April 15, 2013Morehouse College's Leader Seeks to Reverse Decline
By Eric Kelderman
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Walking across the campus of his alma mater, Morehouse College, President John S. Wilson Jr. points out buildings named for famous alumni and leaders of the civil-rights movement.
The building that used to be called Thurman Hall, where Mr. Wilson lived as a freshman in 1975, was named for the influential 20th-century theologian, Howard Thurman. Du Bois Hall, where Mr. Wilson lived his sophomore through senior years, is named for W.E.B. Du Bois. King Chapel is named for the college's best-known alumnus, Martin Luther King Jr.
The names on the buildings represent the people and ideals that students seek to model their lives on, says Mr. Wilson, who became president of the all-male, historically black college in January. He chose to live in Du Bois Hall, he says, because he wanted to emulate the great scholar, a graduate of Fisk University, another black college, who advocated for higher education for African-Americans as a way to lift them out of poverty and erase the damages of slavery in the United States.
"These guys lived lives that were worthy of being on a building," says Mr. Wilson.
Now, the leadership and inspiration that led to the formation and growth of black colleges during the 19th and 20th centuries needs to take a new form, he says: What students at Morehouse need is someone who will step up and donate the money to build a new building, or endow a scholarship fund.
Improving the fund-raising operation is just one of the ways that Morehouse can "make a surge to a new echelon," says Mr. Wilson, who was previously director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "Being president allows me the chance to shift Morehouse from needy to nimble," he says. "The strongest are nimble."
Mr. Wilson's efforts will be closely watched by other black colleges, where the promise of change has come a lot easier than the process. Raising money to improve campus buildings and equipment, for example, has been a major hurdle, even for the best-known historically black colleges, like Morehouse.
A deeper challenge will be to reverse a decline in enrollment that has not only compounded the financial struggles of those institutions but also undermined their reputation as the best places for high-achieving black students.
"My goal is to see the place that I imagined as a student," Mr. Wilson says. "I imagine a great Morehouse—an awesome place."
The nation's 105 historically black colleges are credited with successfully lifting freed slaves and their descendants out of illiteracy after the Civil War and helping to create a black middle class as the 20th century matured.
Even as traditionally white colleges were integrating by the mid-1970s, black colleges remained vital as places for African-American students to succeed and become empowered by the supportive environment and cultural identity.
Mr. Wilson, who attended an integrated high school in Philadelphia, says Morehouse appealed to him, in part, because there he would not feel like "the other," he says.
The strong cultural connections and nurturing environment are still a draw for many who attend historically black colleges. Anré Washington, a senior and student-government president at Morehouse, says the college was the only one he applied to, because of its "history, what it stood for, what it taught young men to be."
But a dwindling percentage of young African-Americans are making the choice that Mr. Washington made.
Enrollment of black students at black colleges has steadily declined as a percentage of black students over all. Just 11 percent of all black students now choose black colleges as other sectors of higher education have aggressively sought to diversify their campuses. While black colleges still award more than 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees earned by black students, two for-profit institutions, the University of Phoenix and Ashford University, now lead the nation in the overall numbers of bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans.
The students that many black colleges are losing to predominantly white colleges are often the top academic performers, says Phillip L. Clay, a professor of city planning and former chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a friend and former colleague of Mr. Wilson's.
As a result, a greater share of the students attending black colleges are underprepared, making for lower retention and graduation rates, Mr. Clay writes in a study of black colleges he did while serving as a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation.
Some historically black colleges have responded to declining enrollment by lowering admissions standards, but many don't have the money to help underprepared students succeed academically, says Kassie Freeman, a former vice president for academic and student affairs for the Southern University system, based in Baton Rouge, La. Struggling students cost more to educate, because they need more academic advising and tutoring, for example.
Financial viability has long been a challenge for historically black colleges, which have primarily served low-income students. In addition, they have had a lower percentage of alumni support, between 5 percent and 11 percent, compared with predominantly white colleges, where on average more than 20 percent of alumni are donors.
The median amount of total cash and investments for the more than 500 colleges rated by Moody's Investors Service was more than $200-million in 2011, compared with a median amount of $49-million for the 18 historically black colleges Moody's rates.
The recent economic downturn has put an added strain on many black colleges, where an above-average number of students and families are unable to afford the tuition increases that could bolster the colleges' bottom lines.
Morehouse's academic performance is far above average compared with most historically black colleges, but it has significant financial challenges. Since the fall of 2007, Morehouse's enrollment has dropped nearly 16 percent, to about 2,300 students, according to a December report from Moody's, despite a goal of increasing enrollment to 2,600. Morehouse's endowment is about $140-million, but the small private colleges that Mr. Wilson wants Morehouse to be compared with all have more than a billion in the bank.
In the fall of 2012, only a third of the students Morehouse accepted enrolled, compared with nearly half of those accepted in 2008, according to Moody's.
The college took another big hit in the fall when more than 100 Morehouse students chose not to attend after their parents were denied federal Parent PLUS Loans because of tighter lending standards.
Mr. Wilson says he has been contemplating how to improve the college since he was a student here. "I used to call my sister at Swarthmore and ask her about the way it was run," he says.
Those comparisons were partly the basis for an essay Mr. Wilson wrote at the time for the student newspaper that he titled "Disturbed About Morehouse." The title echoed the name of a book, Disturbed About Man, written by Morehouse's president emeritus, Benjamin E. Mays.
In the essay, Mr. Wilson says he raised issues "like our need to be more selective, the high attrition rate, the obvious apathy of too many students, and the need for more of an emphasis on developing character as a central part of the Morehouse experience." As a student, Mr. Wilson told the former president that he "loved Morehouse, but he didn't always like it."
Mr. Mays challenged him to get some experience and then come back to try to improve the college, Mr. Wilson says.
He did just that, earning a master of theological studies from Harvard University, and both a master's and a doctorate in administration, planning, and social policy, from Harvard.
He worked for 16 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, becoming director of foundation relations and assistant provost, and overseeing two capital campaigns that raised a total of $2.7-billion.
After moving to the Washington, D.C., area, he became an associate professor of higher education at George Washington University, served as executive dean of the university's Virginia campus, and helped to develop a strategic plan for the institution.
Mr. Wilson lists the characteristics of selective liberal-arts colleges, like Amherst, Grinnell, and Swarthmore, that Morehouse should aspire to, including a healthy endowment, competitive faculty salaries, a brand that attracts an appropriate caliber of student, and a state-of-the-art educational environment.
The key to improving those aspects of Morehouse lies in enhancing the use of technology in all aspects of campus operations and becoming "data driven," Mr. Wilson says, especially to streamline student-support services. In a January interview on NPR, Mr. Wilson explained that many alumni of black colleges feel a kind of "nausea" about the poor customer service from the financial-aid office or the registrar.
Data-driven efficiency and the use of best practices are not new in higher education, and Mr. Wilson is one of a cadre of new leaders seeking to raise the stature and financial viability of historically black colleges through such methods. "Historically black colleges can and should be among the best in class among American universities," he says.
Other presidents who are seen as leading this movement include Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, M. Christopher Brown II at Alcorn State University, and David J. Wilson of Morgan State University.
Their reform message has received a mixed reception.
Mr. Kimbrough became president of Dillard in 2011 after seven years of rehabilitating the struggling Philander Smith College, in Arkansas—his first job as a college president. Mr. Kimbrough was popular with Philander Smith students because of his youthful demeanor and engaging personality, and he was successful at turning the college around by focusing on the academic performance of the institution, including measures to improve retention and graduation rates, raise faculty salaries, and increase the percentage of alumni giving.
David J. Wilson, president of Morgan State University, in Baltimore, has not enjoyed the same smooth sailing. Following a president who served for more than a quarter century, Mr. Wilson was just three years into his tenure when Morgan State's Board of Regents tried to oust him.
David Wilson's agenda for Morgan State has included an effort to raise admissions standards and increase the amount of sponsored research that faculty members are awarded, particularly in the sciences. To facilitate that, Mr. Wilson created a new vice presidency for research and economic development.
But the chairman of the board, Dallas R. Evans, blamed the president for hiring new administrators rather than "allocate additional positions for faculty, who teach our students, write grants, conduct research, and do community outreach."
The chairman was later ousted from his position. Morgan State's board eventually reversed its decision and offered Mr. Wilson a one-year contract extension.
MIT's Phillip Clay, in his study of black colleges, writes about how a culture of a nurturing family environment—among the hallmarks of the institutions—can lead to a paternalistic style of leadership that discourages innovation within the college, expects students to endure poor services, and fosters an insularity that rejects advice or collaboration from outside the college.
David Wilson agrees that some historically black colleges cling to the way things have always been done. "If you have been living in a matchbox for a long time, and you pretty much have been conditioned not to think of things beyond the matchbox, and if someone removes it, you may think it still represents the parameters of what you can and cannot do," he says.
John Wilson has few specific plans so far. His first few weeks were consumed with relocating and getting settled in the middle of the academic year—a visit to his office in February revealed bookshelves only half filled. And he'd had to deal with the February 1 shooting of a Morehouse student after a basketball game on campus. The victim was injured but expected to recover fully.
Yet Mr. Wilson carefully spells out the four main areas he wants to focus on: improved fund raising, more efficient and effective administrative operations, more campus activities for students, and improving Morehouse's image both locally and nationally.
The college will also need a more intensive student-recruitment effort to reverse enrollment declines while, simultaneously, becoming more selective in admissions.
"There were 20,000 African-American male high-school graduates last year with admissions profiles best-suited for Morehouse College," Mr. Wilson says. "We got less than 15 percent of them to apply."
Mr. Clay's report on black colleges, "Facing the Future," sees increased selectivity as key. "Improving the quality of the student body means focusing on enrolling students who have the preparation to be successful," he writes. "This is an important part of the transformation" that historically black colleges will need to engineer.
For financial reasons alone, "it's going to be very difficult for institutions to remain open access," as most are, says Kassie Freeman, who has published several studies on enrollment at historically black colleges. Ms. Freeman recommends that black colleges expand their recruiting, which in many cases is limited to their immediate region or nearby urban areas, she said.
More than two-thirds of Morehouse's enrollment comes from out of state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
In some cases, historically black colleges have been able to capitalize on the growing Hispanic population in their regions. Hispanic students are now the majority at several black colleges in Texas, for example. At Morehouse, however, 96 percent of the students are African American. All are male, but there are women from neighboring Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University who take classes at Morehouse.
The students who have already enrolled seem enthusiastic about Mr. Wilson's ideas. Jarvis Gray is studying political science and serves as the junior class president at Morehouse, which he chose for its emphasis on building leadership skills. But, he says, he has a "love hate" relationship with the college because of bureaucratic inefficiencies and lagging technology. For example, requesting the use of a campus building for a student activity requires a lot of tedious paperwork and could be better accomplished electronically, he says.
Faculty members have also, so far, welcomed Mr. Wilson's approach and message, which includes plans to increase faculty salaries and improve facilities.
John Kermit (J.K.) Haynes, dean of math and science at Morehouse, says faculty members appreciate that Mr. Wilson has been open and candid with them both about the college's difficulties as well as his proposed solutions.
"We've been challenged in recent years with raising money," says Mr. Haynes, a Morehouse graduate who has taught here for more than 30 years. "We need John Wilson to be successful."
Clarissa Myrick-Harris, dean of humanities and social sciences, says Mr. Wilson's experiences both in and outside historically black colleges will be a strength. "It's impossible to move an institution forward if you're myopic," she says.
Yet there is evidence that Morehouse has been reluctant to change in the past: Many of the problems that disturbed Mr. Wilson during his student days persist, he wrote in e-mail, without being specific.
Mr. Wilson expects that "there's going to be resistance" to doing some things differently, but he is counting on the stakeholders at Morehouse "to get ready for a different kind of journey here, and embrace change the way we have never embraced it before."