New Approach on Black Colleges

Obama administration's pick to lead White House initiative says it is time to emphasize excellence, and move beyond the "against great odds narrative."
July 21, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Asked at the end of his first day in office to compare his agenda to those of his predecessors, John Silvanus Wilson Jr. declines to do so. But the Obama administration's director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities is very clear in an interview that he's looking for a new approach to talking about black colleges.

The standard "against great odds" narrative, he said, needs to be replaced. It suggests a focus on "survival and maybe victimization," said Wilson. "Black colleges will never be as strong as they can be unless that narrative changes.... We need to shift from how to survive to how to thrive."

Wilson, formerly an administrator at George Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turned to film soundtracks as a metaphor. When black colleges "go out and seek support, the soundtrack that philanthropists and prospects hear is dominated by violins, and we need to go out and seek support where the soundtrack is trumpets. I helped raise a lot of money at MIT, and we never played the violin. The trumpet is about greatness and the violin is about pity. We don't need support that comes from pity, but investment that comes from a belief in what we can do."

And while Wilson wouldn't talk about the previous focus of the White House black college office, asked about its work trying to help black colleges win more federal grants, he said, "the challenge has got to expand beyond working with 32 federal agencies."

While Wilson's career has been at predominantly white institutions, he has been deeply involved with black colleges, too. He has worked on several foundation efforts to help build the fund raising capacity of black colleges. He is a trustee of Spelman College. His mother went to Morgan State University and his father to Virginia Union. Wilson is a Morehouse College graduate (with a Harvard University doctorate) who takes seriously the ethos of the Morehouse Man.

"Going to Morehouse was very special for me, because the culture on the campus was one of high achievement. They expected us to do well there at Morehouse and beyond, to go out and make a mark," said Wilson.

Unlike many alumni (of all kinds of colleges), Wilson doesn't appear to view his alma mater through rose-colored glasses. When this reporter made a reference to Morehouse doing quite well, Wilson said, "I'm going to push back there." He explained: "I think Morehouse is doing quite well relative to other black colleges, but not quite well to the best of the industry, and I will insist on looking at Morehouse and other black colleges relative to the best in the industry," he said. "We should not trying to be the best black institutions, but the best institutions."

Many black colleges are facing a series of common problems, Wilson said: "low faculty salaries, insufficient financial aid, often poor facilities." And "the common denominator is capital impairment." He said that even the wealthiest black colleges have a fraction of the funds found at leading American colleges and universities.

The only way more funds will be found, he said, is "to look at the value proposition of black colleges," which at most institutions "has been minimally addressed for a long time."

A focus on the value proposition may be especially important, he said, for those colleges that are struggling right now. Paul Quinn College is facing the threat of losing its accreditation. Clark Atlanta University this year dismissed 70 faculty members, including tenured professors. Shaw University's president quit in May, amid mounting debt and student and faculty criticism.

Asked about these colleges, Wilson said: "I'm concerned about their survival, just as I am concerned about the survival of any institution that is doing good things. This is about America, and therefore any institution, black or white, that is helping Americans to get an education and contribute more to society and get us out of this hole needs to not only to survive, but needs to thrive."

He added: "The issue, even for those institutions that are struggling not to go under, is the value proposition. What is it, even at this fiscal point, that they can say to the wealthiest individuals in America, what can they say that they have been doing to cause those wealthy individuals to pull out their checkbooks, and pull them back from death row, and position them to thrive? If they can't answer that question, then it's going to be a difficult road ahead. That's precisely why we need to force the question of our value proposition."

Another part of that question needs to be graduation rates, he said, echoing President Obama's statements about the importance of completion rates for all students. "Low graduation rates go to the heart of value proposition because you can't make a very good case for yourself if 85 percent of the people who start in a freshman class are gone by senior year," he said.

Wilson praised the efforts of Philander Smith College and its president, Walter Kimbrough, to adopt a series of new policies and programs to raise the graduation rates of black male students. "I think the crisis of attrition is noteworthy, but what is as, if not more, noteworthy is the fact that he is creatively instituting a program that addresses that problem and he's going after it, and making it a priority," Wilson said. "There are a lot of institutions that have not had a creative response to some of the more difficult problems on their campuses, and that's not just HBCU's. That's what leadership and governance require."

While the discussion ahead may be challenging, Wilson stressed that financial stability -- and eventual financial strength -- won't happen without this discussion. "I don't think a stronger financial base is remotely possible in the absence of a review of the value proposition issue, a fundamental overhaul of the value proposition."


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