John Silvanus Wilson Jr. '79 Inaugural Speech
The World of Our Dreams
John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79
President, Morehouse College
February 14, 2014
We live in years, swift flying, transient years. We hold the possible future in our hands but not by wish and will, only by thought, plan, knowledge, and organization. If the college can pour into the coming age an American Negro who knows himself and his plight and how to protect himself and fight race prejudice, then the world of our dreams will come and not otherwise.
W.E.B. DuBois, The Crisis, August 1933
I am honored by the purpose, power and promise of this day. I am also strengthened by this convergence of so many people from all phases of my life … so many people who love and admire Morehouse College. From the bottom of my heart, I thank each of you for coming.
I thank Chairman [Robert] Davidson and the Board of Trustees for a charge that challenges me. I thank the alumni, academy colleagues, friends and family who are here to support and encourage us, and to share what, for some, is an ancestral message of hope and trust, drawn from the best of our history and traditions.
I thank the students, faculty and staff who live, learn and work here. I want you to know that we feel your yearning for a new day.
This institution has produced so many graduates who have eloquently called and worked for a new world on this earth, so it just makes poetic and genetic sense that we now call and work for a new world on this campus!
I have been inspired by all of my predecessors in this role. I have spoken with Dr. [Leroy] Keith, and Drs. [Walter] Massey and [Robert] Franklin are here today. I appreciate your efforts to make this great place greater. I now join you in that quest.
Time is far too short to point to particular people, but I extend a special greeting to my family. My three extraordinary children—Ayana, Ashia and Jay—have heroically helped to inspire my confidence about this world’s future. Thank you for who you are.
And I thank you, Carol. We have been soul mates for almost 35 years … 35 years with infinity to go!
But my biggest nod goes to my Dreamweaver – my mother, Genester Nix Miller. I ask that you stand, Mom, because you taught me how to dream in the first place. And while others in this chapel may tend to focus on me, you know that this day cannot be about your son’s enhanced biography, but about this College’s enhanced ascendancy. I thank you for values like that.
THE INAUGURATION CHALLENGE
When Harvard President Drew Faust said inaugural addresses are “expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience,” she meant that, with these statements, we usually utter dreams that never really come true. Somehow, the daily grind of today’s presidencies turns the best of intentions into pure dust.
Indeed, this has to be among the most challenging times in which to become a college president. Like other major industries, higher education is being fundamentally altered and destabilized. Storm clouds have been gathering.
Harvard’s Clay Christensen thinks those storm clouds are an apocalypse for some. He predicts that in fifteen years, half of all colleges and universities will be in bankruptcy.
Since black colleges tend to dwell on the weather side of American higher education, we could lose more than half and sooner. So to call this a time of crisis is not necessarily an overstatement.
But even in the midst of this dramatic uncertainty, expectations remain sky-high for today’s college presidents. At once, we are expected to ensure institutional affordability, accountability and agility. We are expected to decrease tuition, discount it, and at the same time increase net-tuition revenue and overall quality.
We must modernize facilities, monetize research and optimize governance. [We must] enhance on-campus education, integrate online education and investigate on-site education. We must break all fundraising records, too … every year!
And all the while, we must continually enrich the campus experience so well, that each and every student will be thoroughly brilliant, ambitious, ethical and employable.
About 300 college presidents deliver these inaugural addresses every year and somehow they all boldly commit to meeting these perennial challenges.
So, therefore, let me just say, “Me, too.”
I want to do all of that: converge every premium talent, master every difficult task, meet every high expectation. Me, too!
But no Morehouse College president should ever have a “me, too” agenda. More is required of us, and especially now.
So with the balance of my time, I want to focus on this beloved institution. I want to illuminate how we might make of this old world a new world … and perhaps even make it the world of our dreams.
CAPITAL AND CHARACTER PREEMINENCE
Our inaugural theme is: “Toward Capital and Character Preeminence!” Very simply, capital preeminence means having a first-rate campus and character preeminence means producing first-rate men. And we will have the world of our dreams when we are recognizably and completely preeminent in both.
So, we are looking to increase institutional capital enough to have a sustainably world-class living and learning environment, and enhance institutional character enough to reliably produce more graduates who will help heal the world in distinctive ways.
And because no college or university that we know of has ever simultaneously realized both capital and character preeminence, that means we are setting out to do what has never been done before, at least not on the scale we envision.
We believe that if we can establish the world of our dreams on this campus then we may finally be able to establish the world of our dreams on this earth.
And when I say “we,” I mean all of us here and elsewhere. In the same way that this is a call to action and a call to national service for me personally, I want everyone here to see this as a shared responsibility, as well as a shared opportunity. It is up to us to realize the kind of capital and character preeminence that will usher in the world of our dreams.
So then, what kind of agenda must we have to get there?
I began my presidency of Morehouse in what may be the most symbolically significant anniversary year in the history of the College. The year 2013 was an auspicious time to set a new agenda for this institution. To that end, I want to now share with you three Morehouse imperatives derived from three important 2013 anniversaries.
THE FREEDOM IMPERATIVE
First, because 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, there is a freedom imperative at the center of our current agenda.
Serving at the White House gave me a great perspective on higher education and on black colleges in particular. And I am convinced that we are not yet free. Neither Morehouse nor any other black college is sufficiently free from the bondage of small endowments, high attrition, limited financial aid, deferred maintenance, uncompetitive faculty salaries and the like.
So, I want us to be free. I want us to be liberated to offer this world more of our very best.
Capital preeminence is what freedom looks like in higher education.
I respect our history. It has been miraculous to do “so much with so little and so few.” But I insist that Dr. [Benjamin E.] Mays never meant that saying as an eternal point of pride or as a preferred way of life.
So, then, with my presidency, I want us to surge. I want us to now make an aggressive push for capital of all kinds—financial, human, physical, informational, intellectual and marketplace—all of the capital required to fulfill our great mission.
My other alma mater, Harvard University, recently launched a $6.5-billion capital campaign, and I can guarantee you that with a mere twenty percent of that, we can change the world better and faster than Harvard or anybody else.
There is no good reason why we cannot have a large and growing endowment; a high-quality and well-paid faculty; a skilled, data-driven staff bent on operational excellence; a state-of-the-art physical infrastructure; and the clear capacity to produce more of the best students in the world.
There is no good reason why we cannot soon be a far more magnetic destination than we have ever been before.
So, we are calling for an emancipation proclamation for Morehouse College! The world needs us to be free. Our mission demands that we be free. Capital preeminence is a freedom agenda, and it is up to us to realize it!
THE IDENTITY IMPERATIVE
Second, because 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the decision to change our name to “Morehouse College,” there is an identity imperative at the center of our current agenda.
Just last month, at a conference in Florida, I had an encounter with David Brooks, the brilliant, conservative columnist for The New York Times, who often writes about American character. He had delivered his keynote address, and when I stood to tastefully suggest a modification of his central point, he responded by asking me, “What is a Morehouse Man?”
I answered: “A Morehouse Man is one who moves through the world with obvious competence and confidence, able at once to compete and work in the world that is, and yet imagine and work for the world that must yet be.”
His responsive nod was the equivalent of an affirmative action. He said: “Morehouse is in a very small group of institutions in this country that knows who they are.”
I want you to know that character preeminence is what certainty looks like in higher education. Moreover, it reveals the soul of our institutional identity.
For years, we have been defined by our ability to cultivate distinctive servant-leadership values, standards of excellence and high expectations in our students. What we have lacked in resources, we have more than made up for in a strong and unwavering sense of purpose. So many of our graduates have felt not merely committed, but called to make this world a better place.
Think about this: institutions with multi-billion-dollar endowments do not have among their alumni a mystic like Howard Thurman; a leader like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; an Olympian like Edwin Moses; a filmmaker like Spike Lee; an eradicator of world disease like Donald Hopkins; cabinet secretaries like Lou Sullivan, Robert Mallett, Jim Shelton and Jeh Johnson; a surgeon general like David Satcher; or accomplished recent graduates like Josh Packwood, Robbie Robinson, Euclid Walker and Alex Washington. Sixteen thousand men—a collective force for good!
But this world needs thousands more men like this. And in order to produce more, we must enrich, elevate and update this Morehouse experience with character preeminence foremost in mind.
Renewed character preeminence is what keeps us Morehouse, and it is up to us to realize it!
THE DREAM IMPERATIVE
And now, finally, because 2013 is the 50th anniversary of that dream articulated on the National Mall by our most illustrious graduate, Dr. King, there is a dream imperative at the center of our current agenda.
The ambitions and dreams of our forefathers have always amazed me.
You may say that King was a dreamer, but as John Lennon wrote, he was not the only one!
Dreamers have guided our Morehouse history.
One hundred years ago, through a fog of poverty, [Morehouse President] John Hope dared to envision Morehouse “becoming one of the best small colleges in the country.” He elegantly called his dream “a greater Morehouse.”
Seventy years ago, [Morehouse President] Benjamin Mays said this: “It is not an idle dream to think that within the lifetimes of persons now living, the most eminent scholars in many fields will be Negroes in Negro colleges and universities.”
Nearly twenty years ago, [Morehouse President] Walter Massey had a dream that we shall be among the best liberal arts colleges—period!
There is a dream imperative in the DNA of Morehouse College. And it is there because somehow we all know that if we can do a better job of creating the world of our dreams on this campus, then we will be able to do a better job of creating the world of our dreams on this earth. And it is up to us to make both happen!
RECOVERING THE MOREHOUSE EMBRACE
So then, my team and I are focused on creating the world of our dreams—a world in which capital and character preeminence, like longevity and relevance—are essential. And we will remain mindful and respectful of how the very history of Morehouse points to this destiny.
Our original campus faces a burial ground for Confederate soldiers. So for nearly 150 years, classrooms constructed for men who sought to promote freedom have created a daily shadow over the graves of men who sought to preserve bondage.
So, overshadowing ignorance is pursuant to the world of our dreams!
The son of our second president, Joseph Robert, is the author of Robert’s Rules of Order, still the definitive guidebook for conducting meetings and getting important things done.
Making Morehouse an optimal place to meet and get important things done, therefore, is pursuant to the world of our dreams!
And not W.E.B. DuBois, but Henry Lyman Morehouse originated the concept of “the talented tenth,” the leadership imperative at the heart of all black higher education.
So, lifting as we climb is pursuant to the world of our dreams!
There is abundant evidence that the very history of Morehouse College is pursuant to the world of our dreams.
So, sometimes progress is recovery.
One of the best things about this Morehouse experience has been our ability to help our students to answer that precious question at the heart of all education and all theology: Who am I?
For years, at the center of our campus pedagogy has been the belief that the journey to a noteworthy, call-answered life starts with an authentic answer to that question. Who am I? Like few other institutions, Morehouse has understood that somewhere in each man’s answer must be what Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”
Thurman said everyone must hear that sound, and if you hear it and do not heed it, it would have been better for you and the world had you never been born!
This is the Morehouse brand of self-knowledge, and we must preserve it.
Now some might say we were at our best in the self-knowledge enterprise under Presidents Hope and Mays, the chief architects of the Morehouse mystique. In probing the current relevance of their approach, we know they shaped a high-touch learning environment better than anything we see today, here or elsewhere. And the numbers tell that story best.
We graduate roughly 500 men per class now, but Dr. Mays rarely graduated more than a hundred men per class. In fact, in his 27 years as president (1940-1967), he averaged 84 graduates per year. And before Dr. Mays, the cohorts were even smaller. Our freshman and sophomore classes today have more men in them than the combined number of men who graduated in all the 73 years before Dr. Mays took office.
When George Sale stepped down as president in 1906 to make way for John Hope, and he gave a famous three-word farewell charge—“Boys, be men!”—Sale said those words to a graduating class of ten men. Ten!
Our embrace of today’s young men is not what it used to be. We created a tighter world for young men then. And our bigger embrace yielded brand-worthy outcomes. We need newer, smaller, smarter living and learning spaces in this place! And that is why I have created the position of Vice President for Student Development, whose assignment it will be to get our student embrace right in this new era.
A better embrace will yield a better education ... and a better love!
I am proud to be inaugurated on a day when we celebrate love, because our mission is to clarify new ways to teach, prepare and love these young men so that their life stories may be more beautiful.
Speaking of beauty, we must make more beautiful men so we can more effectively counteract the ugliness we see in the media and society all the time.
That is why in this inaugural week, we partnered with David Johns and the White House for a summit on the African American male. The brokenness of our men is so off the charts that you can look around and think “the beautiful ones are not yet born.”
That is the title of a brilliant book written by Ayi Kwei Armah, who insists that we need more people who will not be so drunk with the wine of the world that they forget who and why they are. He says we need men who will live according to a different set of ideals and values and hopes.
He might have said, we need more Morehouse Men!
We just bought 2,000 copies of Armah’s book to ensure that every current Morehouse student will read it and commit to being a part of why, on this campus, the beautiful ones are shaped and reshaped every day.
This new and beautiful embrace—a “world-of-our-dreams embrace”—is not for students alone. We need a new embrace of faculty and staff, as well. And that won’t happen until more of us, through pure self-examination, first embrace the warning Dr. DuBois had for all of us when he said, “Unless we conquer our current vices, our current vices will conquer us!”
So, this is a war for preeminent values, too!
Provost [Garikai] Campbell is leading our strategic planning effort and we have world-class teammates to execute it. Operational excellence will be sacred. More and more people will come to see us as investment-worthy. And that is how Morehouse will shift from a plight called “needy” to a status called nimble.
I will always insist that if we can produce as much as we have produced for this world with such limited resources, just imagine what we would do for this world if we had much more.
Finally, I need you to know that Morehouse College is not just for Morehouse Men. In fact, it is my dream that Morehouse will be to all men, and especially to all African American men, what Israel is to all Jews – the homeland; the definitive base for what it means to be a man in this world; the place where our identity as men and as men-in-the-making is at its best.
Morehouse must never be the crown jewel of Morehouse Men alone. The truth of our gift and the gift of our truth have never been so tribal! We were imagined and constructed to lift not just our people, but our country and our world.
There are people in this world who did not attend Morehouse, but who, nonetheless, do things the Morehouse way.
Vic Power was not a Morehouse Man, but he did a Morehouse thing. How is that? Well, Vic played pro baseball in the 1950s and he was a good friend of Roberto Clemente. And, being from Puerto Rico, he was neither accustomed to, nor inclined to be tolerant of, American racism. So, when he and Roberto naively entered a restaurant in the South, and the waitress said, “We don’t serve Negroes,” Vic did a Morehouse thing by responding, “Oh, don’t worry, I don’t eat Negroes!”
Being transcendent in the face of hatred and ignorance is the Morehouse way.
Well before we made him a Morehouse Man in May 2013, as Barack Obama campaigned in early 2008 and his popularity and prospects grew, Oprah Winfrey drew on African American and biblical history when she privately asked him a timeless question, “Are you the one?”
That is a dangerous question, because if you say, “I am the one,” you may sound arrogant. But if you say, “No, I am not the one,” you may sound uncertain, frivolous or worse. But without missing too much of a beat, candidate Obama gave a Morehouse answer when he wisely said, “Oprah, I am one of the ones.”
Being confident and humble is the Morehouse way.
Some of you may be thinking, “Humble? We don’t often hear ‘humble’ and ‘Morehouse Man’ in the same sentence.” You all have heard the phrase: “You can tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much.” It is true that a number of our graduates have been diagnosed with a humility deficiency.
Some have even suggested that we offer a course on humility at Morehouse College. We will indeed consider developing such a course on humility, but, if we do, I need a promise that no alumnus will stand and boldly declare, “We offer the best course on humility in the world!”
IT’S UP TO US!
After receiving my doctorate in 1985, I visited my grandmother, who suggested that I ought to set out to lead a black college. I asked her why, and she said, “Because that’s the kind of work that’ll get you into heaven.”
Right now, it’ll be heaven enough for me to see the world of our dreams right here at Morehouse College.
There really is no other work that I would rather be doing:
- Pursuing a new kind of freedom
- Getting more certain about our character…in and for these times
- Strengthening all three academic divisions like never before
- Forging new and powerful relationships with Africa and the world in honor of Ambassador Andrew Young
- Developing a major new educational initiative in honor of Dr. King
- Becoming the epicenter for the best research, teaching and practices for addressing the condition of the African American male
- Ensuring innovative surges of strength in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics and entrepreneurism
- Completely redefining what it means to fulfill student potential
- And, finally, realizing both capital and character preeminence
The world of our dreams!
We face big challenges! But for a long time, that has been as true as our imperative to meet them.
So, speaking of meeting them, I close by taking you back to my senior year here. It was a heady time. We were within days of our graduation ceremony right here in a brand new King Chapel. As a writer for the Maroon Tiger newspaper, I had been a critic of Morehouse. I yearned for it to be a better place. We all did … especially as we were preparing to leave this campus to go on with our lives.
I shall never forget a conversation I had with Rodney Thaxton, among our greatest classmates who lost his life some twenty years ago. At the time, I had recently reread Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and I remember pointing Rodney to my favorite passage in that book. Ellison fictionalizes the Tuskegee Institute and the statue in front of it—the iconic image of Booker T. Washington lifting a veil of ignorance from the face of a newly freed slave.
This bronze statue was a frozen moment in time, and Ellison makes his character gaze at it and ask whether the fictional college president was actually lifting the veil or lowering it more firmly into place.
So, with that as backdrop, I pointed Rodney to our Morehouse logo, a different frozen moment in time.
I said, “Rodney, look at the clouds. Are the clouds rolling in to block the sun, or are they burning off to make way for the light of a new day?”
Without much of a pause, Rodney offered a Morehouse response when he simply said, “Wilson, I am quite certain … that’s up to us!”
Ladies and gentlemen, I am quite certain, too. I am quite certain that realizing the world of our dreams on this campus and on this earth is, in God’s name, up to us!
God bless you!
And God bless Morehouse College!
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