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HBCU Leaders Urged to Innovate


Invoking the rich history of historically Black colleges and universities in the U.S., Dr. John S. Wilson Jr., the newly appointed executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs urged several hundred administrators and faculty members from these institutions as well as federal government officials Tuesday to develop innovative approaches for improving Black schools.

In what might be considered Wilson’s inaugural address during the annual HBCU Week conference, the Morehouse College graduate recalled the century-long struggle by HBCUs to close the resource gap that exists between them and predominantly White institutions.

“Our real challenge is to find brand new ways to enhance HBCU capacity,” Wilson said. “And we need to come at it in a new way, not only because of the resource gap between HBCUs and the best in the industry has grown wider since this office was created in 1980. But also because we have no better platform on which to stand than by the one being built by the Obama administration.”

During a 22-minute speech, Wilson, a veteran administrator and former professor who has worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and George Washington University, told HBCU leaders that the White House Initiative on HBCUs was in the process of developing a comprehensive plan as well as a new executive order that will reauthorize the initiative. The initiative, which coordinates federal partnerships and assistance for HBCUs, was launched by the Carter administration in 1980 and has been reauthorized by every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter. 

Wilson said HBCUs should work to “recover” their rich heritage and communicate it more widely to publicize it to the general public. Schools have to be transparent and acknowledge, or “uncover” their shortcomings in order to begin the process to improve themselves. And HBCUs should publicize more widely current accomplishments so that the public can “discover” the “best research and the best programmatic initiatives on our campuses” to bring about greater HBCU investment, Wilson added.  

“There are things we need to discover. A lot of great work is underway at our campuses…It all seem like well-kept secrets and that’s ironic because federal investments in the university are at the root of so many innovative developments,” Wilson said.


Before Wilson’s address, federal education officials honored Dr. Leonard Haynes for his service as the executive director for the past two years. Dr. Martha Kanter, the under secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, praised Haynes, who was widely recognized as an effective advocate for HBCUs during his tenure.  

“He has shown a tireless commitment to our HBCU office, to the goals of our HBCUs from across the country, and for the work of the U.S. Department of Education in delivering the president’s agenda,” Kanter said.

In workshop sessions, HBCU leaders heard from federal agency officials, including those from the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the  Environmental Protection Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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