Have all the reports on the imminent demise of historically black colleges and universities as we know them been greatly over-exaggerated? They are if John Silvanus Wilson Jr., Ed.D, has anything to say about it. Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), was appointed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration in 2009 to delve into the seemingly myriad list of sustainability challenges facing HBCUs, from funding woes to graduation rates.
Wilson’s job in a nutshell? Keep the nation’s 105 HBCUs from going over the brink of extinction. And so far, the Philadelphia native seems to be handling the role exceptionally well. Since his appointment, Wilson has persuaded 32 federal agencies to steadily increase their funding support to HBCUs. Indeed, under Wilson’s stewardship, federal funding to HBCUs has grown close to 20%, going from $728 million in 2008 to $853 million last year—all with the fiscal fallout of the Great Recession as a backdrop. “We're improving the relationship that the agencies have with HBCUs,” said Wilson, himself a graduate of Morehouse College, in an interview last year, “and that requires improving perceptions about HBCUs.”
And Wilson took bold steps to clarify at least one of those perceptions in an open letter entitled “Revitalizing America’s Historically Black Colleges.” The letter was a direct response to Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Riley’s assertion (in a Sept 28, 2010 op-ed entitled “Black Colleges Need a New Mission”) that HBCUs, once “an essential response to racism,” were now “academically inferior.”
“The fact is, we need HBCUs to reach many of our key national goals,” Wilson countered, “including having the best educated and most competitive and diverse workforce in the world by 2020.”
Wilson went on to point out that while the 105 HBCUs nationwide only accounted for a scant 4% of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities, “they confer over 22% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans,” enough evidence, according to Wilson, that HBCUs had in fact become “too big to fail.” HBCUs, Wilson added, “conferred 34% of all African-Americans’ bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and biology” in 2007-2008, making the point that at a time when the U.S. is struggling to keep pace in the hard sciences with global powerhouses like China and Japan, it seemed counterproductive for government to scale back aid to institutions committed to bridging the gap.
Still, while Wilson is an ardent supporter of HBCUs, he recognizes the long road ahead. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he quoted President Obama as saying at an annual HBCU conference in 2010. Of the persistent challenges they face, Wilson said, “We need open, honest and robust conversation around these important issues in order to ensure that our HBCUs continue to lift our communities and strengthen our country.”
And while success won’t come easy undoubtedly, Wilson says he remains hopeful HBCUs can once again shine as the beacon they’ve always been for so many, himself included.
“I am optimistic because HBCUs really are treasured institutions,” he said in a recent interview. “We believe that when that message becomes increasingly clear to more Americans, then you're going to see more investment in HBCUs, from the federal government to the private philanthropic sector.”
In 2009, applauding Wilson’s appointment to his current role as emissary on behalf of HBCUs, President Obama said Wilson’s “expertise and insight will be invaluable to the [Department of Education.]” Thus far, the president’s words have proven especially prescient, as the Morehouse man’s efforts have already given HBCUs all over the country and extra 125 million reasons to be hopeful about the future.