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The Challenges Facing HBCU Campuses


Billionaire Robert Smith went viral this week when he pledged to pay off the loans of all seniors graduating from Morehouse College this spring. He also made a smaller gift to fund a new park on campus. We want to take a moment now to talk about why a park matters at historically black colleges and universities. We're joined now by David Wilson, who's the president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. He's on tour with his choir at the moment. President Wilson, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID WILSON: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: I gather the Government Accountability Office says that historically black colleges and universities often have to struggle to maintain their facilities and infrastructure. What's your experience been?

WILSON: I certainly would not disagree with the accounting office. I do think that HBCUs, by and large, have struggled with infrastructure issues of that or a function of lack of investments in those institutions along the way and the lack of investments have just simply caught up to those institutions today.

SIMON: Why is that your analysis, Mr. President?

WILSON: Well, you really don't need a Ph.D. in order to rapidly come to the conclusion that HBCUs, private and public, have just not enjoyed the kind of investments from the federal government, from their respective states, from philanthropic entities, as have other institutions in similar genres. I think some of it, of course, has to do with racism and the fact that those institutions came into existence because the predominately white institutions at the time would not admit black students. And then the private HBCUs that were established by church associations and the Freedmen Bureau, they never enjoyed the kind of billion-dollar investments that private, elite, predominately white institutions did. And so over the years, as I said, the lack of investments on the part of states, as well as philanthropists, has led to infrastructure challenges on many of those campuses.

SIMON: What kind of difference can a gift like the one made by Robert Smith in a park at Morehouse make to historically black universities and colleges?

WILSON: I applaud Mr. Smith for the way in which he went about investing in the young people at Morehouse this past weekend by retiring their student loan debt and also for making available funding to enable the institution to build a space where students can gather and they can talk about the big issues of today, the big issues of tomorrow and see the role that they have to play in those issues. And in essence, if that space is being built on the campus or adjacent to the campus, it takes the classroom out of buildings and basically bleeds it over into a nice gathering space that will promote innovation and creativity.

When you go to, you know, the private sector today, many of the companies, particularly in the Silicon Valley where, you know, I've spent a lot of time, those external environments are critical in promoting innovative thought and getting individuals to come up with solutions to the big challenges and big issues of the day. And so I can only see positive things happening from a focus on a part of the university and not only the infrastructure on the campus itself but in the areas that are actually surrounding the campus and that abut the campus. So only good things can happen from what I'm hearing in terms of what Mr. Smith has done for Morehouse.

SIMON: Now, President Wilson, I understand you're on tour with the great Morgan State University Choir in Wales. I just want to give enough opportunity for you to sing one of the songs that you'll be performing with the choir.

WILSON: (Laughter) I have so many favorite songs from the world-renowned Morgan State University Choir, but I don't think that I'm in a position to regale your audience with any singing otherwise, you know, they'd be too quick to turn the channel so (laughter)...

SIMON: All right. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University - thanks so much for being with us, sir.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.