As a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College in the 1970s, John Silvanus Wilson Jr. loved his college but didn’t always like it.
He shared his frustrations about the needless bureaucracy during a conversation with Benjamin Mays, the college’s former president. Mays challenged Wilson to stay at Morehouse, graduate, go out and learn a few things, and then return ready to improve the college.
Wilson, now 56, is doing just that. He returned to Atlanta last month as Morehouse’s new president, with ambitious plans to enhance one of the country’s oldest and most respected historically black colleges.
Wilson plans to carry out strategies he advocated in his previous position working with President Barack Obama as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The combination of Wilson’s former job and the stature of Morehouse means any changes could serve as a template for colleges across the nation.
“Morehouse is the quintessential place to enrich and educate African-American men,” said Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is an expert on historically black colleges.
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“It does a good job but it could do even more,” she said. “Many people will be watching to see what John does.”
Wilson graduated from Morehouse in 1979 and earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. Much of his career has been at predominantly white institutions, including Georgia Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While he was working at the White House, Wilson challenged HBCUs to improve graduation rates. He also stressed the need for stronger endowments, so colleges can hire more quality faculty, improve facilities and expand academic programs in growing areas such as math, science, technology and engineering.
Morehouse’s graduation rate hovers around 55 percent. That’s above the national average for majority minority institutions. Only about 40 percent of black, Latino and American Indian students receive a bachelor’s degree within six years. But the argument is Morehouse’s rate should be higher because the school tends to attract the most accomplished students.
The Morehouse endowment is $130 million, less than half the endowment at Spelman College and about one-fourth the size of the one at Howard University.
“You look at Morehouse and you see that we could be better,” Wilson said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There is an urgency that we have to have, and that we’re going to have on my watch. Now is the time to surge forward and close the gap between where we are and where we need to be.”
The college has already received two jolts under Wilson. The White House announced over the weekend that Obama will deliver the commencement speech in May. Wilson also announced a $3 million gift from the Ray Charles Foundation.
Morehouse, a private all-male liberal arts college, is ranked as the third best black college in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
The school enrolls about 2,300 students, who use facilities named for such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois and Howard Thurman. Graduates include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, former Mayor Maynard Jackson and filmmaker Spike Lee.
But Morehouse faces strong competition as black students enroll elsewhere and are recruited by colleges that once barred them.
HBCUs enrolled nearly all African-American students 50 years ago but now teach not quite 10 percent of those in college. Still, historically black colleges produce nearly 25 percent of all African-American college graduates.
“Wilson gets very high marks for speaking honestly about where HBCUs stand and where they need to be,” said John Chubb, interim CEO of Education Sector, a think tank that has studied historically black colleges. “But these colleges are under tremendous pressure to demonstrate that they can really deliver.”
One of the biggest challenges is improving graduation and retention rates.
Wilson wants to strengthen advising, particularly in math and science, to help struggling students. He plans to offer more seminars, symposiums and guest lectures in the evenings and on weekends so students will be motivated to study and graduate.
He is also “actively looking” at awarding students credit if they take free massively open online courses offered by other colleges.
More than 2 million students worldwide have signed up for the classes. Colleges nationwide, including Georgia State University, are exploring how this technology could allow them to operate more efficiently and lower the cost of a degree.
“We have to consider this as an option,” Wilson said. “We are ready for this change at Morehouse. We are thinking about the future and our own sustainability.”
The online courses could benefit students who have to take a semester off for financial reasons but don’t want to delay earning a degree, he said.
In October, before Wilson started, Morehouse said it would furlough staff and implement other cuts because of a drop in enrollment. The weak economy, coupled with changes in a federal loan program popular with students and parents at historically black colleges, caused enrollment dips across the country.
HBCUs expert Gasman was pleased to hear Wilson talk about online courses. She said Wilson also will need to tap into the alumni, corporations and philanthropic groups that support modernizing historically black colleges.
Wilson is noted for his strong fundraising skills. At MIT, where he was the director of foundation relations and assistant provost, he helped generate annual revenue of more than $50 million. That was more than double what the office raised before his arrival.
He plans to use those skills at Morehouse. A stronger endowment will allow the college to be more financially stable. It will provide students with additional financial aid and allow the college to hire more faculty.
Investors, Wilson said, will support Morehouse because it is looking to thrive, not just survive.
“When HBCUs and a lot of nonprofits go out and raise money, the soundtrack people hear is a violin,” he said. “What I learned at MIT is that the soundtrack you hear when you raise money is a trumpet. A violin invokes sadness and a trumpet invokes greatness. We need more greatness.”