For five years, the Institute of Educational Management at Harvard University has asked me to speak to a group of about 100 rising higher education leaders about what it takes to be a successful university president. I usually share a list of about 10 things, including creating a shared vision for your institution, knowing why you wanted the job in the first place and making sure that your board chair knows what you are having for dinner before you know.
My presentation, “Lessons Learned from an Experienced University President,” is among the highest rated sessions each year, a byproduct due in part to its unabashed authenticity. In support of that experience, I have read a number of credible books on leadership, and earned two advanced degrees from Harvard, but it is my personal background that influences how I lead.
As I walk around campus greeting students, checking in on their well-being and sparring with them on issues, they often say to me with great regularity, “Stay woke, Dr. Wilson.” This has led me to the decision that if I am invited back to Harvard next year, I will add another “lesson” to that list — how university presidents can stay “woke.”
Woke, in the vernacular of my college-age son’s generation, means to be cognizant of the issues pertaining to social and racial justice, and using your voice and platform to fight back against systemic racism. It means being in synchrony with and understanding the culture of your students. Woke also means we must challenge our students to gain an education, not just to become a part of the privileged status quo, but leaving college with the perspectives and skills required to right past wrongs, and to fight for social justice and educational and economic equality.
Movements start when there is a gulf between what universities teach and its relevancy to the lived experiences of students. A university must constantly push itself to stay connected to all of its students — and particularly to its students of color. Failure to understand these experiences can often result in institutions responding to the lifting of the voices by students by opening a multi-ethnic center or hiring a chief diversity officer. Such positions, if not empowered to make systemic institutional change, could end up as mere data collection managers with limited budgets and the inability to shift institutional cultures.
We must be careful in our leadership roles to not become so removed from the context in which so many of our students grow up in this country that it results in our becoming presidential relics — rusted and so tethered to a past that we become useless in our leadership roles.
In my own case, I visit the neighborhoods where many of my students reside. I go to several churches throughout the city of Baltimore. I have ongoing meetings with community associations, and I serve on numerous boards. I also try to listen to the same music as my students because the lyrics say a lot about how they see the world.
As a university president, I understand poverty, racism, inequality and injustice. This has been my lived experience. I do not hide it from my students. When they walk into my office and look at my bookshelves — my full life is on display. A sample bale of cotton is a reminder that I picked it while growing up on a sharecropper’s plantation in rural Alabama. A small jar of black dirt was taken from the grounds around the shanty where I grew up, and a replica of a $5 bill was given to me by my late father on the morning I headed to Tuskegee Institute. I want them to know that I understand what it means to see wealth in the hands of the people who exploited the labor of my ancestors.
I can recall so vividly the last days with my father as he lay near death in a Selma hospital. I paid orderlies out of my pocket to make sure they met his basic needs. He lay dying with no health insurance and no Social Security benefits — despite that, he had worked 12 hours a day from sunup to sundown enriching the owners of a sharecropping plantation. Coincidentally, the matriarch of the plantation family was in a private room in the same hospital with a bevy of doctors and nurses responding to her every whimper. That experience sickened me to my stomach.
Although I squeezed myself out of these penurious conditions, I challenge myself every day to not forget about those early experiences. In my students, I can see reflections of myself at their age, drenched in brilliance — but because of the toll that poverty, racism and marginalization has taken on them, they have lost some of their coping bandwidth. We as universities cannot help them recover that bandwidth if we do not understand their experiences. We must stay woke!
David Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Morgan State University in Baltimore.