Nevins & Associates President and CEO, David Nevins, sat down with Morgan State University President, David Wilson, to discuss plans for reopening, recent achievements and more. Below is a summary of their conversation:
DN: I saw this your 10th year as President of Morgan State University, I was fascinated by your story of growing up and how your background shaped you into the leader that you are today. Please tell me more.
DW: As you know David, I grew up in a shanty in rural Alabama while my parents worked as sharecroppers. I’m also the youngest of 10 children. At the time, Alabama did not have laws in place requiring black children to attend school. Therefore, my father did not send us to school. This took a toll on my five older siblings who are now illiterate. Fortunately, when I was in seventh grade, my father allowed my four other siblings and I to attend school two to three days a week.
The shanty we lived in also had no electricity. Without electricity, our house became so cold in the winter that the farm owners would bring old magazines and newspapers for us to plaster against the walls to keep the wind out. I would then grab a kerosene lamp and read the pages of the newspapers and magazines. It was then that I learned the value of education.
DN: I was particularly moved by your recent op-ed in the Sun. What kind of feedback have you gotten?
DW: The time we are in calls for leadership from every single dimension, especially University presidents who have historically given their voice to racial injustice in our country. We have to use our positions and platforms to promote justice and speak against what is not right in our country. As leaders, we also need to challenge students to get an education that not only deepens their pockets, but also gives them the skills necessary to recognize injustices. As president of Morgan, I do not shy away from using my platform to remind my students, our citizens and others of their responsibility and obligation of living up to the ideals embodied in our constitution.
DN: We understand that you recently took some online courses to see for yourself what Morgan State professors and students were experiencing with the all-online course model. How did this experience help shape the university’s reopening plans for the fall?
DW: I decided to audit two online courses at Morgan. One in political science and a course in musical theory. I wanted to use that opportunity to learn more about the experiences of my students and how my faculty has shifted from face-to-face instruction to online instruction and the challenges that it presents.
The COVID pandemic has revealed a wide physical technological divide in our country. It became extremely stark to me as I audited these classes myself. At Morgan, 30% of students are first generation college students with a need to have access to cutting edge technology. We’ve invested millions of dollars into state of the art technology to cater to this need. When we sent our students home, we saw that many of them did not have access to computers or stable internet and the other technologies these courses required.
Second there are so many distractions in the environment of online learning. Some students don’t have a private space to retreat to and learn. There were entire families who were coming to remote class due to the lack of privacy in their homes. On top of that, students experienced huge emotional losses like family members passing or being diagnosed with the virus or job losses due to COVID-19. Students had to process all of these things while trying to concentrate on their work.
I used those takeaways to shape our plan for re-opening in the fall. We also started a fund at Morgan to close the gap between students who have computers and who don’t (
Growing Future Opportunity Fund.) The fund now has about $500,000 in it, $100,000 of which I donated myself. We will use this money to provide computers and internet hot spots to students who don’t have access to them, as well as books and emergency travel home.
DN: Many students you are getting do not come from the same means as other students at universities in Maryland. How do you deal with those differences?
DW: 20-25% of our students are coming from limited resource families. The difference between Morgan, Towson and College Park, is that those university’s alumni donate heavily to those institutions and can provide resources, whereas at Morgan we haven’t been as successful in getting the same level of philanthropic resources. We have to dig a little deeper to give our students the same level of tools and resources.
DN: What are the three significant achievements you are most proud of at Morgan? What do you hope to accomplish going forward?
DW: I’m very proud of the elevation of Morgan’s research mission. We had an initial goal of elevating Morgan from a doctoral research university with moderate research activity, to a research university with high research activity. We achieved this in December of 2018. Only one other public university in Maryland has a higher research ranking than us, which is the University of Maryland, College Park.
The second has been enabling Morgan to begin undergoing capital construction on campus. Morgan did not receive the same investments from the state that other universities did. Another major accomplishment has been that we have more than 500 million dollars in capital construction on the way.
The third is the record number of Morgan students who are now attending amazing ivy league graduate schools, others who have significant internships with large corporations and that many of our students are on the national stage. We’ve also formed significant partnerships with large corporations in Silicon Valley such as Google. The globalization of Morgan is also a significant accomplishment. The name Morgan State University is now recognized in many different countries. Our students are also studying all over the world. We are even opening a campus in Africa this fall, it’s the first historically black college and university (HBCU) to offer degree programs in Africa.
Going forward we want to continue the momentum. We are in the middle now of unveiling our next 10 year plan with our main goal of joining College Park as a flagship research university. At Morgan, we have world-class professors and students. What we want now is to be on the top floor of the research house.
DN: Any last thoughts?
DW: I’m actually in the middle of virtual town hall meetings to discuss plans for reopening with staff, faculty and students. We are embracing a hybrid education model meaning some classes will be face-to-face and will also be live-streamed, so students have the option to watch remotely. The great majority of classes will be offered online. We have reduced desk capacity on campus by 31% and have acquired hotel rooms to accommodate students who want to be in stable rooms on campus. We are also prepared for triggers that require us to be fully remote. This unprecedented situation is not something learned in school, it’s ok for us to make one decision and later have to take a step back and rethink it.