With the backing of newly re-elected Barack Obama, John Silvanus Wilson Jr., who served as the executive director of the president’s White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, has been named the new president of Morehouse College.
Wilson will be the 11th president in the Atlanta school’s 145-year history. He will follow Robert Franklin and be tasked with maintaining the college’s reputation while making advances in fundraising, graduation rates and retention.
A 1979 graduate, Wilson is no stranger to Morehouse. In 2007, he and Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, were finalists for the presidency, which went to Franklin.
Wilson was unavailable for comment Monday, but in a video statement he said he was excited about being “invited” to lead his alma mater.
“With that extension of an invitation, I extend to you an invitation to partner with Morehouse College for a new future … we can create together,” Wilson said. “I have a great ambition for the future of Morehouse and I invite you to join me in making that future a reality.”
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At the White House Initiative, Wilson tried to strengthen the capacity of the nation’s 105 recognized black colleges by working with the White House, federal agencies, and the private corporations to secure funding. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Obama, who called on Wilson to continue “to inspire more of our nation’s youth to pursue higher education,” raved about the hiring.
“John has been a trusted voice, helping my administration follow through on our commitment to strengthen historically black colleges and universities,” Obama said in a statement. “I wish John the best.”
Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about black colleges, said Morehouse should benefit by getting someone with deep ties to the Obama administration.
“He is on the radar of the Department of Education and the White House,” Gasman said. “They respect him immensely. That’s a plus for Morehouse.”
Wilson returns to Morehouse with more than a quarter-century of higher education and institutional leadership roles.
After graduating from Morehouse, he attended Harvard University, where he got a master’s of theology and master’s and doctoral degrees in administration, planning and social policy.
He spent the first 16 years of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including stints as director of foundation relations and assistant provost.
Before working with the White House Initiative, Wilson was an associate professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at George Washington University.
But Gasman doesn’t see Wilson walking into the perfect situation.
“I think that he will need to ramp up the fundraising at Morehouse and do some systematic work in that area” Gasman said. “I also think that Morehouse could do more to increase their graduation rates. So more work on retention. I’d like to see them with the same rates as Spelman next door.”
According to the latest figures from U.S. News & World Report — which ranks Morehouse as the third best black college in the country — while the fall 2011 acceptance rate was 67 percent, the six-year graduation rate was only 55 percent. Spelman, the top college, had a graduation rate of 77 percent.
By black college standards, Morehouse’s endowment, according to the school, is healthy, at $139.8 million. But according to 2011 data provided by the National Association of College & University Business Officers, it still trails schools like Howard University, $539 million; Spelman, $327 million; and Hampton University, $240 million.
“Morehouse is the very best example of black male empowerment in the United States,” Gasman said. “We should all want to see it succeed and shine.”