Closing the Gap: John Wilson's Quest to Help Historically Black Colleges and Universities

John S. Wilson is part of Marts & Lundy's Of Counsel team. He is an associate professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development. He is writing a book about the education gap at historically black colleges and universities - a gap he has seen widen in recent years. While it's too soon to release his findings, Wilson recently discussed its broad themes and his life experiences that shaped his thinking.

Early in his college education, John Wilson knew something didn't add up for many black students such as himself. In the 1970s, he was a freshman at Morehouse College, the private, all-male college in Atlanta that educated generations of African-American leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I had high expectations for Morehouse, but after I arrived, I was a bit concerned about the way the place was run. Things were not as smooth as I thought they should be."

"Boy, it was like night and day," he reflected. "At Harvard everything was pretty much like clockwork."

Whether he was standing in long lines to pay bills or waiting for meals in the cafeteria, Wilson felt like he was wasting time better spent studying. He called his sister at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and asked, "Do you guys have to stand in line for two hours to register? Do you have to stand in long lines to pay a bill? Is the wait long in the cafeteria?"

His sister answered an emphatic, "No, no, no!"

Though he calls Morehouse "a great experience," Wilson became increasingly aware of the disparity between historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their predominately white counterparts. After graduating, he attended Harvard University to earn two master's degrees - one at its Divinity School, the other in education. He also earned a doctorate in education from Harvard.

"Boy, it was like night and day," he reflected. "At Harvard everything was pretty much like clockwork."

He entered the field of college fundraising - including more than 12 years in resource development at nearby MIT. But Wilson never lost sight of his roots. "By the time I got to Harvard, I said, 'Wow, these are two different worlds... I began thinking about how we can close the gap from an infrastructure standpoint, to an operational standpoint, and on every measure, from the quality of the education to the quality of the course offerings. That's the path I've been on ever since. That's the issue I've always been moving toward the top of my career agenda - gap closure."

At MIT, Wilson was part of two campaigns, the first for $700 million, and the second for $1.5 billion, which stretched to $2 billion. After becoming MIT's director of foundation relations, he said, "I was understanding and demonstrating how a college or university can position itself to receive transformational gifts from the philanthropic marketplace."

By the mid-1980s, leading universities started launching billion-dollar campaigns. "From that time on, campaigns just skyrocketed, and the whole higher education industry changed."

All the while, Wilson remained an active alumnus of Morehouse, heading its alumni association in the Boston area. He also remained in touch with colleagues at HBCUs. It was easy to see that as many prestigious, predominately white colleges got richer, their own alma maters were falling behind.

"I saw a lot of predominately white institutions getting on this kind of superhighway, and I saw too many black institutions who were seemingly unable or undetermined to find the on-ramp."

Wilson looked for the underlying reasons. "I was asking questions about why is it that during the revolution [in college fundraising] our black colleges seemed to be uninvolved or unaware."

The issue remains relevant. For example, Howard University recently completed a $272 million campaign, breaking the previous HBCU fundraising record set by Hampton University.

"I saw a lot of predominately white institutions getting on this kind of superhighway, and I saw too many black institutions who were seemingly unable or undetermined to find the on-ramp."

"Two hundred seventy-two million dollars is the best that a black college can do, and that astounds me and it greatly disappoints me," Wilson said. "I was running an office at MIT, and our job during the campaign was to raise at least a quarter of a billion dollars," or roughly equivalent to Howard's record-setting effort.

Another number gives him pause: the estimated value of the endowments of America's 46 private HBCUs is about $1.6 billion, a sum that pales in comparison to the annual $4 billion a year in investment earnings by Harvard's massive $35 billion endowment.

Wilson traces the widening quality gap at least to the late 1960s, when HBCUs began to lose some of their best and brightest students and, later, faculty. This "brain drain" from the applicant pool of most HBCUs occurred in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as the Ivy League colleges, and later other predominantly white colleges and universities, actively began to recruit African-American students. This trend, coupled with the skyrocketing endowments at the predominantly white schools, began to hurt even the best of the HBCUs such as Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, and Fisk.

"So then the question becomes, what is it about black higher education, especially the best of the black colleges, that can make them much more attractive to the donor community? And what is their appeal to the high-performing black high school students who can go anywhere? That's the question in the philanthropic marketplace, and I don't think many black colleges have figured out what it is about their historic mission, current function and future plans that can speak to this philanthropic marketplace that's just gone wild.

"Philanthropy is not a color," Wilson adds. "If it's a color, it's green. When you give millions of dollars to a college, it's about some great thing you see in the capacity of that college, but it's also about wanting your legacy associated with the greatness you created or enhanced with the investment. And I think that many more HBCUs can make that compelling case than have been making it."

"I was asking questions about why is it that during the revolution [in college fundraising] our black colleges seemed to be uninvolved or unaware."

HBCUs played key roles in training leaders such as Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights. That history, Wilson suggested, is great, but it's not the heart of the matter - that is, unless it can somehow be accentuated when HBCUs approach potential donors, and in ways that have more to do with the future than the past. "There is a lot of untapped value and virtue in black colleges."

While keeping much of his research close to the vest, Wilson suggested that HBCUs need to better understand that when it comes to large donations, donors with business backgrounds usually scrutinize a college's books, and cast a critical eye on financial and business practices.

"They know what a safe investment is. At this point, it's not about a gift, it's about an investment. And an investment can go bad."

He cites Spelman College - the women's college across from Morehouse in Atlanta - as an example of an HBCU that "gets it." Under President Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman has done a good job of fundraising and attracting top students. "It's very sophisticated and ambitious in the sense that they are deliberately trying to become, and remain, state of the art with the industry. They're telling their story and functioning in a way that's on par with the best in the industry."

Spelman can move toward being more competitive with the Ivy League schools, Wilson said, because it has its act together - from the financial systems and stability, to the quality of the curriculum and infrastructure, to the feeling you get on campus.

Ultimately, Wilson said, "I believe the difference between higher performing and lower performing black colleges is not unlike the white colleges, both good and bad, and that is leadership. Leadership is going to make the biggest difference in the kinds of things I'm focused on."