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.