong orientation towards managerial execution, which includes knowing how and when to admit failure. They must be high-energy risk takers and good listeners with well-developed interpersonal skills. Good leaders like this are hard to find because so few people are so optimally equipped.

Robert: With over 25 years of higher education experience, what have you learned that has been the most imperative to you?

President Wilson: I have learned that talent matters most. Human capital deficiencies are what stall or thwart the progress of most struggling institutions, inside and outside of higher education. If you cannot get the right people aboard, you have no chance to succeed. But if a leader can converge superior talent in enough areas, she or he can truly transform any institution. On that very point, while I served at the White House, an HBCU president handed me a book with a title that said it all – You Can’t Send a Duck to Eagle School. Too many colleges and universities, black and white, employ far too many “ducks,” or people who are not concerned about the welfare of the institution, typically because they are either lazy, unethical, unambitious, insufficiently intelligent, or somehow lacking in organizational awareness and broad vision. And they also tend to have neither the interest nor instinct to be truly transformational professionals.

On my watch at Morehouse College, we are looking to firmly establish an “eagle culture,” top to bottom – staff, faculty and students. We will be successful when eagles and baby eagles rule, and “ducks” either choose or are forced to find work elsewhere. This may sound a little harsh, but my 25 years in the industry of higher education have clarified this concern as real…very real.

Robert: How do you build programs that push students to be socially conscious as alumni in the world?

President Wilson: I claim no credit for doing that, because it is already in the DNA of Morehouse College. Reflecting on how it was created and how it might be replicated, I think you start by having faculty who love and live servant leadership. Pretty much from the start, the axis around which the faculty culture turned at Morehouse was servant leadership. Morehouse faculty understood that they were preparing men for a hostile world, so they had to equip them with extra competence and confidence. Morehouse faculty have also emphasized foundational imperatives such as spirituality, compassion and love.

They were not educating men to simply do well, but to do good, too. Perhaps that can be said about a number of other places, but with graduates like MartinLuther King, Jr., Surgeon General David Satcher, filmmaker Spike Lee, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, technologist Paul Judge, and scores of others, I think it’s safe to say that we have been getting more than just a few things right at Morehouse College.

Robert: What else would you like to share?

President Wilson: This may sound somewhat defensive, but I think, where HBCUs are concerned, history will be kind to President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. There is a very shrill and largely fact-free grievance narrative that has depicted our president and secretary as enemies of HBCUs. The actual truth is far different, but I think that will become evident in time. I also think the HBCUs that will flourish and prosper in the future will be those with enough institutional agency to see themselves and be seen as investment seekers trying to create the future, rather than charity seekers trying to correct the past. For ?HBCUs and others, understanding and operating according to that distinction can literally be the difference between surviving and thriving.

Stay tuned to The Buzz for the latest in HBCU news.


  1. It hard for me to understand the President of Morehouse not to be abreast of this article and the meeting with The Black Caucus and College presidents on Feb. 4 2015. Doc come on some of us do read! Barry Soetoro AKA President Obama has not a clue in being a black man. He never lived it and cares nothing about Black Colleges. Every White President signed funding for HBCU’s without a hitch but not this one. Read for yourself how black systems are being eliminated by people that look like you and me.

    I’m a Graduate of Fisk University, that school taught me more about perseverance, dignity, pride and most of all family. If you never experienced it I can’t explain it to you, was it perfect no but guess what it is mine. So For what ever your reasons, for supporting him at the end of the day he has hurt us and you know it to be true in your heart.

    These are difficult times for our institutions, our students and their families – even more difficult than when we first began this journey together in 2009.” — Hampton University President William Harvey, Chair, President Obama’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, Feb. 4. 2015

    President Obama was critical of Historically Black Colleges and Universities during a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus this week according to several in attendance. The February 10 meeting was the first group gathering with the Black Caucus and the President since June 2013.

    Several who attended the meeting indicated that President Obama felt that the focus of HBCU’s needs to be on the schools changing their ways of doing business rather on changes in federal policy. Those who attended said he was specifically critical of graduation rates and loan policies. The President also spoke to CBC members on his free community college plan which some HBCU advocates believe will hurt HBCUs.

    The Chair of President Obama’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, Hampton President Dr. William Harvey, was critical of the lack of input the Board had on the community college proposal during a speech in Washington to Administration officials on February 4. He also said he was ”disappointed and saddened” by the lack of agency funding for Historically Black colleges and Universities.

    “We are not consulted when it comes to policy changes and decisions impacting – in a major way – the institutions on whose behalf we are to advocate. It happened with Pell. It happened with Parent Plus. And, now it is happening with the new community college initiative,” President Obama’s HBCU Initiative Chairman said on Feb. 4.

    HBCUs have had a tough time during the Obama Administration. In 2011, a change by the Department of Education to Parent PLUS loan standards would eventually cost HBCUs over $150 million. In August 2012, Morris Brown College filed for Chapter 11. In 2013, St. Paul College closed after 125 years. This week it was learned that South Carolina State University may close for at least a year. Title III spending on HBCUs has steadily gone down since 2009.

    “Pell grants to students at HBCUs are down. Direct loans to our students are down. Graduate subsidies have been eliminated. In addition to student support, overall support to Black colleges is down,” Dr. Harvey, who has been President of Hampton since 1978, said on Feb. 4.

    Dr. William Harvey

    Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), an alum of South Carolina State University, would not speak on the school’s situation. When asked to comment on what President Obama said on HBCUs at the February 10, White House meeting with the CBC, Clyburn said, “it’s for-profit schools where the graduation rate problem is — not HBCUs, the Parent PLUS loan stuff has to do with new rules on credit worthiness and I just think that in the discussion he mangled it.”

    Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apologized in 2013 for the “real impact” the Parent PLUS change had on HBCUs. A modification of the Parent PLUS criteria was announced by the Department of Education in October 2014 and is set to take effect in July 2015.

    Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), a graduate of North Carolina Central and North Carolina Central Law School, declined to comment on what the President said on HBCUs on February 10 during the CBC’s meeting with the President.

    Other members commented.

    “He said there were some HBCUs that were not good at graduating students and if they did not improve they’d have to go by the wayside,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA).

    “In other words he didn’t show much empathy for struggling HBCUs. It was like show me the numbers and if the numbers aren’t where they need to be, that’s it. It was a somewhat callous view of the unique niche HBCUs fill,” Rep. Johnson, a graduate of Clark Atlanta University, said. Rep. Johnson said there needs to be a deeper discussion with the President on HBCU issues.

    “We worked on this for two years and it’s a lack of understanding with this Administration and – in particular — this Secretary,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) from Florida referring to Education Secretary Duncan. Rep. Brown is a graduate of Florida A&M.

    “I worked at a community college for 16 years. I worked at a Black college for four years. I worked at the University of Florida for four years. We’re talking about community colleges for everybody — we should be talking about programs and the money following the kids. They should have the option of going to wherever they want to go for those two years,” Rep. Brown added.

    Former Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge (D-OH) also commented on the President’s comments on HBCUs. She said he did have some positive things to say about some schools but that, “It was clear to me that some of the information he has is probably from a narrative that he’s getting from someone else that’s not very accurate.”

    “He and the Secretary have said in the past that there are HBCUs failing our children — and that might well be true — but if that’s the case then they need to shore up those HBCUs or they need to close them and not use them against us as we fight for resources for other schools,” Rep. Fudge added. She is a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

    “I would also suggest that there are as many private and for-profit schools who fail our children in a much larger way and nobody talks about them. Why single out HBCUs?,” she added.

    A look at the worst graduation rates in the U.S. showed several HBCUs but also listed were Utah Valley University (15% graduation rate), University of Maryland-University College (10%) and Kent State University (23%).

    Rep. Fudge was critical of the Department of Education, saying, ”I think they have created an environment where if you don’t agree with what they think you are the enemy as opposed to trying to find a way that we can all come together and educate children. Much of this doesn’t come from the White House but from the Department of Education and the Secretary in particular,”

    “What we ought to be talking about is: If there are weaknesses at certain HBCUs what do we do to strengthen those institutions?” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) who graduated from Jackson State University and Tougaloo. Both Rep. Thompson and Rep. Fudge brought up the funding disparities between HBCUs and other institutions as a big problem.

    The CBC’s First Vice Chair, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) said, “I was concerned about what the President said because it feeds into a narrative about the value of these institutions and whether they are equip to educate our students and what the cost is for doing so,” Rep. Clarke added.

    “Many of these institutions have not had a maintenance of effort on the part of states or the federal government and over time that wears on their ability to maintain standards or even advance beyond a certain level. It was very clear that he doesn’t have the same level of appreciation for what these institutions have done and could do in the future given the right support systems,” Rep. Clarke concluded.

    Several members at Monday’s meeting remarked that President Obama appeared very tired during the 90 minute meeting. The following morning, Feb. 11, would be the day President Obama would request additional military options against ISIS from Congress.

    “You could look at the President and tell that at any moment he was going to fall on his face. He was falling asleep. He probably didn’t know what he said. I didn’t take it as an offense because I don’t think he really knew what he was saying — placing HBCUs all in one basket. But he was critical of HBCUs,” a senior member who was at the meeting said.

    Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), a graduate of Morehouse, said, “I think many people only want to look at output of the universities. Nobody looks at the input at what they’re starting with. They’re taking kids who are largely Pell Grant recipients, largely first generation, largely kids who come in needing remedial courses, kids who come from pubic school systems that have failed them.”

    “I don’t think it’s fair to compare apples to oranges. I have a different take on it especially as a public school graduate who went off to Morehouse and succeeded. I think HBCUS are a nurturing environment and their goal is to take all those diamonds in the rough and polish them. It’s just a different role, scope and mission,” added Rep. Richmond.

    Chicago Reps. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) said he had no problem with what the President said on HBCUs at Monday’s meeting.

    “There are individuals who think that the community college initiative is going to damaging to HBCUs. That has not necessarily been born out yet. I graduated from an HBCU,” Rep. Davis said. “He [the President] was talking about schools whose graduation rates were not all that good. I got the impression he was saying he needed to shape up their game,” Rep. Davis added. Rep. Davis is a graduate of Chicago State University.

    Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee who led the discussion on education policy with President Obama during the White House meeting, pointed out a recent $25 million federal cyber security grant for Norfolk State University when asked about the meeting. The grant was announced by Vice President Biden on January 15 at NSU.

  2. John Wilson was a horrible figure head for the WHI on HBCUs, and it is clear that he suffers from “head in sand” syndrome as President of Morehouse ignoring the damage done to his own institution by the actions, or inaction, of the Obama administration.

Comments are closed.