The Power of Hope

On-screen: [Center for MSIs. The Penn Graduate School of Education. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions: Elevate MSIs, Increase Scholarship, Connect Leadership, Inform Practices, Advance Policies, Enhance Capacity.]

(Applause.)

Speaker: David Wilson, Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD

Speaker: David Wilson - What I would like to do is to basically take a different type of approach. I have ten minutes, and so I’ll make the best use of them. I want to title my remarks “The Power of Hope and Motivation.”

I’m David Wilson. I’m a two-time graduate of Tuskegee University. I’m a two-time graduate of Harvard University. I’m a former associate provost at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. I’m the first African American to hold a vice presidency at Auburn University. I’m the first person in the state of Wisconsin, in Wisconsin higher education history, to serve as chancellor of two of the University of Wisconsin institutions at the same time. Now, I serve as president of Morgan State University, but you see, this was never, ever supposed to happen.

I was never supposed to really have a career. I was actually supposed to be a menial worker in Alabama, hauling pulpwood, and taking on menial jobs. As Casey indicated, yes, I grew up in rural-rural Alabama, as poor as they could ever, ever come. My father was a sharecropper. We farmed cotton as I was growing up in Alabama and we lived on land that was owned by whites. We lived in a shanty with no plumbing, no electricity, none of the so-called modern conveniences. No telephone. No anything.

My father was illiterate. When he passed away, about 20 years ago, he could not read his name if you wrote it in 12-inch letters across the back of this room. I say this, because in this shanty in which we lived—I’m the youngest of ten children—the whites would bring down to the shanty LOOK and LIFE magazines. They brought those down not for us to read them, but they knew that my mom was very creative. She had this ingenious way of taking the pages of LOOK and LIFE magazines, and plastering those against the wall of the shanty to keep the cold wind out. As we would get up in the morning and go into the fields to pick the cotton, and stay there all day, and come back home in the evening, I would take a kerosene lamp and basically begin to read the pages of LOOK and LIFE magazines that were plastered against the wall of the shanty. That, my friends, is how I learned to read and write. That was my first introduction to the power of knowledge and how education could be so transformational. I went all over the world without ever leaving the confines of that shanty.

Now, during this time, the state of Alabama did not have laws that required black children to go to school. As a result of that, my father had a system in place where he would keep us in school three days one week and we’ll stay out two, and two days one week and we’ll stay out three. That was the way it was for me until I was in the seventh grade. I did not go to school five consecutive days until I was in the seventh grade. During grades three through six, I attended what was called a Rosenwald school. That was a school about the size of this room, one building about the size of this room, and it housed grades one through five all in one room, with one teacher. Right in the middle of the room was a potbellied stove to keep the room warm. You can imagine that coming out of that environment, that when I actually was confronted with standardized assessments, that I was basically not going to do well, and I did not do well.

No one in this rural high school that I attended did well on standardized measures. My SAT score was a little south of 600. Let me repeat that. My SAT score did not eclipse 600. The highest SAT score, as I recall, in this high school that I graduated from, was about 800. You know who held that? The person who went on to become the leading cardiovascular surgeon in the state of Ohio—if anyone is from Ohio—Dr. Joe Nathan Hackworth. That school produced some of the leading engineers, it has produced some of the leading doctors, and never, ever had a student—during my era—that made more than 800 on the SAT.

I applied to college and Tuskegee University said, “Yes, come here.” I made my way over to Tuskegee, and Tuskegee put me in something called a freshmen studies program. They said, “You know, David, we believe in you. You have it. You have that special something and you are going to blossom here at Tuskegee University.” I was literally like a kid in a candy store. I’d never seen anything like that before. I’d never seen that many black people who were so educated and who were the center of black intellectualism. I’d never seen blacks live that way before, with nice homes and well-manicured lawns. Every day I got up on that campus I couldn’t wait to walk to the Hollis Burke Frissell Library, and to go straight to the Booker T. Washington collection, and basically pull down every book. I mean, I would just stay there. They would almost have to put me out of the library, because it was just so educational. It was just, if you will, transformational for me to now be reading all of the things that people who looked like me had written, and then to walk the grounds where people who looked like me had walked before.

To go over to The Oaks, the Booker T. Washington home, and go into the rooms and feel his presence. To go to the laboratory of George Washington Carver and to see where all of those scientific experiments actually occurred. That was just simply an amazing experience. People on that campus, professors, they saw in me potential that I did not see in myself. I didn’t even know that I had this. They, as April Ryan, the White House correspondent who was a graduate of Morgan State University said on my campus two weeks ago, “They loved me to success.” They were not going to tolerate, if you will, a performance that was not world class and they were not going to accept the fact that you did not think that you could perform at that level. They stayed there and they worked with you until you actually believed it yourself. When I consider the value of HBCUs, as a university president, it’s personal. When I walk the campus every single day, I don’t see anything that is remotely close to any deficit. I see billions every single day. I see me. I see David Wilson in the eyes of every one of my 8,000 students. My professors at Morgan see that, my staff at Morgan see that, the individuals in the neighborhoods see that, and my students feel that. I want them to feel that, because I felt that. I feel that is my greatest giveback to this institution, is to make sure that the brilliance that resides in each one of these individuals makes its way out.

As I bring this to a close, I simply say this: If you give me grit, I’ll give you Mary McLeod Bethune. If you give me social consciousness, I’ll give you Martin Luther King. If you give me motivation, determination, and hard work, I’ll give you Earl G. Graves. If you give me opportunity, and if you lay before me return on investment, I’ll give you Morgan State University and HBCUs. I give that to you, because without these institutions we cannot even begin to have a meaningful conversation in this country about national and international competitiveness, because we will not have allowed brilliance to make its way forward. I’m David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, and I thank you.

(Applause.)

End of The Power of Hope video.

Video duration: 12:11