By Maria Saporta
This past Friday the 13th, the Center for Civil and Human Rights held a program titled: “Morehouse College and the Making of the Man” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship with the institution.
Morehouse President John S. Wilson had committed to serve on the panel – a commitment he kept even though the College’s Board of Trustees was in town for a two-day meeting.
“I had gotten the decision I wouldn’t continue – about an hour before I got up there,” Wilson said Tuesday in an interview. “I knew then my contract had not been renewed.”
To the outside observer, there was no clue Wilson’s end date would be June 30.
Wilson spoke of his love of Morehouse, he described the difference between a Man of Morehouse (a current student) and a Morehouse Man (a graduate).
And he recalled a special encounter that he had had with legendary Morehouse President Benjamin E. Mays when he was student.
During the interview, Wilson (Class of 1979) repeated the story – providing greater detail.
“It was October 1977; I was a junior, and Dr. Mays had come to campus looking for some volunteers to help him get elected to the school board. We were a little surprised. Why does he need people to help him get elected?,” Wilson said.
Mays told the students: “You take nothing for granted.”
So Wilson and his peers passed out leaflets for Mays all over town.
“Of course he won in a landslide,” Wilson said. “Very shortly after, when he returned to campus to say thank you. I had my copy of ‘Born to Rebel’ for him to sign.”
Wilson made sure he got a moment to sit with Mays and to congratulate him on his win.
“Do you like Morehouse?” Mays asked him.
“I actually love Morehouse, but I don’t always like Morehouse because I see problems in the way it’s run,” Wilson told Mays, reciting a list of complaints.
After listening to his grievances, Mays told Wilson: “I want you to stay at Morehouse and finish, get more education and some work experience. Then I want you to come back and make a difference.”
For Wilson, Mays’ words were filled with destiny. “There was something almost spiritual about that moment,” he said.
Wilson went to Harvard and worked for MIT. And when the Morehouse job came open in 2007, Wilson was a finalist. But the job went to Robert M. Franklin. So Wilson joined the administration of Barack Obama as head of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Then Morehouse job became open in 2012, and this time, Wilson was selected by the board to serve as its 11th president.
Why the board did not renew Wilson’s contract still has not been unanswered. Chairman Robert Davidson did not respond to an email sent Tuesday evening.
There has been an online petition that criticized Wilson for raising revenues on the backs of parents and students as well as for some of the policies he instituted, such as requiring students to live on campus for the first three years.
Asked whether Morehouse was like a mother eating her young, Wilson disagreed. (One close observer said the analogy was more like a Lion King eating his male heirs).
“These are difficult jobs, but I’m really proud of what we have achieved here,” Wilson said. “Overall fundraising took a leap frog in year one – an increase of 41 percent, and we have sustained that. Alumni fundraising is up 100 percent. I’m proud of that. The number one year in alumni giving is 2016, and the number two year is 2015.”
Even the Board of Trustees increased its giving – donating more money to Morehouse in the last four years than in the two decades before.
So as president, did Wilson not always like Morehouse?
“I have loved being the president of Morehouse, and the moments when I didn’t like it, I was overwhelmed by love,” Wilson said. “Having governance issues is not unique to Morehouse. There are governance challenges everywhere in higher education. These are difficult jobs, but I’m really proud of what we have achieved here. You can look at our outcomes, and you can see we’ve got a good thing going.”
Derrick Bryan, chair of the Morehouse Faculty Council, released a statement Tuesday on behalf of the faculty.
We, the faculty of Morehouse College, strongly object to the decision by the Board of Trustees not to renew the contract of President John S. Wilson without explanation and without the inclusion of faculty and student trustees in the discussion and the decision. The faculty also express concern regarding the timing of the Board’s decision. We demand an explanation and will investigate these decisions.
The timing was awkward for several reasons. The decision was made during the birthday celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most famous graduate of the institution.
Morehouse also is marking its 150th anniversary this year – usually a time of celebration. But instead Morehouse will be in the midst of a leadership change. Not only is Wilson moving on, but so is board chairman Davidson. It is not known who will succeed either gentleman.
“What is very clear to me is that for the next six months, I’m going to be the president of Morehouse,” Wilson said. “And I’m going to work to be the best president I can be for the next six months, as I have for the past four years.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who serves on the Morehouse board, said he didn’t completely understand the board’s action, which apparently was made with little discussion and by secret ballot.
Although there has been grumbling about Wilson for the past couple of years, Young said Wilson’s vision for Morehouse was the correct one.
“We are in very good shape,” Young said. “I have not given up on Morehouse, and I have not given up on John and Carol Wilson because they are stars by anybody’s definition. I’m sorry they won’t be able to carry Morehouse on their rise.”