New Leadership for Black Colleges

The head of the federal initiative says HBCUs should shift from "how to survive to how to thrive."


Though he has been on the job only two days, the new man in charge of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities says altering the tone of the national conversation about black colleges is one of his top priorities, Inside Higher Ed reports.

John Silvanus Wilson, a former administrator at George Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that "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."

But many HBCUs have been more in survival mode this year, hit hard by the unexpected downturn in the economy. For example, Clark Atlanta University dismissed 70 faculty members, some of whom were tenured professors. Morris Brown College of Atlanta lost its accreditation and subsequently many of its students, and the Georgia state legislature might merge financially troubled Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State to cut costs, U.S. News reports.

Wilson recognized that many black colleges face such problems as "low faculty salaries, insufficient financial aid, often poor facilities." He sees raising money through donations as a possible solution. 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," Wilson says. "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."

Though Wilson has worked at institutions with predominantly white student populations, he has a personal stake in the success of black colleges. He has worked with several foundations to increase HBCU fund-raising and is a trustee of Spelman College and a graduate of Morehouse College.

Along with increased fund-raising efforts, Wilson also recognizes the importance of increasing graduation rates at HBCUs. "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 says. He praised the recent efforts of Philander Smith College and its president, Walter Kimbrough, to raise the graduation rate among its male students.

historically black colleges and universities