Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


​​​​​​​​Part 10: David Wilson, President of Morgan State University

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic this election season, Morgan State University President David Wilson says it’s even more important to prepare students for civic engagement and active participation in voting. In this bonus episode of our series, hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes ask Wilson about how he encourages students on his own campus to engage in the political process and discourse and how other leaders can prepare their students, campus, and community for life after this election.

Here are some of the links and references from this episode:

Civic Engagement and Democracy: Special Focus on the 2020 Election

Morgan State University Designated As 2020 Early Voting and Election Day Voting Center

Hosts and Guests
David Wilson
President, Morgan State University
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David Wilson - President, Morgan State University - Guest
David Wilson
President, Morgan State University

 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Support for this podcast series comes from Jenzabar who for over 30 years has been working with higher education leaders on over 1,350 campuses to provide creative enrollment and digital transformation solutions. Jenzabar, the smart choice for higher education. You're listening to Engage Conversations, a monthly talk with higher education leaders on issues critical to our community, to our campuses, and to our students. And I'm so pleased to welcome you back for a bonus episode in our mini-series focused on leadership in higher education. I'm your host, Philip Rogers, and today's dialogue will be an opportunity to highlight civic engagement and student voting during these unprecedented times. And I know this is a timely topic, as we're all focused on the 2020 election. And Sherri Hughes, my co-host is back with us today. Sherri, I thought we had wrap this series up, but we started talking further and just couldn't pass up the opportunity to squeeze in this last very important conversation before we get into November.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah, this has been so much fun and so compelling. I just think we weren't really ready to wrap it up. So it's good to be back together to talk about these things.

Philip Rogers: Absolutely. Well, this final episode is a special one for us, because our guest is a former ACE board member and Morgan State University President, David Wilson. So David, really good to reconnect with you and have you on the show with us.

David Wilson: Philip and Sherri, it really is great to be with you as well and to be a part of ACE conversations on this topic.

Philip Rogers: Well, we're glad to have you. You have contributed to so many great things as a part of the ACE family and always loved the opportunity to engage in dialogue with you. And we know you well. But we want to give our listeners a little sense of your background and your own leadership journey and give you the opportunity to kick us off by telling us a little bit about that national treasure that you lead in Baltimore.

David Wilson: Well, first of all, I've been president here for 10 years, I'm in my 11th year. I can't believe it's been that long. I'm still having so much fun. I mean, I need to I guess be guarded in saying those words because the American college presidency today truly is one of, I think, the most challenging jobs in all of the country. But I've been here working for a decade, I truly enjoy what I do, our students are just amazing. They are so brilliant and so talented. And they come here ready to really get everything that Morgan is putting in front of them. And we make it known to them that we have grown a future here and say, "That's you, that you are the future." And we are going to make sure that you are imbued with the skills, the leadership of their perspective that you need, because you are expected, when you graduate from Morgan to lead the world. And they really do understand that, they understand their role as civic servants. They understand their role as innovators. They understand their role as engineers, they understand their role as social scientists, but they also understand their role of being community leaders.

Now for me personally, my personal background is all the way over the web, but I grew up in rural Alabama, I'm the son of a sharecropper. We grew up farming cotton. When I was growing up in Alabama, there was no law that required black children to go to school. And so my father did not send the ten of us to school on a regular basis. And so, I was in the seventh grade before I attended school for five consecutive days. I attended school, when I did, I went to one of these rows and walls schools, one big room with five grades and one teacher. I grew up in the middle of segregation in Alabama about 25 miles from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And my sixth grade teacher was the late Mrs. Louvenia Abernathy Coates , who was the sister of Ralph Abernathy. And so early on, I began to understand injustice, I began to really understand racism, and what it meant to live it, what it meant to have it to get in the way of the cultivation of my own talents and the talents of my brothers and sisters. And so as I left that, really plantation, and vowed never ever to return, I was on a mission to make sure that wherever I ended up, whichever institution I became a part of, it was going to be an institution that was truly committed to what I call the ideals of the Constitution. And those ideals were democracy and fairness and justice, and equality for everyone. And so that's what I found here at Morgan. It's an easy fit, because this institution is also rooted in those same beliefs. Those beliefs are actually the founding foundation upon which this institution came into existence in 1867. And Phil, Sherri, it is an expectation of tens of thousands of alumni spread all over the world, that this institution is never ever going to move away from being true to what it has been for 153 years.

Philip Rogers: It's such a fascinating story. I've read it. I've heard you tell it before, but to sit here in front of you and hear it again, especially in this moment, in our nation's history is compelling. And I think one of the things I love most about you is that you're such a student-focused President and it shows and it clearly stems from your upbringing and your family tradition and history and growth over time. And I love following you on Twitter, because I get to see how engaged you are with the members of your community. And it's really no wonder why civic engagement is so high on your priority list at Morgan and would love to dive into that because the election is only a couple of weeks away here. We've already had millions of people who have been voting across our country. And next week, I believe, if I remember correctly, Maryland's early voting period begins. I think that Morgan State was designated one of a handful or so of voting sites in Baltimore, and one of a number of sites on actual Election Day in the city. And can you give us a sense of why was it so important to you to step into that space and make Morgan a location where your students can have access to voting and others around the community?

David Wilson: We didn't give this a second thought, when, of course, we heard that the Baltimore Elections Commission was looking at potential sites for the election. It took me a nanosecond to say yes, Morgan State University would like to be considered. And so we are all in. And so we have an official mail drop here on the campus that is guarded by our University Police 24/7. We have to do that, and that has been there for I think about three weeks or so. And I tell you the number of people who are coming now and dropping off their mail ballots in that boxes just unbelievable. And they're doing it because they trust Morgan. And they trust that their vote is going to be counted. I just have to go there. But Morgan has deep seated trust within the Baltimore community. And then of course, we will start early voting here in person, next Monday. And I've already said to my son, who is now above the voting age that he and I are going to aim to be the first two in line, probably get out there at four o'clock in the morning. We know that the lines are going to be wrapping around the campus. But it will be that way from Monday, October 26, at 8AM through November 3, 8PM. The Morgan campus will be the site of both early voting and in person voting here in Maryland. But it was extraordinarily important for this institution to raise his hand and say, "Yes, we will." And I think when you look at the neighborhoods that are above the campus, it is one of the highest owner occupied neighborhoods in Baltimore property wise, many of the families have been there for generations. And they trust the institution with regard to the way we have approach the safety on the campus in the COVID-19 era, and they trust us as they raise their voice in this very, very critical election.

So that's why we did what we did and I'm now saying to the Baltimore Elections Commission that we have more than enough to be voting site every year. And typically, we have not done it in the past, because they held it down the street from us. And my students and I, we would gather here on campus, and we'll have the marching band, and we would then all go down to the campus, marched to the voting place. But of course, this year, we can't do that, because of COVID. And then the place where they normally would have it is not large enough to accommodate the number of people that will be coming in. So, it's a natural choice for us.

Philip Rogers: And it sounds to me like this is about your students, but it's also about your community. From what I can tell, you're an anchor institution in Baltimore, and this decision matters to the people that live and work and play and engage with the community in your area.

David Wilson: That's absolutely it. We are an anchor institution in Baltimore City. Most people don't know that we are the only comprehensive public doctoral research university in Baltimore City. And so, what we often say, and especially as we look to the next 10 years here, is that we see ourselves in Baltimore City as being a public version in a downsized way to what Johns Hopkins is on the private side. And in terms of the type of research that we're going to produce here in Morgan in the next 10 years to really speak to the anchor institution role, and to speak to the disparities that we have seen on Earth and late, absolutely bear by COVID-19. We have some phenomenal scholars here at Morgan, School of Community Health and Policy, School of Engineering, social work, I mean, all of these schools that have some of the best scholars in the country. And so when we look at the role of the anchor institution, it is with understanding with no ambiguity, what it means, of course, to embed in our students a civic responsibility on the one hand, but also what it means from the standpoint of research to produce the research that is going to provide lawmakers, policymakers and others with the real good resource-based information, evidence-based outcomes. So they can know what to do with on Monday morning, and so, we view our anchor role in a very comprehensive way. And that's what the city expects of us. And we have no attempt to do anything but live up to that expectation.

Sherri Hughes: Well, it's just, it's such a compliment to you and to your team and to the campus, that you use the word trust, that people trust Morgan, and we hear so much about lack of trust. And so it is a real testament to the work that you all are doing that, you have the trust of the community in such an important way.

David Wilson: Well, they know that we are going to do the best thing. I mean, that we do the right thing, let's put it that way. And sometimes, when, Sherri, that level of trust is as deep and as high, both of those things at the same time as it is. There are conversations that take place when Morgan is not in a room, I mean, at the very highest level of decision-making. And invariably, our name is going to make its way into that conversation. "Well, okay. We want Morgan in this role. We want..." And so, when you have that kind of trust, you don't necessarily have to be a part of every dialogue. But people who are in the dialogue, respect you, and they know that you bring something to that conversation, that's going to enrich it, that's going to keep it in a way where the outcome is going to be inclusive. And it's going to be about ensuring that everybody is committed to doing the right thing. And I haven't seen this to the extent that I see it here at Morgan. At the other institutions that I have worked and all of them have been fantastic places. I've thoroughly enjoyed those opportunities. I was associate provost at Rutgers, in New Jersey. I mean, it was really, really phenomenal and then, I was a long-time Vice President at Auburn University in Alabama. And then a chancellor of University of Wisconsin system before I came, and all those incredible places, great communities. But the level of respect that Baltimorean's and Marylander's have for this institution, and particularly within the African-American community, is just off the chart. And I think that's something that we here at Morgan will never ever take for granted.

Sherri Hughes: So, David, I'd like to return back to something you talked about a little bit earlier. I know that you talked a little bit about the unique and long history of civic engagement and community activism at Morgan. And earlier this year, you joined thousands who gathered in Baltimore to march against police brutality following George Floyd's death, and you were quoted in The Baltimore Sun saying, "When a student matriculates here at Morgan, we expect them to understand history. We expect them to be strong advocates to change the world and to remake it to the way it is supposed to be." So can you talk a little bit about those expectations and how you all are getting your students to be thoughtful about voting as their civic duty to be involved and committed to the political process and to be involved in political discourse? And maybe a little bit about how that's really prominent or really important this year?

David Wilson: That's a great question, Sherri. Student activism, in what I call the contemporary tradition, commenced here at Morgan in the late 1940s. And that led to, most people don't know this, the first college sit in movement in America, that happened here 1955, with Morgan students, making their way to the Read's Drugstore, and sitting there at the counter, and insisting that they be served. History did not record that actually. It recorded, with all due respect, the four students who sat at the counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. But the true history is that the college sit in movement actually started here at Morgan. And so, our students understand this history over the last 60 years or so, that this has really been a part of what Morgan has been. And out of that movement came the first and only African-American Supreme Court Justice, the Chief Justice here in Maryland, and all of these prominent voices, if you will, that came through Morgan, and then began to shape what the Morgan student roles should be.

And so, when we talk about our students here knowing that history, that's what we're talking about is knowing who came before you, what they did to make sure that this road to opportunity, that the magic of a college degree that you can taste too, but you can't just do it for yourself. It is for others as well. And so, it's not just selfish goal, it is a college education for the common good, not just for me. And we actually have a requirement. I have a requirement here in Morgan, that before you can graduate, you have to take a course in African-American history where that activism actually is taught. Now, the way that manifests itself now in real activity, is that we've actually had three years ago, the first Black Girls Vote collegiate chapter that actually started here at Morgan. And it is such an active chapter. I mean, it's Black Girls Vote and they have all of our young leaders and certainly hundreds of them who are part of that but young men too. And so it was under their umbrella that they organized the campus and got the marching band and we all marched to the polls to vote and so that level of activism manifests itself here in that way. Usually, actually if we were not in COVID, and you came to this campus today, you would see all kinds of activity going on in our students center, elevating the need on the part of students to vote, to register. The students that have gone out and they would have worked with us to bring to the campus registration opportunities for students to register on site, that kind of activism. And so, you would see on our academic quad, the same kind of activism. So, when I took part in march earlier this summer after really the murder of Mr. George Floyd, I realized that I, as President, had to understand the hurt and just the feeling of despair, the anger of my students. And that was all happening in the middle of a pandemic, where they were already stressed out because some of their parents have lost their jobs. They had gone to funerals of their grandmoms, and granddads and aunts and uncles. And then on top of all of this, they have seen these young black men and women being killed by law enforcement for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin. I was outraged by that and I had to show them that you're not out here by yourself, that I am here and we will be true to the history of this institution. Always peacefully, always peacefully. You will not find Morgan students that are engaged in any activity that is not peaceful. But we do that. And then last, earlier, or actually late last week, I gave my annual matriculation convocation address here at Morgan, a little bit later than usual, because we started school later.

But I did see that as yet another opportunity to remind our students of their civic role, of their civic responsibility. And I did not mince words. I did say to them, that this institution had been able to thrive after having come through every single pandemic, but this one is a double one. It's a health crisis, as well as a racial awakening. And their voices must be heard because Sherri, I said to them, our ancestors are on the ballot, and they have an obligation to do them proud. So we keep this in front of our students as often as we can. We want them to always, in the vernacular, use their head to do more than to simply keep their ears apart.

Philip Rogers: We're going to write that one down David, that's a good one. I like that a lot. And we've been saying to folks, and hearing throughout this entire series that you're right, we're not just facing a pandemic, we're facing a confluence of forces that are converging on higher education right now. We're facing not only a global pandemic, we're facing the perspective of an economic crisis unfolding in higher education. We're facing how we navigate this period of racial injustice in our society and higher education has an expectation to step up and be a part of that in a meaningful way. And I'm looking forward to the day when we can tackle all those things together outside of a global pandemic environment where we can bring the band back and we can bring the energy back in a way that will continue to allow us to thrive but until can do that, we'll find ways like you're describing to make our voices heard and our hearts known on these big issues. And one of them that's been on my mind is how do you think about safety and civil discourse, both before and after the election? So it just feels like tensions are so heightened right now. And my instinct is that that's going to grow on Election Day. You have to think about student safety, especially when there are some campuses where students can't do what you're able to do, which is have an on-site voting location. There's some students are going to be going off campus to vote. And then you think about preparing for the unknown in the post-election. How are you thinking about disruptions that could take place on campus, within the campus community, and thinking about preparing students, the campus, the community, for what life looks like after the election?

David Wilson: That really keeps me up at night sometimes. Because our students here at Morgan, many of them and across the higher ed spectrum, in a lot of places that I'm aware of. They are feeling that the country right now is trying to push them into a place where they don't want to go, that's not their view of America, that they want unity, they want to be an inclusive country. And they have friends that are all over the spectrum, they have friends across race, across gender, across religion, across all. And so, they don't want to be pushed to a place where they feel the country is not really embracing all of what they absolutely take pride in, and many of them have lived their own experiences through. And so, as a result of that, I thought that my role as university president is one where I have to continue to keep it all together. I have to continue to inspire these young people. I have to continue to give them hope, if at the end of this election period, it doesn't turn out the way that they are so invested in, and that is a challenge, is to make sure that you keep that hope in place, that you keep the inspiration there, the motivation, the desire, and I don't worry about my students engaging in any violent activity. I'm more worried about keeping them focused on growing the future and leading the world. And that this period, if it does not turn out the way they, and I think 98% of them, are hoping, that this is an episode, and it is left up to them to get out there and fight, for a different kind of a place.

I feel I do worry a bit as well about the huge equity divide, the educational attainment divide of that will come our way on what I call the west side of COVID. And I think we've got to be careful there because if we're not careful, I think we will see, or could see, a higher education system in the country that who knows it's more reflective of the higher education in the United States was in the 1920s and 1930s. That the more wealth you have, and the more our kids grow up in homes like our homes, they're going to go on to college and be successful. But then if you don't have that, what's happening to these young people, and I think that's a real concern now as I see, as you talked about earlier, the economic devastation that is taking place. I think we got to figure out a way to write that, otherwise we can end up with some inequities around educational attainment, the likes of which we haven't seen. So that really concerns me a little bit. I want to make sure that we in higher ed don't creep into this territory for many of our institutions simply become places to Xerox privilege. And we have to be careful there. We have to be very, very, very careful.

So, I do think about, worry about election week. And what we might see across the country, if things turn out one way or another. But I think that it is left up to us, as university presidents, and to make sure that we are the voices of calm, that we are the leaders in the spaces and using our platforms in ways that will always keep this country together. I think higher education is, in the words of Horace Mann, it is a great equalizer, but it's an equalizer on so many levels. But I think it's an equalizer for democracy. I think it's an equalizer for justice. I think it's an equalizer for rationality. I think it's an equalizer for what's right, and as an equalizer for unity, for really understanding individuals who, on the surface, may appear different than you. And we can't erase that from our campuses. Otherwise, we cease to challenge our young people to deal with a predilections and biases and lack of understandings that many of them have when they come to our campus if, for example, they're only going to come in with their posse, and leave with their posse, and not really, really, really be in a position where others can challenge their prevailing views. And they can challenge others' prevailing views. And when you get into a position where you're not doing that, and the outcome is something that I think we have to have some serious discussion about as higher ed leaders.

Philip Rogers: It's interesting, I feel like you and Ted Mitchell have talked before this episode. This was... One of the things he said to us was, the area that keeps him awake at night, is the fact that these confluence of forces will cause us to lose some of the gains we've made in equity space in recent years. And you reflected that in different words, but when you hear it twice, when you hear it three times, it's something that our higher ed leaders and listeners, we're going to want to keep in mind as we continue about this work. Sherri, take us out on our favorite question.

Sherri Hughes: So David, what we try to ask each of our guests the same question, and you've given us so much to think about, but what words of wisdom or even encouragement can you offer to other leaders as we prepare, not only for the upcoming elections, but also as you said, for on the west, being on the west side of COVID?

David Wilson: Well, I've had some transformational experiences, as I was coming into higher ed space. And one of them was after meeting the late Walter Sisulu in South Africa, and I was really shocked. We were shocked that he actually gave an audience four up and coming leaders, all African-American males. And we also had a conversation with Mr. Mandela and the late Oliver Tambo, and what we took from all of those conversations was that these were such incredible giants, such incredible leaders. All of them locked away for 28 years in prison, 27, 28 years in prison, and not one of them, we concluded, harbored anger or bitterness towards a society that had done that to them. And we couldn't understand that, as up and coming leaders, African American males. And so, we decided that we could not leave South Africa without asking Walter Sisulu this question directly. And we asked him, "Mr. Sisulu, do you harbor any anger or bitterness toward the society that locked you away for 27 years?" And here's what he said, and I'm almost quoting him, he said, "My comrades, I harbor no anger or bitterness towards a society that locked me away for all those years, because every year of those 20 plus years, every month of every year, every week of every month, every day and every week, in the every hour and every day, I harbor absolutely no bitterness, because I knew then, I will know until the day I die, that what I did was the right thing." And so therefore, he said, "My advice to you as you go and you seek to become University leaders, is to rinse yourself of whatever baggage that you are carrying with you, and don't carry into positions anger and hatred. Because if you do, you're not going to lead places in an effective way and just simply commit to doing the right thing, and doing it well."

And so, I would just simply say that we are really at a moment in American higher ed where we, as university presidents, have to understand that many of our students are coming to us with this level of anger and bitterness, and we have to draw from that deep well of knowledge and experience of the appropriate examples, the appropriate words of wisdom, so we can ensure that they don't let the anger and the bitterness get in the way of their ability to lead this nation, and to ensure that we remain competitive, and number one in the world.

Philip Rogers: David, this has been one of the most inspirational conversations that we've had in all of our episodes. And Sherri, I sure I'm glad we had a bonus, aren't you?

Sherri Hughes: This has been a terrific way to spend 30 minutes.

Philip Rogers: I'm going to try my best to hit six highlights. There's no way to do justice in David's words, but let me just hit six in case someone is coming in late at the end of this and needs the key takeaways. Number one, I think it was clear that staying true to your mission and values, whatever that is for your institution is at the heart of every higher education campus or institution. Number two, presidents must be voices of calm in this unprecedented time as leaders of our campuses. Number three, we have an obligation to create the right conditions for effective civic engagement both in our communities and with our students and our faculty and staff and all of our university constituencies. Number four, keep hope and inspiration alive and in place wherever you go. Number five, you just said this one, but rise yourself of whatever baggage you bring along, that you carry with you. Don't carry anger and commit to doing the right thing to doing it well. And then number six, I loved this one, higher education is an equalizer for democracy. It's an equalizer for justice and unity. And it's an equalizer for what's right in all that we do. David, you've been great. Thank you so much.

David Wilson: Thank you, Philip. Thank you, Sherri.

Philip Rogers: It was a pleasure visiting with you and learning all about the great work that you and your colleagues and your students are doing at Morgan State University. And this concludes our bonus episode of ACE Engage Conversations. Maybe there will be another bonus episode Sherri, this one was so great. You can listen to the other episodes in this series at You can register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at And we want to thank all of our listeners again for your time. We look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you lead and to learn in the flow of your work. Goodbye everyone.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go. 


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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