03/12/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

Faith, Race and Leadership: Conversations With Morehouse College's 11th President

The recent inauguration of Morehouse College's 11th president is a major milestone not only for HBCUs (Historic Black Colleges and Universities) and the African-American community, but for the country. Yes, I am biased as a former executive with the American Jewish Committee in Chicago, a member of Chicago's Black-Jewish dialogue thirty years ago, and a student on a picket line in the sixties. Hired by AJC to run the midwest interreligious programming, it was my good fortune to coordinate its Black-Jewish Seminarians Conferences and be in dialogue with African-American educators planning the National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations. The discussion of how theology informs our racial, educational, and economic attitudes gives shape to social action our society and can be used to shape the future. The dialogue has waxed and waned in the ensuing decades, but has been reinvigorated at Morehouse in recent years. With President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, there should be new opportunities to explore and collaborate between the Jewish community and HBCUs, Morehouse and its new president, Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr.

Morehouse is one of more than one hundred HBCUs located primarily in Southern and bordering states. As a member of the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUC Consortium), Morehouse is a Southern symbol as well as an iconic African American institution. Created in 1867 shortly after the Civil War, the religious underpinnings of Morehouse are a hallmark of many HBCUs. Morehouse College began as Augusta Theological Institute in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church, the oldest African American church (established in 1787) in America.

Morehouse expanded from its original mission of preparing Africa American men for the ministry and teaching, to developing outstanding leaders in numerous fields. The distinguished alumni include several university presidents, corporate CEOs, medical doctors, magazine editorsand U.S. ambassadors. Graduates also include Nobel Peace Prize laureate, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Academy Award nominee, Samuel L. Jackson; Filmmaker, "Spike" Lee and Atlanta Mayor, Maynard Jackson. Dr. Wilson is also a graduate from class of 1979.

Originally from Philadelphia, Dr. Wilson came South during the height of Mayor Jackson's several terms. Maynard Jackson was the first African American to serve as mayor of any major Southern city and attracted a disproportionate number of young African American men to study in Atlanta. Referring to Jackson's phrase, "a city too busy to hate," Wilson credits the Mayor with putting Atlanta on a trajectory unlike any Southern city, setting Atlanta on the path of becoming the South's economic powerhouse and international hub. Jackson was an inspiring role model, "... a Morehouse man who wielded power in Atlanta on behalf of all its citizens."

Dr. Wilson's college choice was also shaped by his early religious education. "By the time I was in high school, we were attending a church where the pastor was a Morehouse man and who talked about Morehouse a great deal. A disproportionate number of young African American men attended Morehouse, including my younger brother."

The influence of Morehouse alums and pastors went beyond his local church. Wilson talks about the impact of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his work and the impact of his assassination. "I remember being in front of the TV and seeing my Dad's reaction to hearing Walter Cronkite announce that King had died." The powerful combination of faith, inspiration, and leadership was a major factor in Wilson's coming South to King's alma mater.

After graduating from Morehouse, religion and education continued to go hand-in-hand for Wilson. He earned master's degrees in both theology and education at Harvard University, prompting an internal debate about of whether to pursue a leadership role in the church or academia. From my own days attending classes at Harvard Divinity School, I had a taste of the life-long impact of the experience, its imprint on career choices and goals. While Wilson chose to pursue a doctorate in education, faith and religion would always be with him. When asked about making that choice, he responded, "I was between the church and the college, and understood that the church needs far more of an emphasis on the life of the mind and higher education needs more emphasis on the life of the spirit." Wilson's career took him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he helped to raise three billion dollars, and then to George Washington University (GWU) as faculty and dean. His GWU research, consulting and writing about HBCUs brought Dr. Wilson to the attention of the White House.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Wilson as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities which connects HBCUs, the White House, corporations, philanthropies and thirty-two federal agencies. In a 2011 magazine article for The Root, "The Good News About HBCUs", Wilson shared his vision for these colleges, underscored by The Root, "HBCUs are already a major source of African-American engineers and scientists -- they produce 33 percent of engineering degrees awarded to black undergraduates, and nine of the top 10 institutions producing blacks with STEM doctoral degrees are black colleges." In Wilson's view, funding requests for HBCUs aren't based on need and challenge, but on future potential, ".... we are not looking for corrective, "save the day" gifts. We are looking for creative, "create tomorrow" investments."

"Creating tomorrow" remains Wilson's vision, using his considerable expertise, experience and optimism on Morehouse's behalf. Asked why he was willing to leave Washington DC, Wilson responded, "My alma mater called and asked me to come and lead it. I was in the Obama administration, doing work not in, but about higher education. I feel honored by the opportunity to stand where somebody like Benjamin Mays stood and where Dr. King was shaped. I thoroughly love Morehouse College and, of course, I said yes."

His presidency comes at a challenging time for HBCUs. Morehouse is faced with major infrastructure needs, increasing competition for high-potential African-American students, and an African American community whose young men and boys are increasingly at risk. Dr. Wilson highlighted that risk in his inaugural speech calling investment in "cradle to power" and the urgent development of a cradle-to-power pipeline, rather than the current cradle-to-prison phenomenon of alarming proportions.

Wilson's inaugural speech took place in the Morehouse's Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. Capturing the spirit of the "world of our dreams" quote by another historic Black leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, Wilson outlined his plans for capital preeminence, "providing first rate living and learning environment", and for character preeminence, or producing first-rate men. His explains, "The key is to invest in the physical campus, salaries for faculty, and scholarship assistance for the best students, those who have a set of values that accord well with Morehouse's mission. We've done a lot with minimal resources for years. It's amazing that we've been able to produce such men who have had a significant impact on the world. If we had more resources we could do a lot more."

Wilson's fundraising expertise will be vital to reaching his goals as will his big picture vision for the curriculum. Wilson's plans to "create tomorrow" includes ramping up the already strong STEM Division (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) that Wilson feels is "the pathway to the heart of today's innovation economy." He also plans to increase Morehouse's global footprint. The college already has an international perspective with about forty students reaching fluency in Chinese/Mandarin, unusual for most HBCUs. Today, there are one hundred international students at Morehouse from Africa, Europe, and South America. Wilson's goal is to increase that number to one hundred per class.

Morehouse has focused on nurturing African American leadership for nearly 150 years and character development remains central to its mission. There is a crucial question for today's social environment, "What does it mean to have character today?" Wilson responded, "There are some staple values -- honesty, intellectual heft, compassion -- that are always going to be there. There's a skill set and drive that is needed now." When asked about this generation of students' religious views, Wilson shared his intent to re-emphasize the centrality of faith. "We had a church service during the inaugural weekend in which one of America's pre-eminent pastors, The Rev. Dr. Charles Adams, spoke. There weren't as many students there as I expected and that has to change. If you graduate without sufficient attention to the life of the spirit, then you have retarded your development and can't be as effective as a Morehouse man. Revising the approach to the spirit won't be obligatory, but there is enough magnetism in the life of the spirit and how you talk about it to inspire undergraduates."

In his inaugural speech, Wilson referred to the inspiration of Israel to the Jewish people. "I really do feel as if the regard, the love and the loyalty that Jews around the world have for Israel is a model for the regard, love, and loyalty for all men, for African American men, and our graduates have for Morehouse. It sustains Israel and can sustains Morehouse College." The ongoing Black-Jewish dialogue involving Morehouse includes a number of Jewish students. However, the cross-cultural engagement goes deeper than their presence.

Morehouse College and the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel partner with a number of Jewish organizations today. They include the Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast, the American Jewish Committee/Atlanta, and The Temple, Atlanta's oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1867 as was Morehouse. As a group, they launched The Rabin-King Initiative that draws on the legacies of Nobel Prize laureates The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Yitzhak Rabin, former Prime Minister of Israel. The Initiative celebrates historical collaborations and encourages engagement by a new generation of students and faculty. The Rabin-King Initiative includes an oral history project of Black and Jewish student civil rights activist leaders in the sixties. In addition to increased education about African American -- Jewish relations, there is a reinvestment in student activism with joint community projects. Yet again, Morehouse is a forward-looking resource not only for African American men, but for its collaborative partners, and for American society, past, present and future.