Opinion: Great leadership, vision key to future of HBCUs

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been publishing a series of stories that examine Historically Black Colleges and Universities - their place in our society, their future and their challenges. What follows are the perspectives, in a question-and-answer format, from a man who has dedicated much of his life to HBCUs.

John Wilson, former president of Morehouse College, and I got to know each other during his tenure as president of the school, which ended last year after the board of trustees chose not to renew his contract. Before his time leading Morehouse, he was executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs in the Obama administration. He has been assistant provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an executive dean and faculty member at George Washington University. In addition to having served on the trustee board of Spelman College, he is now a trustee at Harvard University, where he is also spending this academic year as “President in Residence,” and writing a book about the future of higher education in America, with an emphasis on the future of HBCUs. He is a Morehouse graduate.

You’ve focused on HBCUs for decades, and led one of the more prominent ones. What are the most important, perhaps overlooked things about them?

First, if it were not for HBCUs, our nation’s rise to worldwide power probably would have been compromised by extreme social and economic instability. HBCUs spent their first century waging a war against illiteracy, poverty and hopelessness. Long after many predominantly white institutions began aggressively recruiting African-Americans in 1969, HBCUs remained the primary creators and expanders of the black middle class. Without those efforts, this country’s journey to prominence might have been largely impossible. To this day, many HBCUs continue to generate remarkable talent for the country and the world.

Second, any meaningful effort to enhance our nation’s future competitiveness must include a clarified and elevated role for selected HBCUs. America’s expanding minority presence is telling. Since HBCUs were vital to ensuring our global competitive positioning in the past, with appropriate investment, most can help ensure it in and for the future.

Third, just as the women-only college sector right-sized from over 300 about 50 years ago to roughly 42 now, I believe the HBCU sector will shrink or right-size within the next decade. The remaining HBCUs will have at least one thing in common - each will have effectively clarified, amplified and leveraged their worldwide worth.

Fourth, although many people tend to generalize, HBCUs are not all the same. By most objective measures, Spelman College is the strongest HBCU, by far. It has a strong leadership tradition, including its current president, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, a great faculty, talented students, a solidly maintained physical plant, a relatively healthy endowment, expense controls, a strong fundraising tradition and truly enlightened governance. Especially from my perch at the White House, I saw no other HBCU with that combination of strengths.

How did presiding at Morehouse inform your HBCU perspective?

I simply confirmed what I suspected was true throughout my career — HBCUs have far more control over our ability to surge to competitive strength than we now exercise. In just under five years, we set a new trajectory for the college, including: separate visits by a sitting U.S. president and vice president; improved a stubborn four-year graduation rate; secured our fourth Rhodes Scholar and our first Schwarzman Scholar; began executing a cutting-edge strategic plan; cut expenses mostly by reducing staff by 22 percent; increased overall fundraising by 41 percent; raised an unprecedented $70 million, including investments from three previously unaffiliated billionaires, and doubled alumni cash giving. My team and I proved that HBCUs can indeed surge if they converge the right talent, clarify the right vision, execute the right plan, convey the right message, and attract the right resources.

What big trends should concern HBCUs the most?

The most consequential trend in higher education today is increased competition, and not just between HBCUs. All enlightened institutions are in an arms race for the best leadership, curriculum, faculty, facilities, student experiences, cost controls, technology-based and data-driven administrative cultures, fundraising, alumni engagement, etc. Institutions that ignore this stiff competition will perish sooner than those that engage. As with Olympic athletes, constantly competing is precisely what makes you stronger, better and eventually world-class.

Are there key differences between private and state funded HBCUs?

Yes, especially regarding institutional growth potential. State funding is like an endowment for public HBCUs. Most private HBCUs have no such revenue foundation. Only public HBCUs have the potential to selectively merge or consolidate, become the equivalent of “a flagship HBCU,” and thereby attract enough new and transformational state and private funding to finally make them world-class. It’s an idea worth exploring, but HBCU presidents and trustees will have to courageously embrace and pursue change like never before.

What can HBCUs do to ensure greater future success?

What all enlightened institutions do. Clarify your institutional investment-worthiness, and then get in front of the right people with the wealth and inclination to partner with you to change the world. In this era of multibillion-dollar capital campaigns, only five HBCUs have had campaign goals north of a mere $100 million. That must change. And it is especially important for HBCUs to engage wealthy African-Americans.

But a call for larger gifts warrants an important word of caution. In higher education today, the gap between the haves and have nots has widened so much that it is almost impossible to make a perceptible gap-closing difference on some campuses. If a billionaire contributed millions to an institution tomorrow, there would be a great celebration. But if that donor failed to wisely pre-assess that college’s readiness to receive and optimize such an investment, it could very soon turn out to be an utter waste. Why? Because there is no guarantee that the gift will be managed, leveraged or matched responsibly. Investments are riskier where the discounting, deferred maintenance and institutional and student debt are greatest. But capable leadership can methodically lower those risks and position even the weakest campuses for new investments and future success.

» FULL COVERAGE: The entire "HBCUs: A Threatened Heritage" series

» HBCU JOURNEYS: New podcast explores the black college experience

Another key to securing a bright future is great governance. Few people know this, but poor governance was a key reason why 1,503 people died when the Titanic sank into a watery grave in 1912. The governing agency, The British Board of Trade Regulations, was far more concerned about having space for deck chairs than for lifeboats. They missed the point of being trustees. In other words, they engaged in what I call, “deckchair governance.” A lot of college and university boards are like that. Instead of using a telescope to look out from the vessel toward the horizon in order to see what dangers lie ahead, the trustees use a microscope to look inside the vessel to meddle in operational affairs. Enlightened boards understand that deckchair governance, unlike “iceberg governance,” can sink the place. Iceberg governance means trustees focus on nimbly steering the institution around the threats or icebergs that could damage and sink it. Ensuring greater future success starts with and depends upon finally getting governance right.

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