Our Best Year Ever
Opening Convocation Address
Dr. Walter E. Massey
President, Morehouse College
September 14, 2006
To our returning students, faculty and staff – welcome back to Morehouse. To our new students, faculty and staff – welcome to Morehouse. And to everyone – welcome to the start of the 2006-2007 academic year – our best year ever!
Classes have already begun, and I hope that things are going well. If you are new to Morehouse, I hope that you are finding your experience in your new home at the House to be satisfying and fulfilling. And, if you are returning to Morehouse, I hope that you are finding that coming back this year is the best decision you could have made.
Opening Convocation always is a special event in the life of the College – a time each year when we pause and gather together as a community to formally recognize our shared commitment to being at Morehouse, and to starting a fresh, new academic year.
This is the 12th time that I have had the honor of speaking to the members of this community at Opening Convocation. For me, this usually is a very joyous time – one of my favorite times of the year. But, I must confess, that today, the occasion is bittersweet. I am filled with so many mixed emotions because this is the last Opening Convocation at which I will preside as president of Morehouse College. I plan to retire as president effective at the end of this academic year.
When I came to Morehouse to serve as president in 1995, I said that I would stay for 10 years. So, two years ago, I began discussing my retirement plans with the Board of Trustees. Because we all wanted to ensure a smooth leadership transition, I planned my departure to occur at the end of the 2006-2007 year. This schedule gave us enough time to complete several key initiatives, including recruiting and hiring a new Provost, recruiting and hiring a new Chief Financial Officer, and closing out the Capital Campaign – all of which we have now accomplished. So, with the support of my wife, first lady Shirley Massey, I informed Chairman Davis and the Executive Committee that this would be my last year as president.
In many ways, this is an almost ideal time for a presidential leadership transition at Morehouse because the College is in very good shape:
- We have a committed Board of Trustees, including several younger alumni and others who are bringing new energy to the work of the governance of the institution;
- We have a strong senior management team that is working together effectively to lead the key initiatives of the College, both on the academic and administrative sides of the House;
- We have a dedicated and professional faculty that continues to provide outstanding academic preparation for our students;
- We have a dedicated and hard-working staff that is providing increasing levels of service delivery, efficiency and effectiveness in all aspects of our operations;
- We are fiscally sound – consistently and responsibly making wise use of our resources to ensure that we are able to fund our educational programs at appropriate levels;
- We have effective strategic planning and budget management processes in place to guide our administrative decision making;
- Over the past year, we have made significant strides in implementing Leadership 4.0, our staff development program;
- Despite ever increasing competition for African American, college-bound males, we continue to have a stable enrollment of increasingly high-caliber students;
And – despite what some magazines say – we still are the number-one College in the nation for educating African American men!
I must say that these past 11 years at Morehouse have been among the most gratifying and satisfying of my entire professional career. And the remarkable thing about it is that becoming president of Morehouse never was part of a plan for my life. It never was even something I had in mind, earlier on.
When I graduated from Morehouse in 1958, my goal was to become a scientist, a physicist. And I spent the greater part of my career doing just that – teaching and conducting research in physics – first for about 10 years at Brown University, then at the University of Chicago. After I left the classroom, I was always involved in positions directly related to science and technology or research – as director of the Argonne National Laboratory, and then as director of the National Science Foundation. Even as provost at the University of California, I was responsible for their three national research laboratories. That had been my life, and I was very happy, and very satisfied with the career path I had chosen.
So, in 1995, when I received a call from members of the Morehouse Board
of Trustees asking me whether I would be interested in being considered
for the position of president of the College, I really had to give it
My first thought was about Morehouse. Of course, I knew of the College’s outstanding reputation. I had no doubts about that. After all, as an alumnus, I am a product of this institution’s commitment to high academic standards and the cultivation of character in its students. I recognized that I would not have been able to enjoy the successful career I had had up to that point without the preparation I received at Morehouse.
As an educator, I also recognized Morehouse’s importance in the pantheon of higher education. Simply stated: Morehouse is unique. These days, the word unique is often overused and misused. To describe a thing as unique is to literally say that there is nothing else like it, and Morehouse is exactly that – unique. It is the only college in the nation whose primary mission is the education and development of the African American male, and other males who want this experience. Therefore, it is almost impossible to compare Morehouse with other institutions.
My second thought was about the presidency itself – about the awesome responsibility the president of Morehouse would assume in securing and ensuring the future of this special place. Frankly, it was not immediately clear to me that I was the best or most suitable candidate to fill those shoes. Fortunately, something my younger son said helped me put my concerns into perspective.
He said, “Dad, in your position as provost of the University of California, and even if you became president of the University of California (a position for which I was being considered) there are many people who could do that job. But there are not many people who have your connections and your relationship with Morehouse who could be president there.”
The more I thought about it, and the more I discussed it with friends and family, the more it became clear to me that I had an opportunity to fill one of the most important positions at one of the most important institutions of higher education in America. So, I interviewed for the job. And when Chairman Otis Moss and then vice-chairman Willie Davis offered me the position of president, I said I would be honored to accept.
In the end, my decision to accept the offer came down to my conviction that Morehouse was the right place, that the presidency was the right job, and that I was the right person – the right leader at the right time – for Morehouse College.
Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller Inc., a major office furniture manufacturing company, once said: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
When I assumed the presidency of my alma mater 11 years ago, I set out, first, to define reality, and I defined that reality in terms of my vision for the College. I said that Morehouse would be among the very finest, private, undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the nation – period. I also said that the universe of institutions against which we measure our progress and standards must encompass all of the finest colleges and universities – not just those with origins similar to our own. And, I said that all the while, we will continue to be an institution that focuses on the development of leaders, and the college of choice for African American men.
I know that, initially, a few people (well maybe more than a few), thought my vision was too lofty, that that goal would be impossible to reach. But it was a very real vision to me. As I said earlier, I knew about Morehouse – its unique role in higher education, its outstanding reputation, and the impact it had had on me, personally.
Once I arrived at Morehouse, one of the things that inspired and encouraged me most in creating and standing behind my vision for the College is something Rev. Moss said, which I shared in my first Opening Convocation speech. He had described Morehouse as an “Unfinished Cathedral of Excellence.” So, in my speech, I drew a parallel between Morehouse and history’s great cathedrals, which required hundreds of years to build. I pointed out that some cathedrals are still not finished, and that they require constant work, undergirding, and enhancement. Yet, they are always in use – integral to the development of those who carry on the construction, those who strive toward some distant point in the future – because perfection is never truly achieved.
So, armed with my definition of reality – my vision of excellence for Morehouse – I reached out and enlisted members of this community to help me shape and refine that vision. I talked with trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, supporters and parents – anyone who would listen. And I listened to them – to their visions and their dreams. What I learned was that what I saw for Morehouse, others saw, too. Pretty soon, my vision for Morehouse became our shared vision for Morehouse. Then, we set about doing the hard work to make that vision a reality.
I will mention just a few of the broad areas of the vision in which we have made significant progress over the years:
Having defined reality as our vision for Morehouse to be among the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation, we undertook a clean-slate review of our core curriculum – an initiative designed to ensure that our academic program keeps pace with the 21st century educational needs of our students. This fall, we launched a three-year pilot of our new General Education Program, with 150 students who will be the first to benefit from an enhanced, interdisciplinary, outcomes-oriented approach to teaching and learning.
Having defined reality as our vision for Morehouse to be the college
of choice for African American men, we launched our Student First initiative,
a process designed to enhance the administrative operations that support
our students in their matriculation through the College. In addition,
as part of the Campaign for a New Century, we raised more than $38 million
for student scholarships to help make the Morehouse experience more affordable
for academically qualified young men who need financial support to attend
the College. The overall goal for our Capital Campaign, as you recall,
was $105.7 million. In June, we closed the campaign having surpassed
that goal and raising more than $120 million.
Having defined reality as our vision for Morehouse to continue our emphasis on leadership development, we created a minor in leadership studies, and built the state-of-the-art Leadership Center – an academic building that houses the Leadership Center Program, the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs, the Emma and Joe Adams Public Service Institute, and the Division of Business and Economics.
Having defined reality as our vision for Morehouse to be an academic village where the physical environment reflects the intelligence and spirit of its inhabitants, we developed a 20-year Campus Master Plan. Since 1995, we have increased our investment in facilities in our academic village from approximately $43 million to almost $164 million – a nearly fourfold increase.
And, because we knew that the heart and soul of an academic village is its people, we launched the Institutional Values Project, which set the standards for how we want to engage and interact with each other at Morehouse, and Leadership 4.0, which represents the institution’s commitment to invest in and develop the people who do the work that makes Morehouse work.
In these and many other ways, I believe we have exemplified Max De Pree’s notion of leadership by defining our reality for Morehouse. And, as a result, every day we see emerging a new and better reality that brings us closer and closer to the realization of our vision for the College.
Importantly, Max Dupree’s notion of leadership also includes the idea that the leader is a servant. As president of Morehouse, I certainly am proud of our many accomplishments. But I know – and I believe you know, too – that all of these accomplishments – all of scholarship funds we raised, all the faculty research we funded, all the flowers and trees we planted – are not ends of themselves, but rather means to the end of serving Morehouse’s mission. During my tenure, I have worked to ensure that, above all, we are servants to Morehouse’s special mission and unique role in the education of African American men.
Unfortunately, recent reports in the mainstream media about the status of African American males paint quite a dismal picture. In no category is the news more alarming than in education. According to noted researchers in education, from the middle of elementary and continuing into high school, African American males lead all other groups of students in suspensions, expulsions, behavioral problems, and referrals to special classes for slow learners. In most inner-city high schools, the dropout rate is over 50 percent, and those who remain in school are four to five grades behind in reading and math. If that is not bad enough, studies also show that more African American males die violently or find themselves in the penal system than earn a college degree.
These statistics notwithstanding, a fact that has been almost completely overlooked in the news and reports about African American men is that not all of them are failing. Many – including the overwhelming majority of the students at Morehouse – are, in fact, succeeding. Perhaps the most significant testament to this fact is our 2006 graduating class, which included 529 young men (mostly African American) who earned bachelor’s degrees – the highest number in Morehouse history, and more than any other college or university in the nation.
It is ironic that this success occurs in the same year that that Black Enterprise magazine – the publication that for the previous four years had ranked Morehouse as the number one college for African Americans – would now rank us 45th.
What has changed?
Well, one thing that changed is the way Black Enterprise calculated its ranking. The magazine put more heavy emphasis this year on graduation rates and the size of African American population at colleges and universities. The particular year that was the focus of the Black Enterprise ranking – 2004 – was an anomalous year for Morehouse in which our graduation rate dropped from 56 percent to 49 percent.
What the Black Enterprise ranking does not show is that over the past four years, our six-year graduation rate has averaged about 55 percent, and in 2005, rose to 61 percent – the college’s highest graduation rate ever. So, by any standard, Morehouse really is a better institution today than it was when we were ranked number one.
Another important factor that we understand – and that we are
working to help others understand – is what graduation rates mean
in the context of our special mission at Morehouse to focus on the educational
needs of African American men.
The fact is that male and female graduation rates differ significantly among African Americans, with twice as many African American women as men enrolled in college, and twice as many African American women as men earning college degrees.
It is also a fact that even at 55 percent – a rate we are continually striving to improve – Morehouse’s graduation rate is significantly higher than the national average graduation rate for African American men, which is about 33 percent. So, as I said before, any way you look at it, Morehouse is still at the top of the list when it comes to producing black male college graduates – period.
One positive outcome of the publicity about our change in ranking on the Black Enterprise list is that it presents an opportunity for us to bring to the attention of a larger public the disparity between male and female college attendance and graduate rates. We see this opportunity as our responsibility, indeed, as part of what it means to be a leader and a servant. Think about it: As the college that enrolls and graduates the largest number of African American men in the nation, we are the preeminent leader on this subject.
That is why one of my priorities for the remainder of the academic year will be to secure Morehouse’s position at the forefront on the national agenda about the status of African American men by initiating the Morehouse Male Initiative. This endeavor will allow us to bring together national research scholarship, as well as the particular learning about African American male education we have amassed at Morehouse over the years. Not only will we use what we learn to help ourselves better serve our students, but we also will share what we learn with others who also are serving the needs of African American men.
And, it is increasingly clear that we do need to understand better than we do now the influences and motivations that lead so many of our young men into destructive activities and lifestyles. As you know, this summer we experienced a horrible event involving four young men who were admitted to and had studied at Morehouse. Allegedly, these seemingly average, normal young men committed a brutal murder. If, indeed, these charges are true, we need to try to understand how such a thing could have happened.
On this important issue of the development of African American men, we, at Morehouse, we are and will be leaders; we are and will be servants.
In addition to Max De Pree, another person I admire is Robert Galvin, the long-time chairman and CEO of Motorola Inc. He often said, “The job of a leaders is to spread hope.”
I have interpreted that phrase that hope is like a fertilizer. Hope allows new ideas to grow and flourish. It nurtures and reinvigorates old ideas that still have value, and it encourages the plantings of new seeds that will generate the next crop of innovations. As president of Morehouse, I hope that I have been able to spread hope.
Max De Pree said that last, the responsibility of a leader is to say thank you.
Well, I am not sure I know where to begin with that. It is abundantly clear to me – and I hope that it is also clear to you – that none of what we have accomplished here at Morehouse over the past 11 years – and none of what we will accomplish in the future at Morehouse – would have been possible or will be possible without the dedication and commitment of a lot people.
I will not try to name names, but I do want to acknowledge, at least, the groups of people who have been indispensable to my presidency:
First, my bosses – the Morehouse College Board of Trustees. Thank you for calling and offering me the job. And thank you for your unconditional support of me in carrying it out.
My administrative team. Thank you all for being co-visionaries and co-managers with me of an ambitious plan to make Morehouse the best house.
The faculty. Thank you for being the bedrock of this institution – the dispensers of knowledge and wisdom, the transmitters of traditions, and the primary role models for our students.
The staff. Thank you for making it all happen – semester in and semester out, going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that our teaching-learning process can take place as it should.
The alumni. Thank you for showing the world what can happen when you invest in a man of Morehouse, and he becomes a Morehouse man.
Our supporters. Thank you for always being there for us – freely giving of your time, and your friendship and, of course, your money.
Last but not least, the students – the men of Morehouse College. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being the reason we are all here. You could have chosen to be somewhere else but you did not. Your choosing Morehouse means the world to me. It means the world to all of us.
I said I would not name names, but there is one person I want to recognize individually, and that is my wife, Shirley. We have always been a team wherever we have been. And Morehouse has provided the perfect environment for us to be partners in every way. On Shirley’s behalf, I want to thank all of you for making her an integral part of my presidency.
And so, Morehouse, we begin, again. A new year. An important year. Our best year ever!