Opinion: The unfinished symphony that’s Morehouse College

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., dressed in a cap and gown. King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a bachelor’s of arts degree in sociology.

In his book, “Strength to Love”, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “one of the most agonizing problems within our human experience is that few, if any, of us live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled. The hope of our childhood and the promises of our mature years are unfinished symphonies.”

It is a rare privilege to serve as a college president, let alone at one’s Alma Mater. I became president of Morehouse College in 2013 as we celebrated the 100th year of our life with the name “Morehouse.” I leave as we celebrate the 150th year in our institutional history. While I am proud of what my team and I accomplished in just over four years, our work here is still like King’s unfinished symphony.

And that hurts because America needs a far stronger Morehouse.

Why? Because roughly 320,000 American black boys start ninth grade, annually. And yet only an estimated 8,000 American black young men – 2.5 percent of that 320,000 — annually head off to a 4-year college with academic profiles that appeal to the most selective institutions.

The Schott Foundation reports that 39 states now outperform Georgia in graduating black males from high school. I firmly believe that optimizing and unleashing Morehouse's true "West Side power" will finally make Atlanta and Georgia national models for realizing world-class educational outcomes for black males.

That can happen only if Morehouse is a stronger, first-choice institution for young men aspiring to serve humanity.

Some think that Morehouse has already proven its eternal investment worthiness, principally because it is still the only college to have ever produced a graduate who has a Nobel Peace Prize, a National holiday and a granite memorial in the nation’s capitol.

But besides great teachers and preachers, Morehouse has produced more than 50 college presidents and numerous doctors, lawyers, scientists, technologists, artists, athletes and public servants in every sphere of human endeavor.

The Morehouse brand is singular.

Whenever I met prospective students, I challenged them to name the three men of African descent, dead or alive, whose names would be known on any continent in the world today. Without fail, they always listed Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama. And I would then carefully explain the Morehouse affiliation of each, with King having graduated in 1948, and Mandela visiting Morehouse to receive an honorary degree in King Chapel in 1990. Then I’d proudly tell them that, as the president of Morehouse, the very first degree I awarded in May 2013 was to President Barack Obama.

Our effectiveness in attracting men of acuity, integrity, agency, brotherhood and consequence, is surpassed only by our effectiveness at producing them.

Over the last four years, Morehouse produced our fourth Rhodes Scholar, elevated the graduation rate, and began to revitalize faculty and student life. Led by Provost Garikai Campbell, we generated a new strategic plan, and our work to strengthen our science, technology, engineering and mathematics profile convinced Forbes Magazine that Morehouse was the 5th Most Entrepreneurial College in 2015.

New investments are always key. In the past four years, cash gifts from alumni doubled to record-breaking heights, expenses decreased, and, for the first time ever in a four-year period, we attracted nearly $70 million in private philanthropy. Promising, too, is the request total in our recent proposal pipeline, which was our largest on record, and appropriately scaled to finance our DuBoisian "world of our dreams" vision.

Yet, our symphony remains imperfect.

Enhancing our educational productivity has, for years, required a much better setting. Our aging campus is why I often said, “we look more like what we have been through than what we cost.” So, the January 2017 campus visit from the world-renowned architect, Frank Gehry, was the perfect way to begin our 150th year.

Realizing a “New Century King Campus” will finally re-magnetize our living-learning environment. Better settings will also position more students and faculty to flourish toward our high expectations, as aided by shared governance.

Speaking of governance, Barack Obama once called good governance the key to developing all of Africa. As a current member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers and a former trustee at Spelman College, I have seen great governance. And issues of governance have gained global significance.

I depart Morehouse at a time when the whole world yearns for more-humane governance. Today, in our national government, business-oriented leadership with limited relevant experience now dominates, the undoing of a successful president’s legacy is underway, inexplicable terminations seem tied to a major investigation, and observers worldwide wonder whether we have lost our way.

A far stronger Morehouse can more efficiently quench our local, national and global thirst for new servant leaders.

I hope all enlightened dreamers in and well beyond Atlanta will help do everything possible to complete the unfinished symphony that is Morehouse College.

John Silvanus Wilson Jr. was president of Morehouse College from 2013 to 2017.

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