Director John S. Wilson Explains The Purpose Of The White House Initiative On HBCUs

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12232, which established a federal program to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Carter's bold move resulted in the White House Initiative on HBCUs. The current executive director of the Initiative is John S. Wilson, a Morehouse College graduate with extensive higher education leadership and fundraising experience.

This Monday, Sept. 19 and Tuesday, Sept. 20, the Initiative will be hosting its annual conference in Washington D.C. And this year's meeting boasts the theme "HBCUs Engaging the World Anew." In an effort to create greater understanding of HBCUs and the White House Initiative, I recently interviewed John S. Wilson about the state of HBCUs and how the Initiative contributes to these institutions' successes.

Wilson has a passion for HBCUs that was nurtured throughout his youth. His parents and family members went to HBCUs, and he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. In his words, "I have an appreciation and familiarity with HBCUs that is in my family blood." Although the majority of Wilson's higher education experience was gained at majority institutions, he has remained very active at his alma mater, volunteering in myriad ways. Wilson has a faith and optimism in the future of HBCUs that undergirds his work. He noted, "The gap between where HBCUs are and where they can and should be is pretty wide, and it can intimidate people. I have a faith and determination that it can and will be closed."

When asked about the Initiative's most significant accomplishments thus far under his leadership, Wilson was clear, noting, "We have increased the core support to HBCUs as measured by Title III and other institutional support, Pell Grants, and direct funding from various federal agencies." He then pointed to better internal government relations, engagement of the private sector, and a change in the national narrative on HBCUs. According to Wilson:

The Initiative was marginalized within the federal government for years; it wasn't integrated in a way that took advantage of all the resources available to HBCUs. We have been working hard to connect the Initiative to the resources inside the federal government to maximize the benefits to HBCUs. We now have better staff relations, better federal agency relationships, and we are taking full advantage of the White House's support.

As proof that these better internal relations are paying off, Wilson commented that he, and thus the Initiative, is now at tables where important decisions are being made -- decisions that shape the future of HBCUs. Being at these tables is what has enabled the Initiative to maintain core HBCU funding. For example, it led to the billion-dollar investment in black higher education that the federal government is making over the next 10 years.

Wilson is also proud of the Initiative's engagement of the private sector and notes that this was rarely done in the past. Throughout its history, the Initiative worked with private sector donors to support its annual conference, but Wilson is the first director to seek funding to create innovative interventions at HBCUs. In his words:

We are bringing ideas and funding to the HBCUs so that money is not an issue. We are implementing new programs. For example, we are working with the 14 HBCUs that are community colleges to enhance their fundraising capacity. These institutions received little attention in the past. There are several other major initiatives that we plan to announce later in the year.

Another major accomplishment of the Initiative under his leadership, according to Wilson, is the meaningful shift in the national HBCU narrative. Under some previous presidential administrations, the HBCU narrative was focused on whether HBCUs were needed rather than how they could contribute to our nation's higher education success. From Wilson's perspective:

We are positioning the narrative to be more data-driven. President Obama has a 2020 goal, and it requires the nation to have 8 million more graduates between now and 2020 -- 2 million of these graduates need to be African Americans, and of that 2 million, an extra 167,000 students must graduate from HBCUs. Under the Obama administration, the question of whether HBCUs should exist is completely off the table. Not only do they need to exist, but they need to thrive in order to meet the 2020 goal.

Although the majority of HBCU leaders, faculty and alumni are on board with the White House's agenda, from time to time I hear rumblings related to the work of the Initiative. Some HBCU leaders complain that they don't have the resources needed to reach the 2020 goal. I asked Wilson about these complaints, and he is cautiously optimistic that the 2012 budget will remedy the concerns of these leaders.

As Wilson is charged with moving HBCUs forward and ensuring their success toward the goal, I wanted to know what challenges he faces in his position. In his words:

One of the challenges has to do with the HBCU orthodoxy. I was aware of it but didn't understand the extent of it. It almost seems like there is a litmus test you have to take to work with or on HBCUs. It is like a gate-keeping orthodoxy that says you can only have a particular background, mindset or way of defending or advancing HBCUs. Maybe some people believe that HBCU support must come only from those internal to HBCUs, but President Obama came into office on the wings of a change message, and that includes change for HBCUs. Wisdom comes from understanding what to keep and what to change. There are a lot of HBCU traditions that should never change, and I understand that, but there are other things that absolutely must change if HBCUs are going to thrive. Being nimble is an imperative for institutions that want to thrive in the future. You have to know how to change.

Having a more educated citizenry is absolutely vital to our growth as a country. Based on my research, I know that HBCUs can and should play a big part in making sure that African Americans, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities and low-income students, will be part of that educated citizenry. Still, I wonder if all HBCUs stand ready for this task as some of them are struggling to survive or have little wiggle room. I asked Wilson about the current state of HBCUs, and he was careful to explain that these institutions are not a monolith. He said:

There is great diversity among HBCUs. Some HBCUs are relatively strong, and others are not nearly as strong. Some are going to be able to contribute to the 2020 goal, whereas others will struggle, and this is an indication of the diversity among these institutions. Some are strong enough and well-lead enough to make the changes and build the kind of relationships that they need to reach new levels of productivity; others are not, but that is the story for all of American higher education.

Two of the issues that are most vital at HBCUs are leadership and fundraising. Those institutions that are the strongest tend to have vocal leaders who reach beyond their campuses to engage issues at the local, state and national level. These individuals surround themselves with vibrant leadership teams and empower them to excel in their areas of expertise. The Initiative is a place where HBCU leaders can look for new ideas. According to Wilson, "We stimulate partnerships. We can point them in the direction of funding for their best ideas, especially those that are worthy of replication. We want to work with HBCU leaders to generate a larger supply of good ideas that can result in innovative change in HBCUs."

The initiative also supports HBCU leaders who want to focus on endowment building. Of course, the federal government cannot fundraise for HBCUs, but it can encourage them to pursue private sector grants to support endowment building. Likewise, the Initiative works with HBCUs to enhance their current endowment investment strategies. This work is vital, as the recommended endowment ratio for colleges and universities is five to 10 times an institution's operating budget, and unfortunately, at HBCUs, this ratio is rarely achieved. The reasons behind low HBCU endowments are many and complex, having to do with historical racism, underfunding and lack of access to assets on the part of blacks, but changing investment strategies can help counter these forces of the past.

In addition to the White House Initiative, there are several other national organizations that work directly with HBCUs. These include the National Association for Equal Opportunity, the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF). These organizations provide a combination of advocacy and support for HBCUs. I asked Wilson how the Initiative works with these organizations, building upon their efforts rather than duplicating them. He responded:

They are important organizations, and we have been working together since I came into this position. For example, we have teamed up with the TMCF, a private sector funder, and one of the initiative's board members to launch a black male initiative. We foster partnerships with these organizations. We facilitate relationships to strengthen HBCUs. We try to remove the question about financial resources to advance great ideas and do so hand-in-hand with these organizations.

Although partnerships with the HBCU advocacy groups and among individual HBCUs are quite prevalent, it is less likely to find HBCUs partnering with other minority-serving institutions (MSIs). MSIs, including Tribal Colleges and Hispanic-Serving Institutions, face many of the same challenges as HBCUs, and partnering with those that have overcome these challenges under similar resource constraints could be helpful to the future of HBCUs. I asked Wilson whether HBCUs were open to partnering with other MSIs, and he responded:

When it comes to partnerships, we don't make a distinction. We want to partner with any institution that has great ideas that will strengthen the capacity of HBCUs. I am personally close to my counterparts at the White House Initiatives who work with the other MSIs. I can readily see how HBCUs would benefit from partnerships with other MSIs. But we believe that HBCU success is about the ideas, and we want to create partnerships that foster bold ideas with anyone who is interested. I agree that many HBCUs could step out of the box more than they do, but our concern at the White House Initiative is more about the ideas that the partners have than who the partners are.

In order for HBCUs to meet Obama's 2020 goal and to thrive in the current higher education environment, they must move forward, be open to change and utilize all of the resources that are available to them, both pubic and private.

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