Maya Angelou pens in her obsequious poem, “When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile. We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks never taken.” These words hang on me like an albatross.
As president of Kentucky State University, I have been focused to reifying the history and impact of our institution within the historically black college community, the higher education landscape, and the nation’s history. Many of our HBCU peers have seared their alumni into the national conscious – Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Oprah Winfrey. The alumni brilliance of our “College on the Hill” remains too often unsung in the same sector – Whitney Young, Jr., Moneta Sleet, and Travis Grant.
Two weeks ago, the Office of the President had an opportunity to talk with the soon-to-be widow of Dr. Harrison B. Wilson in discussion of a possible long-overdue return to campus for Founder’s Day 2019 to receive the John Henry Jackson Achievement Award “granted by the University to an individual whose life exhibits tenacity, fortitude, and excellence… pays tribute to the superior achievements of an individual in their chosen field/industry of endeavor or their lived example… Recipients of this award should demonstrate the character, posture and demeanor worthy of emulation.”
Dr. Harrison Wilson lived a life of character, posture, and demeanor worthy of emulation.
As an undergraduate at South Carolina State College/University, I was always enamored with the annual Ebony Magazine listing of the “Most Influential Blacks in America”; alongside the names of congressmen and masonic potentates, were the names of Benjamin Payton at Tuskegee, James Cheeks at Howard, Fred Humphries at Florida A & M, and Harrison Wilson at Norfolk State University.
I spent my adolescent summers in between Nashville (Tennessee), Griffin (Georgia), and Norfolk (Virginia). My godfather/uncle and his wife lived just outside the gates of the Norfolk State campus. We attended the Tim Reid Celebrity Tennis Tournament annually on the sprawling campus. Little did I realize that my subconscious was being fertilized by the possibility that an ordinary human (like me) could lead and manage the august enterprise that we know as the HBCU.
The prophet Isaiah says, “The righteous perishes, and no man lays it to heart.”
Nearly 20 years after his retirement as president of Norfolk State University, the outpouring of condolences and reverence following the death of Dr. Wilson shows just how valuable the work of HBCU leadership truly is to this sector and this world. His death is not only laid to heart, but a jolting recognition that the great leaders of our institutional sector are fading away like leaves. The current cast of HBCU presidents (myself included) are only a shadow of the greatness that preceded us in an era of overt racism, sparse community wealth, modest physical plants, and taut ability to access financial markets.
As the co-author of two books on HBCU presidents and chancellors, I have tried to study and emulate the careers of the patriarchs in which Dr. Harrison Wilson looms large. He was and is a giant both within and beyond his era of leadership. Without dispute, his 22 years at Norfolk are a case study in how leaders can see the needs of community, city, and country and neatly fit the HBCU mission into a position of service and example to those needs. Today’s students and practitioners of higher education administration can benefit greatly from a well-articulated case-study on how Dr. Wilson pioneered tremendous gains in the public HBCU sector, at a time when political goodwill in a socially tense state was hard to glean.
It is hard to imagine the view from a presidential vantage point showcasing the sunset of the civil rights generation into the dawn of the new millennium. The pictures which came with that view, dramatic changes in social attitudes, technology, economics, and politics, never shook Wilson from his vision for Norfolk State University. As the green and gold Spartans salute him, the green and gold Thorobreds look a-glance at what might have been had Dr. Wilson been granted the opportunity to lead Frankfort’s university.
The multiple evidences of Dr. Wilson’s greatness are obvious. Even more, his longevity in the presidency is a clear marker of what sets him apart as one of the greatest presidents to have led an institution created to serve African Americans. This is crystal clear in an epoch where rattled alumni and treacherous boards cycle through campus presidents like disposable contact lenses.
The work that Dr. Wilson was able to do and for the length of time that he was able to do it will never be replicated in our community again. It would be easy to suggest that his kindness, his willingness to innovate, and the humility with which he lived his life were the keys to his long-term success and even longer life. Such was not the case; simply put… Dr. Harrison Wilson was a leader, a giant, and a strong black man.
The psalmist David writes, “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.”
What can we take today from President Wilson’s example to face the new sector’s newly defined challenges? Dr. Wilson thrived in the face of increasing college costs, declining K-12 training, changing industry, political stratification, and shifting culture. Why can’t we?
How do we fortify our standing as leaders when character and results are no longer enough? How do we maintain the faith of our stakeholders? How do we avoid the lure of self-aggrandizement when lack of the same suggests to some a disassociation from public engagement?
The answers might be found in Wilson’s own words. “We must continue to broaden our horizons in all we do at Norfolk State University. In academics as well as athletics, you need to raise the bar …set higher goals and work for excellence. The students, the University, and the community deserve nothing less than representing ourselves at the highest level of effort.”
In my fourth HBCU executive role, I am perplexed that in just one generation our sector is now plagued with torrential turnover, individual ego, and cultural division. Our community has sadly found itself with ambition and no metrics, performance goals and no vision, strategic plans and few partners, and a house divided along both fault lines and fissures.
Today, as Dr. Harrison B. Wilson lies in state on the campus that bears his indelible markings, memories, and majestic signature, I pause in reverence of what the best of HBCU leadership can, could, and should look like. As I traverse the triumphs and challenges of leading Kentucky State University, Dr. Wilson’s life and legacy reminds me that a life well-lived is not defined solely by how well we did our jobs, but also by how well we helped our communities to understand that the pursuit of higher goals is the infinite and only worthwhile mark of excellence.
Every HBCU president should, too, hope to be remembered not just for the service they gave, but for the life they lived.
Ubuntu – I am because we are.
M. Christopher Brown II, Ph.D.
Kentucky State University