As Morgan State University reaches for the sky in research rankings, it holds tight to its roots | COMMENTARY

Candidates for bachelor’s degrees react after moving their tassels at the 9th Fall Commencement Exercises of Morgan State University in December.

As president of Morgan State University, I am confident that our vision for this national treasure could not be clearer. Morgan’s aim is strategically and laser-focused on reaching the very top floor of elite research universities in the nation. But we will not compromise our critical mission of providing innovative, inclusive and distinctive educational experiences to a broad cross section of the population to get there. I have full faith that we can achieve both — and make history at the same time.

There are currently 146 institutions in the group of elite research universities, which are classified by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as “R1s,” engaging in “very high research activity.” All of the notable and noteworthy names are there: the Ivy League, the Big Ten, some state flagships and a very select few others. But not a single Historically Black College or University (HBCU), like Morgan, is in that company. We aim to be the first.


The exclusive universities on the coveted top R1 floor attract and acquire tens of billions of dollars annually in federally funded research and produce the lion’s share of doctoral graduates in the nation. Without exception, these are traditionally white institutions (TWIs), and some have struggled with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, resulting in unimpressive representation of racial minority groups among their production of doctoral graduates, especially in STEMM fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Morgan, which is currently designated an R2 “high research activity” institution, does not have this challenge now — nor will it when we reach our R1 goal. Morgan already serves a multiethnic and multiracial student body and seeks to ensure that the doors of higher education are opened as wide as possible to as many as possible. Nearly 70% of our students are Black, and nearly 17% of our alumni are employed in STEMM fields, compared with 11% for Maryland schools as a whole.


While we aspire to raise our research standing, we will not become so singularly focused on research production that we abandon our effective undergraduate teaching, which has been instrumental in taking so many students from less-resourced families and elevating them into the middle class in this country.

Morgan has been extremely successful in cultivating world-class scientists, engineers, doctors, social workers and a myriad of transformational leaders, over its 156-year history. It has done so because it has intentionally embraced quality undergraduate teaching and unapologetically prided itself on specifically and strategically targeting, recruiting and educating a multitude of first-generation students and immersing them in a foundation of Black excellence surrounded by fortified walls of confidence, caring, belonging and community. Professors genuinely care about their students’ well-being, hold them to the highest standards of academic rigor and remain their unwavering support system long after they graduate. This was and has always been Morgan’s soul, our heartbeat, our undeniable DNA, and we will not lose this grounding as we ascend higher in the research ranks of academia. We will proudly maintain our soul.

When I reflect upon Morgan’s great history, I am reminded and encouraged by the life of Mr. George W. F. McMechen, Morgan’s very first baccalaureate degree recipient. Like many of Morgan’s current students, McMechen was the product of very humble beginnings and challenging circumstances. He made his way to Morgan from Wheeling, West Virginia. Referred to early on as “Nail City,” Wheeling’s economy centered on iron manufacture, and because of his birthplace, McMechen was predestined to spend his life in Wheeling’s iron mills, transforming pig iron into sheets, producing boiler plates, stoves, barrel rings, or ornamental ironwork. However, somehow McMechen made his way to the campus of Morgan College that at the time consisted of just one building in West Baltimore, and the trajectory of his life was diverted. He graduated in 1895 and went on to pursue a law degree at Yale, which was nothing short of phenomenal for a Black man of that era. Since that time, Morgan has excelled at producing graduates that achieve the impossible.

Many of our students have been counted out because of statistical data, forecasts, and projections. Like McMechen, it is believed that their futures are limited because of the environment and conditions into which some were born. That type of thinking does not stand at Morgan. While all institutions of higher learning logically embrace and understand data-driven outcomes, at Morgan we have developed a unique and unprecedented ability to achieve that which is unfathomable statistically and even scientifically.

There are countless lives that have been transformed for the better because of Morgan. What would be the purpose of climbing to R1 status, if it results in becoming unhinged from a foundation that has made the institution one of the most consequential pillars of American higher education in educating African Americans? What a travesty it would be for Morgan to achieve R1 classification and lose her soul. Our institution must never evolve into one that defines itself simply as a model of photocopying privilege.

As an R1 institution, Morgan’s research would disproportionately focus on examining solutions to the crisis facing our urban centers and marginalized communities, such as violence and crime, educational disparities, inequitable community investment, equitable artificial intelligence and machine learning, and health inequities. Yes, we will grow the number of graduate students and post-docs to contribute to the execution of the research on the one hand, and on the other, ensure that undergraduates will be critical members of research teams, which we know from decades and decades of experience at Morgan will lead to a more impactful college experience.

Morgan does not need federal or any other grants to teach us how to be an inclusive community. Quite the contrary, if donors want to achieve a more diverse workforce, investing in Morgan’s ascendancy is a sure bet approach to get the nation there.

To their credit, so many of the institutions currently on the top research floor are now understanding they are missing something, and are reaching out to us to form strong research bonds to assist us in joining them. Hats off to Johns Hopkins, Purdue, Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard and a few others who are extending their support in such a genuine way to collaborate with us. This is quite refreshing. But Morgan has zero desire to try to be like them. We have our own unique brand and flavor. And Morgan will bring its invaluable and unconquerable soul to that floor when we move in.


David K. Wilson is president of Morgan State University. His email address is: