Ed. Note: This post is the first in a series of blog posts that highlights leaders at the Department of Education.
John Silvanus Wilson, Jr.’s heroes as a student were college presidents. As someone who places due importance on brain power, experiences in higher education continue to inform his perspective and mission as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Born in Philadelphia and raised by a preacher and teacher – his father and mother, respectively – he would go on to get his masters in theological studies and educational administration planning and social policy at Harvard after undergraduate work at Morehouse College. At Morehouse he came to admire the former President Benjamin Elijah Mays, whom many considered a living legend for his social activism and mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reminiscing about his education, Wilson loved attending Morehouse and Harvard equally but drew distinct differences between them.
“I contrasted the two and concluded in my mind that Morehouse needs exactly what Harvard has, and Harvard needs exactly what Morehouse has,” he said. “I think that convergence has pretty much been what my career has been about, and explains a lot of the way I think in this position.”
Morehouse was deep into what he calls character capacity – the education to impart a sense of calling and mission in life. Harvard excelled in capital capacity with an established financial infrastructure.
After Harvard, Wilson served as director of foundation liaisons and assistant provost at MIT. He helped lead two major capital campaigns that raised nearly $3 billion. After 16 years in that position, he left in 2001 and moved to Washington D.C. to work at The George Washington University as an executive dean, then an associate professor in their school of education where he researched black colleges and fundraising.
Then he got the call from the Obama administration. Wilson now assists Secretary Duncan as a liaison between the executive branch and HBCUs, as well as work with 32 federal agencies that offer support through federal grants and contracts.
The White House Initiative boils down to four components: capital enlargement, strategy development, campus enrichment, and perception enhancement.
“We have enlarged the capital flow to HBCUs, federal funding is up, and private sector partnerships through our office with HBCUs are way up. We will soon be launching an arts and HBCUs initiative, and enhance teacher prep,” he said.
According to Wilson, perception is a key area.
“There are still some people who see HBCUs as symbols of the past rather than forces for the future,” he said. “We’re trying to shift those perceptions and trying to get more people to understand they are positive forces. The President and Secretary Duncan have established that they want 8 million more college graduates by 2020. We know that 2 million of those 8 million need to be African Americans. We also know that 167,000 need to come from HBCUs.”
There are currently 105 HBCUs serving approximately 300,000 students. They graduate about 35,500 students per year, but will need to graduate more than 57,000 students per year by 2020 to meet the President’s goal. HBCUs produce half of the African American K-12 teachers in the country.
“Not only are HBCUs necessary,” Wilson said, “but this nation needs them to produce a lot more students than they’ve been producing.”
Solid education is the key to living a rewarding life for yourself and for others around you, Wilson explained.
“There’s no substitute for the life of the mind. I have three kids, so I come at education not just professionally but in terms of my family.”
Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.