This year, students, faculty and alumni are anticipating celebrating the College’s 150th year of existence. However, some unexpected news has shifted focus to another matter. The Board of Trustees decided not to renew the contract of current president Dr. John Silvanus Wilson after his current one expires in June of this year. This decision seems as though it has come at the most inopportune time given the historical significance of this year.
In a press conference held on Jan. 17, Wilson was asked about his feelings toward the Board’s decision.
“I recognize fully that any president serves fully at the will of the trustees,” the Philadelphia native said. “They’ve made a decision here. I respect that decision, and the best thing about it is that it gives me the opportunity to be president for the next six months, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Wilson’s term length as president will be significantly shorter than some of the others who have served in the same capacity. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays served the institution for 27 years and is the longest serving president in Morehouse’s history. John Hope, Morehouse’s first African-American president, served for 25 years, while Dr. Hugh Gloster served as president for 20 years.
“College presidencies, in general, are shorter,” Wilson said. “I think it is the nature of this business that the presidencies have shortened. I think, though, that in order to be effective in this role, you need some time to do a capital campaign and really get your legs under you.”
Wilson, a 1979 graduate of the College, stated that there are many factors that determine a president’s term length. This is due to the pressures of the job. For that reason, Wilson stated that he is proud of what he and his administration have accomplished in four and half short years.
“We were really in a stressful financial position when I arrived,” Wilson said. “We are significantly stronger now. Whereas there’s a variety of factors that result in a short term, we were certainly well on the way to stabilizing Morehouse, and we’re still on the way.”
During his tenure, the College has raised almost $70 million in private gifts, grants and contracts.
“That is a record for a four-year period in the history of the College,” Wilson said.
Wilson, 1998 Benjamin Elijah Mays’ Leadership Award recipient, confidently said that given the success that he has had, he imagines that he will be just as proud of the next six months as he has been of the past four years. Since he assumed his position, alumni giving has increased by 100 percent and overall giving is up 41 percent. The No. 1 year in alumni giving was 2016.
Wilson stated that he is proud of putting together an admissions team so that “The House” can get a good mix of students on the road ahead. He is also satisfied with expanding the Office of Institutional Advancement (meaning fundraising) to position the College to procure more resources. The four-year graduation rate has improved by four percentage points since Wilson’s term and his administration has stopped a seven or eight-year enrollment slide to stabilize enrollment as well.
He has achieved many other milestones, one of his proudest being hosting both the former president and vice president of the United States, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. President Obama delivered the College’s commencement address in 2013, and Vice President Biden held an “It’s On Us” rally on campus to assist in putting an end to sexual violence on college campuses in Nov. 2015.
Finding success, however, has not always been easy. Wilson, the former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, considers not possessing a large endowment and catering to a niche marketplace the hardest challenges of being the president of a small liberal arts institution comprised solely of African-American male students. Despite these challenges, he has achieved success during his four-year term.
“I knew it was hard,” Wilson said, “and we did a lot of hard work. But we had a lot of success here. The fact of the matter is we’ve broken records here.”
Wilson admits that he accomplished more than he expected himself to. He is certain that his administration has accomplished more than its counterparts, including other liberal arts colleges and other black colleges in recent years.
The College’s 11th President also stated that students are in a better position to pursue their future because of the
work done in the past four years. Unfortunately, the infrastructure on campus makes it difficult for students and faculty to learn and teach. Wilson previously presented a “Strategic Plan” to students, faculty, staff and alumni because his main concern is investing in faculty and student life.
“Of course part of that is the infrastructure,” Wilson said, “but in reality, we need to get more student aid and increase faculty salaries so we can position you all to do your best work.”
Although Wilson’s term is coming to an end, Mother Morehouse still has a long way to go before she has achieved capital preeminence. He warned his successor that he must focus on fundraising to maintain the momentum he has built.
“Now that we’ve reached this next echelon,” Wilson said, “they’re going to have to take it higher in order for us to have the kind of campus and kind of endowment that we need.”
Achieving these goals in the next six months will be challenging, but Wilson imagines that after his departure, a new leader will come in and try to pursue the same “north star” that he wrote out as worth pursuing. Wilson’s vision at Morehouse was to realize the world of dreams featuring character and capital preeminence. With some modifications made to his strategic plan and support from the Board of Trustees, he is positive the 12th president will be able to achieve this vision.
Looking at the circumstances, Wilson said he realized that saying, “Don’t worry about the future” is difficult. He did so with a chuckle. This is partly because of the challenges higher education presents, especially when educating young Black men. He recognized this category of American people as the most challenged subsector, but also realized that educating them is sacred work.
“We have been [educating young Black men] for 150 years as of this year,” Wilson said. “It’s time to look to the future and anticipate what I hope is a bright future … I’m always going to want a bright future for Morehouse College.”
Wilson realizes there is plenty that he will miss about serving as president of this beloved institution, most importantly Commencement Day.
“For four years, on a day in May, sometimes on a rainy day, I have had the privilege of standing on a stage and shaking hands with over 400 young African-American males who are just becoming Morehouse Men,” Wilson said. “I have the privilege of handing them each their degrees and shaking their hands and the symbolic privilege of sending them off into the world.”
Given that Wilson just received the news about his contract on Jan. 13, it is too soon to tell what he will do next after being “sent off into the world.”
When asked if he would take a position as the president of another college, Wilson said he is not sure what he would do just yet. He pondered on his life and said that his lifelong dream was to have a profound impact on education, and particularly higher education. This position gave him the chance to do that, and he believes he has undeniably succeeded.
“I know there may be some other opportunities to do that, some other ways to do it, and I suppose I’ll figure that out in the next six months,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s contract will officially expire in June; however, he wishes the outcome was different. Ideally, he would have liked to serve as president for another 20 years.
“The fact of the matter is I am a Morehouse Man,” Wilson said. “I have been president of Morehouse for four and a half years. It has been an honor to be so, and that’s where I come out on this. On July 1, 2017, I’m still going to be a Morehouse Man, and wanting the best for Morehouse College.”
Wilson’s undying love and passion for the College will be greatly missed. The next president of the institution has enormous shoes to fill and an esteemed legacy to uphold. Mother Morehouse thanks you for your service, Dr. Wilson, and wishes you all the best in the future.
Campus News Editor