Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first African American president of Howard University, had a keen and prophetic understanding of the challenging context within which the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities [HBCUs] must operate.
Back in 1928, long before the push for civil rights became a full-scale movement, Johnson said: “Negroes must do a contradictory thing; they must work with all their might against segregation, and at the same time strengthen their so-called segregated institutions if they expect them to last forever.”
I believe Johnson’s core sentiment is as fitting today as it was when he first uttered it. And it is particularly interesting and instructive in 2013 – a year in which we celebrate both the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which set the stage for the founding of many HBCUs, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which motivated efforts to desegregate American institutions, including colleges and universities.
This year is uniquely ironic for Morehouse College. The name of this institution was changed from Atlanta Baptist College to Morehouse College in 1913, to honor Henry Lyman Morehouse, the Corresponding Secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. As Morehouse considers one hundred years of being identified as “Morehouse,” it might remind the world that, while W.E.B. DuBois popularized it, Henry Lyman Morehouse originally coined the term, “the talented tenth!” This should function as a mandate for Morehouse and other HBCUs to surge toward being a talent-driven organizations in each and every respect.
The fact is that HBCUs have made extraordinary contributions to society. True to their mandate following the Civil War to educate former slaves to participate as free citizens in a democracy, black colleges and universities have produced graduates whose energy and intellect help make this nation a global leader. Almost a quarter of African Americans who hold a bachelor’s degree earned it from an HBCU.
But it is also a fact that because race is no longer a legal barrier to higher education, today more than 90 percent of African Americans are educated outside of HBCUs. In recent years, seven of the 117 institutions legislated with a principal mission to educate African Americans have closed their doors, and several more currently face serious threats to their survival. Once an institution defined as an HBCU closes, it cannot be replaced.
So, what happened to Johnson’s call to do “a contradictory thing?”
By any reasonable observation, we have far more effectively secured the gradual disappearance of segregation than we have the gradual permanence of HBCUs. Perhaps it has been easier or somehow more desirable to push for entry to campuses that once denied blacks than to push for the durability of campuses built for them.
Whatever the reasons for the disparity, now is the time to address the unfinished side of Johnson’s contradictory thing. In fact, I believe there is no higher calling for me and other HBCU presidents whose privilege it is to lead these institutions, which justly deserve distinction as irreplaceable national treasures.
For Black colleges and universities to survive and thrive, we must, as Johnson implored, strengthen them to last forever. This means embedding within our institutions what I call forever capacity, that is, the capacity to be robust and relevant now and well into the future.
Forever capacity includes strength based on three interrelated criteria: endowment size relative to annual expenses; the successful recruitment and retention of promising students and faculty; and the creation and maintenance of campus facilities and systems that support a healthy living-learning-working environment. These are useful benchmarks that should be on the agenda of all HBCUs.
They certainly are on our agenda at Morehouse. Our goal is to create sustainable academic and operational excellence. To this end, we are committed to critical self-examination and analysis of our strengths and weaknesses, and we are determined to see to it that being world class and cutting edge are reflected in every corner of the institution.
As we work to strengthen our educational infrastructure, we are also working to strengthen our capital base by building an endowment appropriate to our mission. To alumni and others, we will clearly demonstrate that an investment in Morehouse yields solid returns – indeed, that we have and continue to prepare competitive, creative and compassionate young men who are worthy of substantial investment.
Ultimately, forever capacity for HBCUs is about our allegiance to an historic mission. It is about our capacity to educate African American exemplars of servant leadership – not only alumni who are fit for the existing and emerging world economy, but also those who are fit to meaningfully transform it.
To fulfill this time-honored purpose, Morehouse and other key HBCUs simply must be built to last…forever.
Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr. is the 11th president of Morehouse College. He formerly served as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities