John Silvanus Wilson, former president of Morehouse College,

John Silvanus Wilson, former president of Morehouse College, has been appointed the senior adviser and strategist to the president.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

A Harvard to make Du Bois nod yes

long read

Adviser Wilson reflects on goals of new inclusion and belonging report, and why they matter

Harvard President Drew Faust announced today that she has appointed John Silvanus Wilson as senior adviser and strategist to the president as the University moves forward in implementing the recommendations of the new Presidential Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging.

Wilson’s primary responsibility will be “to serve as a point person during the presidential transition in bringing the task force report to life and ensuring its enduring impact,” Faust said in a letter to the community.

Wilson knows Harvard well. He earned masters’ degrees from Harvard Divinity School in 1981 and the Graduate School of Education (GSE) in 1982, and a doctorate from GSE in 1985. He is a member of the Board of Overseers, from which he will take a leave in order to serve in this new role. Wilson is currently president-in-residence at GSE, where he is writing a book on the future of higher education, with an emphasis on black colleges.

The former president of Morehouse College, former head of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and former senior administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wilson is intimately familiar with the rhythms and values of higher education, and Faust said he is “distinctively able to ensure that Harvard’s efforts to create a truly inclusive environment for all of its members, guided by the task force report, bear full fruit.”

In an interview, Wilson spoke with the Gazette about the report and shared his thoughts on the path forward.


John Silvanus Wilson

GAZETTE: The Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging just made its final report. How is inclusion and belonging different from diversity?

wilson: Diversity is quantitative. It has to do with the fact that there are people from different backgrounds in the environment. Inclusion and belonging are qualitative. They are about how well the different people in any given environment interact with and learn from one another.

Inclusion and belonging are built on diversity. You have to have diversity in the first place to be talking about inclusion and belonging.

So, the first goal that the task force set out has to do with diversity. It’s about recruitment and retention of people from different groups. But even though they are present, it is also clear that we have various subgroups of the Harvard population that are not benefiting as much as they should from the culture of mutual respect that is supposed to be here. And the question becomes: Is that OK? Is that who we are? There’s a really profound sense in which this entire effort is about clarifying and enriching and deepening who we are institutionally.

I’m here on a sabbatical to write a book about the future of higher education, with an emphasis on black colleges. And the most important thinker about these issues is W.E.B. Du Bois [who earned his A.B. and doctorate from Harvard]. Du Bois talked about this topic at Harvard back in 1885, and he said the caste system that was in the society was reflected here at Harvard. He questioned it back then. Well, the agenda we have today, in 2018, is basically pursuant to remedying the kind of marginality that Du Bois experienced in the 1880s.

Du Bois said he benefited enormously from the professors here. And obviously he brought a great mind here in the first place, as do a lot of people today, but he also said he found the culture at Harvard to be reflective of the problematic caste-based culture in the greater society.

So I believe that the task force that President Faust appointed is a task force that is still looking to address the same kind of qualitative aspects of the Harvard experience that W.E.B. Du Bois pointed to 130 years ago.

GAZETTE: Do we still reflect the culture of our society at large?

wilson: To some degree, it’s unavoidable. But another thinker about these things is Benjamin Elijah Mays. He was a longtime president of Morehouse College. His theory was the world that we create on campus should reflect and anticipate the world we want to see once we leave campus.

So this campus should be a model. The undergraduate and graduate educational experience here should be a model for the kind of world that we want our students to go out and help shape. Therefore, while you might expect us to reflect some of the problematic things in society, we also have to be — and are expected to be — more enlightened about how to deal with them and to move from those problematic societal reflections to a newer, higher place.

GAZETTE: One thing President Faust has done immediately is appoint you as senior adviser and strategist to the president. What do you see that role being?

wilson: Well, first, it’s a temporary role. I am taking a temporary leave from the Board [of Overseers] to help set a trajectory for what will happen in this area on the road ahead. I intend to complete my service as an Overseer. But until then, the mandate at the core of this senior adviser role is to lead an effort to make the recommendations and goals of the task force find a life in the hardware of Harvard, rather than merely in the software.

The assignment is to build a bridge from what the task force is saying to how we are functioning and living at Harvard. Are there things we can do? Are there programs, initiatives, practices, policies, ways of seeing, strategic thinking that we can begin to evidence here at Harvard, all of which begin to qualitatively change the way our students, staff, and faculty — everyone in the Harvard community — experience Harvard?

GAZETTE: If we achieve our goals, what does a campus look like from the standpoint of the student experience? Or that of staff and faculty?

wilson: It’s hard to predict. What we know is that there are a number of people who are coming out of Harvard feeling insufficiently beholden to the experience. And what we also know is that there are some people coming out of Harvard who feel the opposite of that.

So, there’s a wide range of feelings and reactions to the experience here. What I think the task force discovered through its deliberations is that that range is unnecessarily wide in some places. There is a sense in which the task force was appointed because President Faust and others recognized that, for too many, Harvard is a much better place to be from than at.

In my research, I’m looking into the two elements of what I call the Holy Grail in higher education for any institution. No single institution has ever been able to truly optimize these two things. First, there’s “capital pre-eminence,” which refers to having the right capital infrastructure, the endowment, the state-of-the-art facilities, the well-paid faculty, the capital to erase financial need for all needy students. But right beside it there is “character pre-eminence,” which is more qualitative. That has to do with the kind and caliber of people we convene, who constitute the Harvard community. It has to do with what we do with them in the educational experience, how well we prepare and equip them to go out into the world to be healers of humanity. Character pre-eminence has two dimensions, because there’s institutional character and then there’s individual character, or the character of the people we send out into the world to do great things.

I think fundamentally this work is about getting Harvard to fulfill the fuller dimensions of its character pre-eminence. I don’t think there’s any question that we have capital pre-eminence. I am concerned, the task force is concerned, President Faust is concerned about whether we have developed as much character pre-eminence as we’re destined to have.

And, to put that another way, we’re concerned about whether the emerging W.E.B. Du Boises — whoever they are and whether “W” stands for William or Wilma — would continue to find Harvard reflective of some of the most painful aspects of the general society. To the degree that this is still the case, we have not fully realized our character pre-eminence or, as President Faust put it in her charge to the task force, we have “to realize the community’s full promise.”

GAZETTE: In an interview not too long ago I heard about a young African-American student who said he had trouble feeling like he belonged here until he joined a black student organization, and only then could better engage with the broader Harvard community. Is there a tension between the comfort one may naturally find in a community of people “like me,” in whatever context, and the aspirations of One Harvard and the idea that we should all be part of one community?

wilson: I think everybody has to find a way to feel like this is home and they belong. That is like a doorway to deeper learning, because if you never feel comfortable here, you’re not going to learn as well, and you’re not going to learn as much.

Harvard has this great brand, this great worldwide reputation, so there are reasons that everybody who makes it into this community necessarily has an embrace of Harvard. But not everybody feels an embrace from Harvard in return. I think the student you reference basically described his first experience in feeling an embrace from Harvard. It came from people who looked like him, and that’s fine, because they’re Harvard too. And it’s good that they felt empowered to provide that embrace, whether or not they were intentionally trying to make him “feel Harvard” in a deeper way.

But that is a turning point that we want for everybody, to all of a sudden feel like “I belong.” Because then I have a different, deeper, more comfortable way to engage Harvard. And it means that I’m going to learn a lot more, and I’m going to learn a lot better, and that means this experience is going to be more worthwhile.

GAZETTE: What did you feel when you were a student here?

wilson: I was here at the graduate level, and my experience was, in an important sense, somewhat like Du Bois’.

Du Bois came here from Fisk University, a black college in Tennessee. That was a qualitatively powerful experience for him, in terms of his embrace of Fisk and Fisk loving him back and seeing his potential and wanting him to fulfill it.

I had that at Morehouse. I was a student at Morehouse, and I came here as a Morehouse man. And I saw a difference [between Morehouse and Harvard]. Harvard was magnetic for me. I was drawn to Harvard. I wanted to come here. I felt drawn, driven, and there wasn’t any question in my mind about my eventual success at Harvard because I was made confident — and competent — by my Morehouse experience.

But it was pretty clear that the embrace from Harvard was qualitatively different from the embrace I got from Morehouse. I wouldn’t echo Du Bois and say it was like a caste, but I was certainly a guest at best. There are some important ways I was not in the family, because there are some ways in which I saw many of the white students experiencing a Harvard that I didn’t know.

GAZETTE: This was the early ’80s?

wilson: It was mid-’80s. We tried to fix it. I was an activist, and I remember the big issue then was Afro-American studies at Harvard. You had some semblance of it here already, but it was a fledgling thing. The big debate was about whether Harvard should have an Afro-American Studies Department or challenge the faculty to integrate ideas and experiences from African-Americans into their studies, into their lectures, into their coursework. That was a big debate.

I had my Morehouse hat on, and I was saying, “Why are those two in tension? Why can’t you have both? Why can’t you have an Afro-American Studies Department and demand that faculty teach from various experiences?” Derek Bok was president at the time, and we engaged with him as well as we could. We’d protest and sit so he’d take these things more seriously. Finally, he did. As I was leaving, they announced they were going to do the department.

Then the struggle became, well, to move faster. Let’s get this thing done. I remember some of us were impatient, and my mentor here, Charles Vert Willie, was a professor at the Ed School and a Morehouse graduate. I was sitting with him one afternoon, describing my frustration, and the general student frustration. He said, “Don’t overlook one important thing.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Harvard recently made the decision that they want to do it. They want to have an African-American Studies Department. And once Harvard makes the decision that they want to do it, it’s going to be No. 1.”

Now I’m an Overseer, and I’ve been a college president, and I’ve seen the world of academia evolve, and I’ve seen Harvard evolve. Very recently, I was on the [Board of Overseers’] visiting committee for the No. 1 African and African American Studies Department in the country, if not the world. How cool is that? We were just struggling for its very existence, and now it has evolved into the No. 1 African and African American Studies Department. That’s a powerful evolution, and Dr. Willie was right.

So Harvard, through President Faust, has now decided it wants to get inclusion and belonging right. It wants to lead the way in this country and in this world in figuring out what inclusion and belonging means on a campus. Harvard wants to model it here, and, since Harvard has made that decision, we’re going to get it right.

And I think it is obvious that this kind of effort is needed in the larger national climate. So the time is really right for a profound assertion of these values here, not just on campus but off campus as well.

GAZETTE: The task force made eight recommendations and highlighted four goals and four tools to reach those goals. Are there any of those products of the task force’s work that you think are particularly important?

wilson: I would never rank them, but what I will say is that there is a cluster of them that are, I think, uniquely responsive to the One Harvard culture. They tend to point to the way in which the trunk can relate to the branches. There’s one on organizational culture, one explicitly about the alignment and coordination of inclusive excellence with the Office of President and Provost, one on assessment — we’re going to be doing that University-wide — and one on strategic planning. So there’re four that speak to the One Harvard culture, and we’re going to put some emphasis on that.

GAZETTE: The report makes several points about symbolism, with things like changing the last line of the alma mater and the University vision statement to be more inclusive. How important are these kind of symbolic moves?

wilson: There are all kinds of things that give you signals about whether you belong in an environment, about how comfortable you can feel there. We have to think deeply and think hard about how various people experience Harvard and whether they feel as if they belong. There are few things that are more important in sending a signal that you belong than seeing symbols and signs that are familiar and that make you feel comfortable and, without words, say to you, “You belong. You’re important. We want you here.”

So, it’s incredibly important to pay attention to what signals you’re sending even if you don’t intend to. We must pay attention to what signals we’re sending just by keeping the traditions of the larger society. That’s what Du Bois ran into.

GAZETTE: Is there anything else you want to add?

wilson: This is a tough issue. It’s a very important issue. When I was a student here, I remember having a jaded view of what we called “the diversity guy,” the person whose job it was to get more people of color here, and more women. We thought it was a thankless job.

I don’t see this that way. This is a different agenda, and that’s a sign of progress, because this assignment used to be strictly quantitative. Now it’s quantitative and qualitative and goes to our institutional identity. I don’t suspect it will take 30 years to achieve, but I go back to what Professor Willie told me in 1984, “Harvard has decided to do it, and that means we’re going to get it right.”