Do We Still Need HBCUs?

John Silvanus Wilson is the new president of Morehouse, the famed historically black college in Atlanta. Host Michel Martin speaks with Wilson about the challenges facing the only all-male HBCU.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Morehouse College is the only all-male historically black college or university in the country. Its alumni include the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. It is now preparing to welcome its 11th president. He is John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., himself a graduate of Morehouse. That was in 1979. He returns to lead his alma mater after putting decades of fundraising and leadership experience under his belt, including as a former executive director of the White House initiative on historically black colleges and universities. And John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. is kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON, JR.: And thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Is it congratulations or condolences?

WILSON: Oh, it's congratulations. It's congratulations. I am really happy to be going back to Morehouse. We have some challenges there, but I'm ready for it. I'm ready to rally the troops.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you came to this post or you come to this post after working with the Obama administration on its initiatives to strengthen the HBCUs, and you know, we've talked about - and you've certainly had many conferences about the financial challenges facing these institutions and also some of the mission challenges facing some of these institutions. Many people still question why some of these institutions need to continue, given that the barriers to educational opportunity that existed- led to their creation - no longer exist.

WILSON: Right.

MARTIN: So what do you have to say about that?

WILSON: In the Obama administration we never questioned whether HBCUs need to exist. As a matter of fact, we did the reverse. We built in a set of high expectations for HBCUs in terms of the numbers they needed to graduate to help the nation reach the 2020 goal. That's the first time that has happened, so there is no question that we need HBCUs. We just need them to do what they do better.

MARTIN: But why do you need HBCUs?

WILSON: Well, I think HBCUs serve a special function. They continue to serve a special function. We have a better time graduating students. It is a more nurturing environment, in some cases. I should say this though. We kind of moved away from the general value proposition for HBCUs. We really do think that each individual HBCU has to establish and clarify and trumpet their own value proposition, and that gives me, again, a sense of pride and energy about moving to Morehouse to prove that concept there.

MARTIN: Well, to your point about the value proposition, I mean some of these institutions regularly appear on the lists of top liberal arts colleges, best value in higher education. I mean that's across the board, not just for HBCUs in general.

You know, but to that end, you know, last year, as we mentioned, you are going to Morehouse. Morehouse's president, Robert Franklin, resigned last year, but he was not the only one. Julianne Malveaux, well-known economist and sort of public intellectual, ended her tenure at Bennett College last year. James Ammons resigned from Florida A&M University following the death of a FAMU band member last year.

These are all very different circumstances, but when you see sort of three very high profile people leaving their posts in the same year, you wonder. Do you think that there's something particularly challenging about leading one of these institutions at this particular point in time?

WILSON: I think it is. You know, we did some messaging about it a year ago when we noticed that about 17 of the 105 HBCUs had openings in leadership, were searching for a new president. That was probably the highest rate ever. This is a very challenging job and...

MARTIN: Because?

WILSON: It is because, as many people are recognizing across higher education, black and white, the value proposition and the financial model, particularly for liberal arts institutions - they are under a lot of stress. The financial model is unsustainable. We cannot continue to climb in cost - 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars a year from families, so something has to happen, and that's why you see open online courses. You see a lot of online education operations coming - a different way to get a credential.

And so we're concerned about that. Some of us are integrating that into our strategy so that we can offer that on our campuses and relieve some of the financial pressure for these families. But the bottom line is we have to take a hard look at our financial model right now.

MARTIN: And is the particular stress point for these HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, in part that their alumni have not achieved the kind of wealth that allows them to give it away?

WILSON: That's part of the story, but more importantly, I think a lot of alumni of HBCUs are wealthy, but they don't give, so the national giving rate across the board is 13 percent, alumni giving rate. At HBCUs, it's in the single digits, around eight percent, which is a surprise, because most HBCU graduates you speak to say, you know, they're proud HBCU graduates. So they don't give, by and large, and that's one of the things...

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

WILSON: In my position at the White House I got to a number of HBCUs, talked to thousands and thousands of graduates. Many of the graduates are concerned, have left with a kind of attitude about the place, and I'll just be frank with you. You know, I worked for many years at MIT, and at MIT it was - the experience was like a boot camp. It was a hard experience for a lot of people to get through, and at MIT in fundraising we used to say that it takes about 20 years for nausea to turn to nostalgia. All right?

And the same is true at HBCUs. There's a nausea that many graduates, even as they have all that pride - and usually what I talk with the alums about, it's a nausea about the way the place was run. OK? Let's just keep it real. The way...

MARTIN: About administration.

WILSON: That's right. About administration.

MARTIN: Things like what? Getting your scholarship funds not on time or not having a housing assignment, or what?

WILSON: Well...

MARTIN: People being rude? What is it?

WILSON: You're pretty much spot on. I mean the office that has come up more than any other office is the financial aid office. Most graduates say, oh boy, they angered my parents. They lost my money, or in some cases I couldn't get my transcript back and that kind of thing. So it's a lack of operational excellence, so I'm going to go down to Morehouse and I'm going to - and I've already announced, we are going to be known for our operational excellence.

MARTIN: It's interesting. Do you think you are part of a new trend of emphasis on administrative capability? The current leader of Howard University, which is also a premier research institution in the HBCU universe - its new leader, Dr. Sidney Ribeau - his main credential coming from Bowling Green University, not an alumnus of the institution - was administrative capability. Do you think that that's a new trend in this world, to kind of focus on the nuts and bolts of just - of making the institution run well, as opposed to having somebody who's a star academic or a star scholar or a well-known public figure?

WILSON: I think that's right. I think I would point to Sid Ribeau at Howard. I would point to Dave Wilson at Morgan State University. I would point to Walter Kimbrough at Dillard, and Bev Daniel Tatum at Spellman has already been doing that, making a push for operational excellence. It is the way to go, not only because it's the right thing, but because if you care about the feelings of your students and your eventual alumni, you'll sharpen that area of operation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. He is the incoming president of Morehouse College. It is the only all-male African-American-led institution of higher learning in this country.

To that end, Morehouse is the only all-male HBCU, as we just said, but it's one of only three all-male schools in this country. The fourth, Deep Springs College, is now accepting women applicants for the 2013 entering class, and you might think that that's because this is a style of education which is no longer attractive. However, the Women's College Coalition lists 47 all-women schools in this country. Why do you think that is?

WILSON: Well, I think that women - by and large, if you look at the way higher education has evolved, those institutions that have been set up for women - there were a whole lot more, say, 50 years ago than there are now. Many have closed their doors, but the ones who have - the ones that are still around, by and large, have stayed current with what is going on in higher education.

So you see Wellesley and Smith and Mount Holyoke doing major capital campaigns, just like every - the more sophisticated institutions in higher education. That is the key. You have to remain current. You have to remain sophisticated, and you have to remain up-to-date with the current definition of institutional strength in higher education. That has not happened to the same degree with HBCUs, and I would say that with the all-male institutions we lag in that respect as well.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

WILSON: I'm not sure all of the reasons why that is, but right now, I'm poised to do something about it at Morehouse College. Right?

MARTIN: OK. And, to that end, though, in terms of sort of understanding the zeitgeist, if we can call it that, you know, Morehouse made news just a short time ago, a couple of years ago, for a ban on cross-dressing. I mean, it was part of a larger directive around student attire and it was, I think, particularly noted because of the sense that, here is an institution which is founded in part to offer a safe harbor to minority students who often receive, in a hostile way, in a hostile kind of world and to sort of create a sense of hostility toward another minority on its own campus seemed to a lot of people to be kind of out of step with contemporary thinking.

It recently announced, however, that it plans to offer its first course on LGBT history and I wonder what you think that means.

WILSON: I think it means progress. I think that the campus has always had a tradition of being welcoming to students. I think what happened recently that you referenced with the students who were cross-dressing, it was a minority of students. It was, like, five or six students on campus and yet it became - it got into the news stream.

MARTIN: Well, it got into the news stream because the president at the time sent out a letter to all of the alumni about this and so, therefore, there was no way it could not have.

WILSON: Well, actually, I think it got into the news stream before that in terms of - at least in terms of what alums were aware of and that was a response to it, which made a kind of a bigger splash. So we get from that point to a point now where we're offering a course, which many colleges and universities already do and have done for some time.

So I would say it is a sign of progress. The danger, and I would say the concern that many alums had, was here you had Morehouse College and, you know, with this great brand and there was something of concern that was conflicting with the brand.

We want to make it very clear as we move forward that at Morehouse we produce chemists, we produce biologists, we produce doctors and lawyers and that is our signal. Everything else is noise.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, in the time that you have left, would you talk a little bit about what you hope to accomplish at Morehouse, not just educationally, but also personally for the young men? I mean, Morehouse - many colleges and universities do, but you know, given its history and given the population it seeks to serve has often had a larger sense of itself, as the HBCUs as a whole do, of hoping to contribute, not just, as you say, you know, professionals, doctors and lawyers and engineers and filmmakers and actors, but also to kind of create and shape men who will go on to do important things.

And I just wonder if you think that Morehouse has a larger mission or there's something to that then that you want to speak to. I mean, there are a number of statistics. Some of them are not quite right, but it has often been noted by a lot of people that African-American men kind of as a whole are lagging in some respects behind other groups and peers, not just in educational attainment, but in forming families, for example. The marriage rates are quite low. Incarceration rates are high. Things of that sort, so is there something you want to speak to around that?

WILSON: Well, we do know the stats. The stats are - they're almost all bad and we, at Morehouse, need to be an exception to that. I will say that, of the 1.6 million people who took the SAT in 2011, 91,000 were African-American males and of that 91,000, only 20,000 of them had scores and grades in a range that would easily get you into Morehouse and places like it. We only got 3,000 applications at Morehouse and not all of them from that 20,000. And so what I've said is we are not who we say we are until we improve that and that is exactly what we're going to do.

We just saw the inauguration of Barack Obama for the second time. It was great. It happened to fall yesterday on Martin Luther King Day. Obviously, Martin Luther King is the most illustrious Morehouse grad and, I'd say, college grad. He's now memorialized on the Mall, a great symbol of what Morehouse has done and can do.

And what I'm going there saying is, we're going to produce - yeah - other Martin Luther Kings, but we need a Martin Luther King of chemistry, a Martin Luther King of biology, a Martin Luther King in all of these other areas, so we need to be strong.

To the degree that the African-American male is in trouble, we want Morehouse to be the institutional response to that trouble in the same way that NASA was the institution response to Sputnik. We had a great crisis and we needed an institution to surge forward and make a difference. Morehouse is that institution that will surge forward and make a difference and, under my leadership and on my watch, that is what will happen.

MARTIN: John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. is preparing to become the 11th president of Morehouse College. That's in Atlanta. He was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.

John Silvanus Wilson, Mr. President, thank you so much for joining us. We hope you'll come back and speak with us again.

WILSON: I sure will. Thank you, Michel.

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