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HBCUs, Higher Ed, and Democracy’s Future

How HBCUs represent a model of higher education desperately needed to save the future of democracy
John Wilson by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer
Photo: Harvard News Office

John Silvanus Wilson Jr., Ed.M.’82, Ed.D.’85, believes higher education institutions have something to learn from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that can change the future of democracy. 

“What's in their DNA, what's in their history, and what remains on many of the campuses is a model for what needs to happen in this country and in this world now if we are going to save a democracy and save the planet — in that order, by the way, which is unfortunate because a broken democracy cannot save a broken planet,” Wilson says.

>> Watch John Silvanus Wilson, Professor Meira Levinson, and other guests on at the Askwith Education Forum: Education, Truth, and the Future of Democracy.

Wilson, currently the executive director of the Millennium Leadership Initiative for Aspiring Presidents, has a long history with HBCUs as graduate and later president of Morehouse College, and also the leader of the White House Initiative on HBCUs under the Obama Administration. 

While HBCUs have long been viewed through a lens of deficiency and survival, Wilson notes that these institutions actually are preeminent in character — something that is missing from many institutions nationwide. He calls on higher education to focus more on producing citizens who aspire to common good rather than personal gain.

“I think all of American higher education has to heed what John Dewey said and begin to deliberately shape people who will lead and not just be selfishly concerned about their own well-being but about the well-being of society, the shape and condition of democracy,” he says. “This is critical.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Wilson reflects on HBCU history and how it can inform the future of higher education and democracy. 


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. 

John Silvanus Wilson Jr. says historically Black colleges and universities hold the key to what American higher education needs to change the future of democracy. He's not just a graduate but also the former president of Morehouse College. He spent much of his career researching and advocating for HBCUs, including under the Obama administration. 

HBCU's struggle to survive is often the focus in education, but what these institutions lack financially they make up for in character. He says that is harder to attain than capital. I wanted to hear more about the importance of developing character at institutions and why HBCUs have done a better job than others. First, I asked Wilson about his own experience and how that has shaped his views on higher education. 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: I attended Morehouse and then came to Harvard University for graduate school, and that difference just stuck with me and has been with me ever since 1979 when I set foot on the campus of Harvard University, coming from Morehouse. And the way I've come to talk about it is Morehouse had character preeminence and Harvard had obvious capital preeminence. 

And I said, why not have both of these virtues in the same place at the same time on the same campus? Why not make it a feature of one single institution? And during research, eventually, at Harvard Ed School, I determined that no institution in the world has ever fully optimized character and capital. 

JILL ANDERSON: Which is crazy. 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Yeah, which is crazy. You usually have one or the other, and they're very strong in one or the other. But no one has really, truly, recognizably optimized both, and I say that is the enormous unfinished business in higher education in the world, especially in America. 

JILL ANDERSON: It seems crazy to hear that because this is decades later, and yet the same problem and challenge exists. 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Exactly, and it's not going to change until you get a set of leaders in these institutions and I mean boards, and president, and senior leadership team, whatever they pull together, who are going to go after that, who are going to see that, as I've seen it, as the Holy Grail in higher education and go after it aggressively. And I've always insisted that it's harder to have capital preeminence and go in search of character preeminence. 


JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Yeah, I think that's harder because that takes a lot of will, and if you haven't pursued it ever or certainly meaningfully in a long time, it's hard to find the will to do that, the institutional will as more of a collective, not one or two professors here and there, who have character and who emphasize. I mean an institutional effort. 

It's easier if you have that or you've had it, and you need to add to it the capital preeminence. Now, I have shifted from using preeminence to using optimization. The hierarchical implications of the word preeminence could be misinterpreted, and I don't want people to think I'm meaning that an HBCU has to have a $53 billion endowment like Harvard. 

I just think a lot of HBCUs need significantly more than they have now in capital. And add that to or sharpen up the character that many of them have in their DNA and in their traditions, and then you have it. So that's why I say, to have a character, tradition, or to have the main elements of character optimization in place, and go after capital optimization is an easier path. The other path is not impossible. It's just more difficult. 

JILL ANDERSON: I want to talk a little bit more about that as this conversation goes on, but for the general population, I suspect they don't know much about HBCUs, myself probably included in that. And there's always a lot of negative stories out there about schools closing and not being able to stay open. So can you give us a summary of where you would say HBCUs are right now in this moment? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Well, first, I think it's important to recognize that not all HBCUs are the same.

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: You have different types. You have some HBCU community colleges. There are about 100 HBCUs now. Half are private. Half are public, state affiliated. 

I think they have various levels of strength. You have some that are very strong. You have some that are kind of fair to middling. And then you have some weaker HBCUs. 

And that's a reflection of American higher education. The same could be said for the whole ecosystem. Most of the time, I hesitate to put all HBCUs in the same category, but when it comes to their outlook and, I would say, their relative outlook, if you compare them to the outlook of the stronger institutions, colleges, and universities in our industry, it's OK to generalize because the gap between HBCUs and the strongest institutions, at least financially, is inexcusably wide. 

It's just too wide. Here's a data point for you: On average, the 100 HBCUs raise roughly $3 to $4 million per institution all year. By contrast, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, a few others raise $3 to $4 million per day all year, and that is a tremendous difference in terms of the ability of HBCUs to remain competitive. And yet they have. But imagine how much more many HBCUs could do if they had more resources. And that's why I think that missing capital optimization is the tremendous unfinished business. 

JILL ANDERSON: There is this essence of survival and surviving for HBCUs, which there is a struggle, both in the past and in the future. So was there a pivotal moment in HBCU history, where things kind of became unraveled for them as an institution? Or do you think this was more of a gradual challenge that started to happen over time? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: No, I think the precarity of HBCUs has never really fundamentally changed. There's always been this precarious existence. However, even recognizing that there have been pivotal moments when things could have been much better or when things did take kind of a turn toward more precarity, first and foremost, I would say, if you go way back, I think what was pivotal and costly for HBCUs was the failure of Reconstruction in America. 

And that's not an HBCU failure. That's a failure of the nation to really stay on the pathway to becoming a real democracy. When that fails, when Reconstruction failed and the South kind of asserted itself, that intensified and really accelerated the precarity of HBCUs. It really was costly. 

But even if you get beyond that-- and we did. And at one point, Jill, there were more than 300 HBCUs, particularly in that period during Reconstruction, 300 or more, and that was from a government study done on HBCUs that are no longer with us. It was an older study. 

But many of them survived. There were about 130, 140 by the 1920s, and they were then beginning to turn their curricula into one that was pointed toward fixing America. And this is a very, very pivotal task. But a turning point that I could point to was a quiet one. It was the Brown v Board decision, and that was loud. That was noteworthy. 

But I've got to tell you. Only Thurgood Marshall said — and this is not a widely recognized quote; it took me a while before I found it. But Thurgood Marshall, within days of that decision by the Supreme Court, said ‘HBCUs are going to have to find a new sales talk.’ 

He immediately recognized-- this was about K–12 in particular. He immediately saw that this was going to have an effect on HBCUs eventually, and he was dead right. That was in 1954. 

We didn't really see it happen dramatically until Martin Luther King was shot in 1968. When King is shot, what happens next is extraordinary. He's shot in April of '68. 

Well, most of higher education had just admitted their classes in April of '68. So because they can have no impact on September '68, on the class that would enter September '68, they spent-- and I mean they, Harvard, Yale, most of the Ivy League, Stanford, some of the states, too, though they would come about a year later, they spent the next year recruiting in high schools and in cities they had never been in before. 

And that's why you have a tenfold increase of African Americans in September '69 over what it was in September '68. This was the biggest leap forward, and that basically was a process that was taking students who would have otherwise gone to HBCUs. So there's this term that was used back then called the brain drain. 

This is when that began in earnest, in earnest. HBCUs really started to feel it in '69. And then in the '70s, that's when the state flagships and other states that were a little slower, they started doing the same thing. And then, gradually, HBCUs lost a lot of their market. 

JILL ANDERSON: You think that was because they didn't have the capital to go out, and market, and go after these students? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Yeah, that's where the capital differentiation comes in, and it's pretty dramatic. Many of the students were coming in with full scholarships, many of them, and far more money than the HBCUs could offer. So they were buying the brainpower. They were also recruiting faculty members, too, and especially athletes. 

So basically, they were taking some of the best talent that was naturally converging in HBCUs. They were picking it out. It really began to, over time, really impact HBCUs. So that was a turning point as well. 

There are three more I'll mention very quickly. They all have to do with philanthropy. In 1903, Andrew Carnegie did something very unique that's been unprecedented. He gave a $600,000 check gift to Tuskegee for their endowment. 

Now, in 2021 dollars, I'll say, just relative to GDP, that would be roughly a $527 million dollar gift to a single HBCU. The philanthropic community at the time and since did not follow him, and that was a solo voice at that point in terms of changing the capital circumstances in HBCUs. 

Fast forward, the philanthropic community more recently did not reward HBCUs for, I think, the extraordinary work they did to enhance the democracy with the Civil Rights Movement and the various bills that came. I thought that was a wonderful opportunity for the philanthropic community to make a statement about America and reward the HBCUs for educating, very deliberately and aggressively, the foot soldiers and generals of the Civil Rights Movement that improves America, opened it up for women, opened it up for people of color, of course, LGBTQ eventually. 

And so this started a movement in America, but the philanthropic community didn't really budge. It didn't really react that way. And then a third point that was pretty important for HBCUs is when MacKenzie Scott gave her millions of dollars to multiple HBCUs, 22, I think, $560 million to 22 different HBCUs. Yet again, it was a singular act. 

There were some others around the same time. This was all influenced by the George Floyd era and the racial reckoning going on in America, but I don't think anyone would call that a real movement. It was not the beginning of an era, and that's unfortunate. 

I thought what MacKenzie Scott did was extraordinary, extraordinary, and there weren't enough people to follow in her footsteps from America's philanthropic community. And that's just unfortunate. 

JILL ANDERSON: So we're talking about how chronically underfunded HBCUs have been, and this is a long historic problem, a systemic one. How can that begin to change, given the current climate in America? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: It can always change. To be a true American in my view means you have to have hope. You have to hope that we finally or eventually close the gap between what we said on paper and the way we act, the way we conduct ourselves, the way our society is built. 

We are far more inequitable-- and I don't just mean inequality. I mean we have far too much inequity in this society given our Constitution and what it said. We do, Jill, see some of the states turning around. 

The states have been biased. They have broken the law for years. The mandate was to fund these two higher ed systems equally, separate but equal. That was a condition of the Federal Government giving money to the states, and they were supposed to fund their own state systems and fund the HBCU parallel systems that they created because they did not want integration. 

The states have never funded a HBCUs on par proportionately with the rest of their public higher education system, and that's why you have these two systems, two very unequal systems. There are some states that are trying to begin to correct that. That's going to take some time. And again, I think the gap has only widened in the process. So that's one hopeful thing. 

The other thing that I think could be encouraging is I do think that there are other people like MacKenzie Scott out there who could be persuaded to do this. I think that's going to probably be determined a lot by the way some HBCU leaders are able to get into their orbit. And one of the reasons why I've done the research I've done is because I want to help set the stage for that. I want to see that happen.
JILL ANDERSON: I want to get back to something you talked about at the beginning of this conversation, which is this idea of character over capital. You're talking about something that's a real crisis in all of higher education, which is the purpose of it, and something that you have said is we need to focus more on producing citizens who want to advance common good versus just aspire to their own personal gain. How have HBCUs done a better job at doing that, producing citizens who advance the common good? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Put it this way. I tie it to something that John Dewey said. John Dewey made the comment that democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife. All right. 

This is a profoundly important recognition. Du Bois made a lot of the same... made that point in many other ways. I like how crisp and clear Dewey is. Du Bois said something very similar in that he thought the purpose of the university is to, in some way, in some measurable way, elevate the civilization, and that's thematically consistent with Dewey. 

In my view and what I show in my research is that HBCUs have done that more aggressively and better than any other tradition in American higher education. HBCUs, when they spent that three or four decades producing the kind of curriculum and culture required to graduate the foot soldiers, and generals, and lieutenants of the Civil Rights Movement, that, in my view, was an enormously productive thing for America in terms of the character side of things.
These people put their lives at risk. They backgrounded their personal comfort and safety, and they put their lives on the line for future generations. They knew it was possible that they could be seriously harmed or killed, and many of them were seriously harmed or killed. 

But they did it anyway. They were college graduates. They could have pursued jobs and found a quiet place to be away from the fray somehow, but they put themselves on the line. And we're talking hundreds of thousands of people, and it wasn't just HBCUs, HBCU graduates. 

There were enlightened whites who came down into the South. Everyone knows the story about Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney coming into the South and doing what they did in Mississippi. But I just have to say this statement, this assertion, that HBCUs did in shaping an educational experience that would deliberately improve American democracy is what needs to happen again.
This is the problem we're having now. Democracy is being threatened yet again, and it is pretty lethal this time. And I think all of American higher education has to heed what John Dewey said and begin to deliberately shape people who will leave and not just be selfishly concerned about their own well-being but about the well-being of society, the shape and condition of democracy. This is critical. 

In my research, I cite another threat, not just to the democracy but to the planet with climate change. And I insist that a broken democracy cannot fix a broken planet. 

JILL ANDERSON: So do HBCUs have some kind of secret curriculum that other institutions can take and use to make this movement happen? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Yeah, I've been paying attention to HBCUs all my life. I represented HBCUs in the White House in Barack Obama's first term, and I was president at Morehouse. And I visited at least 50 to 60 HBCU campuses. 

And I can tell you that many of the main elements of the curriculum, and campus culture, and campus pedagogy that gave us the Civil Rights Movement, many of them are still there. They're stronger at some HBCUs than they are at others. Some have lost the tradition a bit. 

But I insist that, if properly motivated and resourced, a lot of that can be revived, updated, and accentuated, and exported because a version of what HBCUs did in the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, and into the '70s needs to happen across America and across the world because I think the stakes are just that high. And so I make this case-- I think the philanthropic community can incentivize a new movement to bring that back. 

And HBCUs, many people perceive them as deficient in one way or another, but I insist that they are the model for what needs to happen in America now. What's in their DNA, what's in their history, and what remains on many of the campuses is a model for what needs to happen in this country and in this world now if we are going to save a democracy and save the planet in that order, by the way, which is unfortunate because a broken democracy cannot save a broken planet. 

JILL ANDERSON: Right. Well, that's a very strong statement. It's a big one, and it's a brave one. And it's a good one. But I do want to ask this before we wrap up. There's a lot of people who have ties to HBCUs, and what hope do you have for them about the future? 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: I do have hope. I think people-- enough enlightened people are taking seriously the threat to the democracy and the threat to the planet, and I think people are looking for ideas. And I think the philanthropic community has incentivized higher education to do all kinds of things throughout its history. The philanthropic community has been very involved in what happens in American higher education. 

I think it's time for American higher education and the philanthropic community to recognize that education needs to midwife a new democracy and a new planet. This is not just a matter of urgency. It's an emergency. And I believe, fundamentally, that the forces, particularly the human capital, will converge to make that happen, and I personally will continue to work with HBCUs to make sure we're at the table in the right way to help make this change come about. 

I do have hope. You cannot understand what has happened with HBCUs and their story and not have hope because they have overcome great odds to be here and I think to be poised to do something even more extraordinary than they've already done. 

JILL ANDERSON: Thank you so much. This has been such an interesting conversation, and I've learned a lot. 

JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: It's been great to talk to you, Jill. 

JILL ANDERSON: John Silvanus Wilson is the executive director of the Millennium Leadership Initiative for Aspiring Presidents. He is the author of Hope and Healing: Black Colleges and the Future of American Democracy. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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