I recently had the privilege of interviewing Morehouse College’s 11th president, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. We explored his background in both religion and education, his experience in universities and government, and his plans for Morehouse’s future. A deeply religious man, Dr. Wilson’s faith has been the driving force behind his many achievements. Writing this article, I drew on my own interfaith experience in Chicago as a member of its Black-Jewish dialogue and coordinator of Black-Jewish Seminarians Conferences for the American Jewish Committee. The Black-Jewish dialogue lost steam over the years, but remains strong at Morehouse.
Created in 1867 shortly after the Civil War, Morehouse began as Augusta Theological Institute in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church, America’s oldest African American church (established in 1787). Distinguished alumni of this HBCU (Historic Black Colleges and Universities) include university presidents, corporate CEOs, medical doctors, magazine editors, and U.S. ambassadors. Well-known graduates include The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Atlanta Mayor, Maynard Jackson, the first African American to serve as mayor of a major Southern city.
Both men inspired Dr. Wilson to attend Morehouse. Referring to Jackson’s phrase “a city too busy to hate”, Wilson credits the Mayor Jackson with putting Atlanta on the path to becoming the South’s economic powerhouse and international hub. Wilson also talked about the impact of the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I remember being in front of the TV and seeing my Dad’s reaction to hearing Walter Cronkite announce that King had died.” King’s powerful combination of faith, inspiration, and leadership inspired him, and many African Americans, to attend Morehouse.
After graduation, Wilson earned master’s degrees in both theology and education at Harvard University. He talked about the difficult choice of whether to pursue a leadership role in the church or in academia. While he chose to pursue a doctorate in education, his faith was always with him. Wilson’s career choice took him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he helped to raise 3 billion dollars, and then to George Washington University (GWU) as faculty and dean.
Wilson’s research, consulting, and writing about HBCUs brought him to the attention of the White House. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Wilson as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities which connects HBCUs, the White House, corporations, philanthropies and thirty-two federal agencies. In a 2011 magazine article for The Root, “The Good News About HBCUs,” Wilson wrote “HBCUs are already a major source of African-American engineers and scientists – they produce 33% of engineering degrees awarded to black undergraduates, and nine of the top 10 institutions producing blacks with STEM doctoral degrees are black colleges.”
When his alma mater called and asked him to come and lead it, Wilson responded, “I’m honored by the opportunity to stand where somebody like Benjamin Mays stood and where Dr. King was shaped. I thoroughly love Morehouse College and, of course, I said yes.”
His presidency comes at a challenging time for HBCUs. Morehouse is faced with major infrastructure needs, increasing competition for high-potential African-American students, and an African American community whose young men and boys are increasingly at risk. Dr. Wilson highlighted that risk in his inaugural speech calling investment in “cradle to power” and the urgent development of a cradle-to-power pipeline, rather than the current cradle-to-prison phenomenon of alarming proportions.
Wilson’s inaugural speech took place in the Morehouse’s Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. Capturing the spirit of the “world of our dreams” quote by another historic Black leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, Wilson outlined his plans for capital preeminence, “providing first rate living and learning environment”, and for character preeminence, or producing first-rate men. He explains, “The key is to invest in the physical campus, salaries for faculty, and scholarship assistance for the best students, those who have a set of values that accord well with Morehouse’s mission. We’ve done a lot with minimal resources for years. It’s amazing that we’ve been able to produce such men who have had a significant impact on the world. If we had more resources we could do a lot more.”
Wilson’s fundraising expertise are vital to reaching his goals is his vision for the curriculum. His plans to “create tomorrow” include ramping up the already strong STEM Division (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) which is “the pathway to the heart of today’s innovation economy.” He plans to increase Morehouse’s global footprint. The college has about forty students reaching fluency in Chinese/Mandarin and he expects to radically increase the number of international students from Africa, Europe, and South America.
Referring to Morehouse’s long history of building leaders, Wilson considers, “What does it mean to have character today?” He explains, “There are some staple values – honesty, intellectual heft, compassion – that are always going to be there.” Talking about the new skills and drive that are needed now, Wilson shared his intent to re-emphasize the centrality of faith. “If you graduate without sufficient attention to the life of the spirit, then you have retarded your development and can’t be as effective as a Morehouse man. Revising the approach to the spirit won’t be obligatory, but there is enough magnetism in the life of the spirit and how you talk about it to inspire undergraduates.”
In his inaugural speech, Wilson referred to the inspiration of Israel to the Jewish people. “I really do feel as if the regard, the love and the loyalty that Jews around the world have for Israel is a model for the regard, love, and loyalty for all men, for African American men, and our graduates have for Morehouse. It sustains Israel and can sustains Morehouse College.”
The Black-Jewish engagement of Morehouse and its Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel has deep roots and partnerships with a number of Jewish organizations. Partners include the Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast, the American Jewish Committee/Atlanta, and The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1867 as was Morehouse. Together, they launched The Rabin-King Initiative that draws on the legacies of two Nobel Prize laureates, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Yitzhak Rabin, former Prime Minister of Israel. The Initiative celebrates historical collaborations and encourages engagement by a new generation of students and faculty. The Rabin-King Initiative includes an oral history project of African American and Jewish student civil rights activist leaders in the sixties. It also includes several joint community projects, activating and motivating current students to invest in community building together. Morehouse is a model for cross-cultural collaboration. At a time when such efforts are key to the future of communities in the South and the well-being of cities across the country, the model that Morehouse puts forth is more relevant than ever.
### © Deborah Levine, Editor of the American Diversity Report