Trusteeship for the Common Good

By John Silvanus Wilson Jr.    //    Volume 32,  Number 1   //    January/February 2024
Takeaways

  • It has been nearly 80 years since the first-ever President’s Commission on Higher Education warned of the need for American higher education to become a more obvious incubator of and stimulus for American democracy. To date, based on the work of their graduates in the middle of the last century, only America’s HBCUs have authored a recognizably scaled effort that was tangibly responsive to the commission’s call.
  • By prioritizing the simultaneous optimization of capital and character, aligned with a one-humanity vision, trustees can help to measurably advance the common good like never before.
  • The stakes are high. A broken democracy cannot heal a broken world. It is unacceptable for boards to do nothing as the world’s great challenges become increasingly complex and lethal. Now is the time for governance to elevate, thereby leading all other higher education stakeholders in a meaningful effort to help shape a better world.
  • We are in a countdown to either democracy’s triumphant rise or its stunning demise. A new brand of trusteeship for the common good can help to actualize outcomes that are irrefutably consistent with America’s founding ideals.

Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who do nothing.” In recent years, growing threats to free expression have either complicated or chilled working conditions at many schools and campuses nationwide. Educational gag orders and book banning are up sharply since 2021.1 Worsening intolerance, censorship, and exclusion have introduced invidious constraints, forcing many to find new ways to teach, learn, and grow. As politicians have exerted more control over the shape and substance of education, the new climate has enabled the shuttering of some offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These offices were originally developed to abate campus harassment, discrimination, and bullying, but they have now been sullied and targeted by some critics as part of the problem.

All these conditions have emerged in the absence of a meaningful countermovement to stem the tide of tension and conflict. Of course, whether one regards the general lack of an organized response as “do nothing” complacency in the face of swelling instability depends entirely on how one defines both stability and progress. And therein lies the problem. What angers and divides Americans has become far more apparent and consequential than what unites and rallies us.

Thus, in today’s highly polarized and combative world, it would surprise no one if the civic and educational leaders of a White House commission alarmingly described America as weathering “a time of crisis.” Nor would anyone be shocked if those leaders based their distress on two observable threats—one to democracy worldwide and the other to all human existence. But instead of being conveyed to President Biden in late 2023, that very warning was delivered to President Harry S. Truman in late 1947 by the first-ever President’s Commission on Higher Education, otherwise known as the Truman Commission.

Titled “Higher Education for American Democracy,” the six-volume report pointed to American higher education as the key to a better nation and a better world. George F. Zook chaired the commission, which branded democracy as “unfinished business.” Unintimidated by “the size of the job that remains to be done,” the commission called for an end to higher education’s racially motivated segregation and quota policies and practices. By prioritizing equity, college access, and the expansion of the community college sector, these leaders recommended that higher education be repurposed and rebranded as a more obvious incubator of and stimulus for American democracy.

Nearly every volume of the report emphasizes the potential consequences of failure. Some of the challenges spotlighted are familiar today, especially the conspicuous “authoritarian barriers to democratic education.” The commission urged higher education institutions to help heal a nation “plagued with inequalities,” with “thousands of our citizens…in poverty, disease, hunger, and ignorance.”

As for that era’s larger stakes, the commission highlighted a grave concern that “the release of atomic energy…has brought man within the sight of world devastation.” Again, education and “reeducation” were framed as the common nullifiers of the threats to both democracy and humanity. The commission urged campuses to provide an “education for democracy, for international understanding, and for more effective social science.”

The Truman Commission’s overall posture, perspective, and tone remain the stuff of trusteeship. Its report conveyed an agenda for higher education that was richly informed, if not driven, by the challenges and threats in the world that awaited college graduates. Instead of using a ground-level, microscopic view of campus-based life, the report was written from a balcony-level, telescopic view of what endangers higher education, the nation, and the world. Similarly, the most effective trustees can adopt both a micro and a macro perspective to assess conditions more accurately throughout all levels and dimensions of campus life. It is both telling and unsurprising that a balcony view today would provoke eerily similar warnings.

Today, American democracy is still a work in progress, and it is not unreasonable to diagnose it as being in decline. Moreover, a global threat—once posed only by the release of atomic energy—is now posed by the release of greenhouse gases. And though some may see it as a matter of urgency that human relations are chilling as the planet warms, it seems more reasonable to regard it as an emergency, since a broken democracy cannot heal a broken planet.

While the Truman Commission may deserve a special nod for its courageous decision to tether the curricular and pedagogical content of higher education to the quality and trajectory of American democracy, it was not the first to draw that connection. Instead, it was a part of what might be characterized as a protracted education-for-democracy narrative. Two of its many advocates were particularly noteworthy. In 1916, the American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey advised, “Democracy must be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”2 A century earlier, as he made plans for launching the University of Virginia in 1819, Thomas Jefferson understood education as essential to the common good. He thought education would eventually uproot slavery in and beyond Virginia. Writ large, Jefferson saw campuses as the placentas of the reforms required to ensure the ultimate success of the American experiment.3

More tangibly, as the Truman Commission released its report and Ralph Ellison began writing his breakthrough novel Invisible Man, a number of America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were busy harvesting the clear, centuries-long African American view of education as the key to unlocking true freedom and democracy. On that foundation, after transformations that alleviated Black illiteracy and poverty, HBCUs embraced the challenge of a third transformation focused on relieving Black marginality, or what Ellison might have called “invisibility.” By quietly using their campuses as boot camps to educate an army of citizens determined to move the union toward true perfection, HBCUs were already answering the commission’s call to reshape higher education for democracy.

Simply put, the Truman Commission got the most critical things right, from its assessment of democracy as unfinished business to its recognition of a scaled existential threat. What if its members also correctly adopted a trusteeship mindset when they reimagined higher education as a lever for actualizing democracy? Could the commission’s general recommendations provide important insights to those looking to optimize higher education trusteeship today?

As governance is now popularly understood, it seems counterintuitive, if not meddlesome, to suggest that trustees should concern themselves with anything beyond the scope of their core work of selecting presidents, ratifying budgets, and addressing very broad policy issues. The flaw in this kind of thinking is not unlike the deficiency W. E. B. Du Bois came to recognize in his own mindset. Du Bois was 72 years old when he expressed profound regret about the inordinate time and energy he had mistakenly spent in normalized, conventional pursuits. He found a substantial blind spot in his outlook. He said, “It was as though moving on a rushing express [train], my main thought was as to my relations with the other passengers on that express, and not to its rate of speed or its destination.”4 Similarly, how wise is it for trustees to concern themselves with the fitness of their institution, while ignoring the fitness of its outcomes? Why work hard to keep an institution alive, yet have neither concern nor comment about the net effect of its existence, especially regarding the larger questions facing both the nation and the world?

There is little question that the conventional approach to governance has become increasingly “capital-centric.” That was foreseeable. A balcony view reveals higher education’s troubling quantitative indicators, including worsening institutional inequality, precarity, affordability, public confidence, and industry forecasts. But what about the balcony view of the qualitative indicators of the health of campus life? After all, much of American higher education was formed with a Christian construct of reality. As trustees reexamine their priorities, is it possible for them to pair their current emphasis on optimizing capital with a renewed, updated, and bold emphasis on optimizing character?

AGB pointed to a similar agenda for trustees in 2019, arguing that the work “to renew confidence in higher education’s public purposes and civic outcomes…belongs not only to academics but, essentially, to board members, who hold higher education institutions in trust.”5 Accordingly, what if boards helped to ensure that their institutions’ character-centric civic agenda today was generally responsive to the Truman Commission’s 1947 alarm about the urgent need to recalibrate higher education for democracy?

Imagine that America is now in a countdown to what will be either democracy’s triumphant rise or its tragic demise. Imagine also that each and every stakeholder community in the higher education ecosystem, especially trustee boards, recognized the critical importance of finding innovative ways to adjust their norms in a new effort to advance the common good.

In the context of such a significant countdown, perhaps the best way to consider the reframing of trusteeship for the common good is to probe the powerful meaning of four visionary trustees, three pro-democracy outcomes, two disparate directions, and one united humanity.

Four Trustees

On October 29, 1967, four now-exemplary college trustees were in the same room. They had no idea that their paired visions had the potential to one day symbolize optimized trusteeship. Two of them, from one college, were poised to symbolize character-centric governance at its very best. The other two, from a very different college, would come to symbolize the best of capital-centric governance. Unfortunately for higher education, the four trustees never came together that day to discuss how their respective emphases might be optimized by their campuses and others. And unfortunately for the world, their ideals have never been recognizably converged by enough campuses to measurably enhance human relations. Nonetheless, it makes sense now to imagine how their ideals might be paired and harvested, in light of today’s challenges.

So, who were those four exemplary trustees, and what room did they grace back in 1967? The occasion was the annual convocation ceremony at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Benjamin Elijah Mays

One of the two trustees poised to epitomize character-centric governance was Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who joined the board of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 1967. Mays had just completed a distinctive 27-year presidency there. He struggled to overcome institutional precarity at both the dawn and the sunset of his presidency.

Sometimes a failure to optimize capital is a matter of environment and emphasis. Aided by incomparable peripheral vision, Mays was sensitive to the afflictions of life off campus, nationally and globally, and he decided to emphasize a more urgent agenda that was responsive to those conditions.

Although the well-being of the institution may have been relatively uncertain as he departed, there was little question about the general well-being of many of the students who attended on his watch. Mays prioritized the refinement of student character. Averaging a mere 84 graduates per year during his 27-year tenure, Mays shaped and sharpened an undergraduate experience that successfully conditioned many of them to go out and focus less on their personal well-being than on the collective well-being of the nation and the world.

Martin Luther King Jr.

One of those graduates, also a Morehouse trustee in 1967, had already become the most recognized example of Mays’s dream of graduating men who would devote a meaningful part of their lives to enhancing human relations. Mays was joined that day by his mentee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King had been invited to deliver Grinnell’s convocation address, and Mays was proud to introduce his fellow trustee.

King was in his second year on the Morehouse board, which he had joined with encouragement from Mays. Not only did King personify Mays’s idea of a consequential life, but he also shared Mays’s belief that the actualization of American democracy would remain elusive in the absence of many more warriors for the cause. They yearned to ramp up.

Just a year before joining the board, King published his third book, Why We Can’t Wait. Beyond the title itself, his sense of urgency is evident throughout the text. He insisted that “gradualism and moderation are not the answer.” He urged America to take an immediate and “firm stride into freedom,” rather than continue to reluctantly creep toward it. And Mays and King agreed that if American life were ever to resemble the dream that King conveyed to the world in 1963, American colleges would have to shape better people. This is the character-centric work at the heart of the education-for-democracy narrative, which both men were poised to expand as Morehouse trustees.

Joseph Frankel Rosenfield

The third trustee in the room was Joseph Frankel Rosenfield. He was not on the stage but mixed in with the audience of 5,000 people eager to hear King’s message. The crowd’s interest made sense. Grinnell started out as Iowa College in 1846. It identified as an abolitionist campus, and several students lost their lives after joining the Union Army in the Civil War. By the time King and Mays visited, the institution had established a reputation built on the “social gospel” brand of Christianity, which emphasized equity, equality, and justice. It had been part of Grinnell’s early institutional magnetism.

Rosenfield had been a student at Grinnell in the 1920s. The campus’s ethical and moral character made him, a Jewish student, feel like he belonged. He graduated, became a successful lawyer and businessman in Des Moines, and eventually joined the Grinnell board in 1941. He would spend 59 years as the kind of trustee that every ambitious campus requires. As an unrivaled fiduciary, Rosenfield made it his life’s work to usher Grinnell from persistent precarity to peerless stability. To him, that meant one thing: bolstering the endowment.

When Rosenfield joined the board, the Grinnell endowment was a mere $1 million. By the time King and Mays visited, he had increased it tenfold. But he was dissatisfied. Rosenfield’s stated goal, as repeatedly conveyed to the board, was to make Grinnell “financially impregnable.” He wanted to permanently insulate campus leadership from the trauma of precarity, ensuring that they might struggle with insufficient imagination but never with insufficient funds. He already understood that capital optimization requires a rare vision and drive.

By 1967, Rosenfield’s reputation centered less on fundraising than on investing. He and a team of trustees kept focusing exclusively on endowment-based impregnability, to Grinnell’s great benefit. By the time American higher education’s capital campaign era got underway in the late 1980s, Grinnell’s endowment stood at $175 million. But Rosenfield was still not satisfied. By 1999, shortly before Rosenfield’s death, the Grinnell endowment reached $1.02 billion, and the June 2000 issue of Money magazine dubbed him “the best investor you’ve never heard of.” He had help. Rosenfield befriended a man who would later be credibly dubbed by many as “the best investor you’ve ever heard of.”

Warren Buffett

Seated next to Rosenfield on the Grinnell campus to hear Dr. King was a young, then unknown Warren Buffett. He was not yet on the Grinnell board in 1967, but he would join soon after. In fact, in his biography, Buffett credits King’s speech and his wife, Susan, for his decision to reduce his investment intensity to find time for “noneconomic activity.” By joining the Grinnell board, he could do good while continuing to do quite well.

Buffett never gave a gift to Grinnell, only advice. And Rosenfield’s drive mixed with Buffett’s advice has made the Grinnell board, to this day, the definition of capital-centric governance. Its disciplined focus has yielded a state-of-the-art campus and a financially sustainable institution. For nearly half a century Grinnell has benefitted from competitive faculty salaries, ample scholarship aid, balanced budgets, and zero deferred maintenance. Beyond merely being insulated from precarity, Grinnell’s leaders can confidently position faculty, students, and staff to do their best work. By 2022, with annual expenses under $150 million, fewer than 2,000 students, and an endowment north of $3 billion, Grinnell College was financially impregnable—and sustainably so.

It may be intriguing to imagine what might have happened had those four amazing trustees discussed character and capital optimization that day. But it is wiser to recognize the world’s urgent need for a critical mass of colleges and universities to finally optimize both character and capital in governance, leadership, and campus cultures. It is long overdue.

Three Outcomes

A wise and disciplined governance focus on capital is essential for one primary reason. It should position campus leaders to intentionally shape graduates with a penchant for civic engagement, equipping them to do both good and well in life. Accordingly, capital should finance a president’s thoughtful plans to fashion an enriching undergraduate experience and a brand-worthy campus culture of recognizable relevance to the most difficult challenges of the day.

Consider the more qualitative orientation to leadership and trusteeship prescribed by the education-for-democracy narrative and symbolized by the character-optimization agenda of Mays and King.

When HBCU leaders insisted that their students graduate with a skill set fit for consistent employability and a mindset fit for persistent civic engagement, they ensured that this dual capacity was perceived as foundational for living a noteworthy life. The civil rights movement happened because so many HBCU graduates took that mandate quite seriously. This was especially the case at universities such as Fisk, Howard, Lincoln, Morgan State, and North Carolina A&T State. It happened, too, at colleges such as Morehouse, Spelman, Benedict, Bennett, and Rust. And because their collective push to advance the common good was so contagious, they were joined by a small but critical mass of students and graduates from other campuses, especially during the summers devoted to protesting for social justice.

Three of the most noteworthy outcomes of the movement are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the desegregation of White higher education, which began to surge in 1969. It is not unreasonable to think that the seeds for all three outcomes could have been first planted by a set of trustees who, from a balcony view and aided by a sensibility to the common good, became determined to ensure that their campuses’ character-optimization agendas would eventually bear such fruit.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The first major outcome, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, made a meaningful difference in the lives of African Americans, most of whom lived in the Southern states, where they suffered through the worst elements of a racial caste system. The Act was designed to drive a huge stake through the heart of the Jim Crow South. Since the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern Whites had enforced a broad array of state and local laws and practices to stunt the growth and development of African Americans. The new Act would help to remedy that by barring racial and other forms of discrimination in public accommodations and facilities, including hotels, entertainment venues, restaurants, transportation, prisons, and schools. It encompassed employment access and workplace conditions, as well. Collectively, the legislative advances during this era had a lasting, far-reaching, and tangible impact on the quality of daily life for all African Americans, if not all Americans.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The second major outcome of the campus movement went to the heart of what it means to fully realize American citizenship. Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt refer to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as “the moment of America’s democratization.”6 They root the birth of democracy in the long-awaited surge toward full adult suffrage only 59 years ago.

To understand why this particular legislation represents such a significant pivot, consider that America will be 248 years old on July 4, 2024. In Levitsky and Ziblatt’s view, in only 60 of those years (24 percent) has suffrage been granted to a critical mass of people previously denied it. Thus, for more than three-quarters of America’s existence, the ballot box was a limited tool for perfecting the union. The path to that “moment of America’s democratization” was cleared by those who had been exposed to campus cultures and curricula that were informally and formally designed to generate that very outcome.

King’s Assassination in 1968

The third major outcome, foreshadowed by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, was not a change in federal policy but a change in campus policies. American higher education finally began desegregating in earnest beginning in the fall of 1969. That change was stimulated less by King’s clarion voice throughout the 1960s than by King’s tragic murder in April 1968. He was assassinated at a time when most institutions had just admitted the new students set to arrive on campuses four months later. Out of pangs of conscience, many admissions offices began recruiting in high schools and cities that they had rarely visited before. The Ivy League led the way. After hitting a mere 2.3 percent in 1967, the enrollment of African American students in Ivy League institutions doubled by 1970 and tripled by 1974. The biggest leap forward occurred in the fall of 1969, or the first September in which the impact of King’s assassination was observable in admitted classes.

Despite meaningful progress, America remains blemished by stark racial inequities and aggressive voter suppression efforts. So, from the balcony view, trustees can urge campus leadership to equip students with competencies for advancing the common good. And despite the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision rendering unlawful all race-conscious admissions programs, trustees and campus leadership should persist in valuing the vision of a pluralistic democracy. They should recognize that the common good is well served when an institution’s overall enrollment and faculty evolve to look more like the world that current students may eventually lead, rather than the world their great-grandfathers grew up in.

Finally, trustees should note that the HBCU work to advance the common good did not emerge because HBCU trustees had first optimized each institution’s capital. So, if this kind of character-centric work can be pursued with minimal capital, imagine what might be achieved with optimal capital.

Two Directions

Few stories involving trusteeship in higher education foreshadow America’s current crossroads better than the abridged tenure of Alexander Meiklejohn as president of Amherst College from 1912 to 1923. He was ahead of his time both then and now, since what he attempted has yet to become a higher-education norm.

From the start, Meiklejohn focused on how to offer a liberal arts education that would incline and equip students to pursue a more just and equitable America. That goal necessitated radical changes in the racially charged world of 1921. Throughout and beyond his tenure as president, Meiklejohn connected the quality of the campus experience to the quality of the democracy graduates would later experience. As a small yet meaningful and controversial example of walking his talk, Meiklejohn admitted 17 African American male students during his 11 years and insisted that they be treated equitably. Predictably, he developed enemies, and he was well aware of it.

Mindful of those and other tensions, when Meiklejohn spoke at Amherst’s centennial celebration in 1921, he considered the role of liberal arts colleges in shaping the culture of America. He referenced the country’s “racial aristocracy,” and wondered, “Do we intend to make our dominance secure? Are we determined to exalt our culture, to make it sovereign over others, to keep them down, to have them in control?”7

Meiklejohn then asked a probing, overarching question that every college president could pose today, especially if they bring an architect’s mindset to their presidency rather than merely a contractor’s mindset. Only two years after the 1919 “red summer” of nationwide White supremacist racial violence, and just four months after the Tulsa race massacre when more than 300 African Americans were brutally murdered, Meiklejohn asked, “Which shall it be—an Anglo-Saxon aristocracy…or a Democracy?” Later in the speech, he unequivocally asserted, “I cast my Anglo-Saxon vote for Pure Democracy.” That answer was too jarring for some, as were many of Meiklejohn’s uncommon values, habits, and outlook. As a result, the Amherst faculty and trustees forced him to resign in 1923.

America has faced a choice between those two disparate directions since the lofty founding principles were first proclaimed in the midst of an economy increasingly driven by human enslavement. In fact, Meiklejohn’s question is a version of the incessant tug of war over the meaning of that all-important initial word of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution—“we,” as in “We, the people.” In fits and starts, American history has constantly moved from and toward a democracy based on the definition of that word. And disagreements over who “we” encircles have been the root cause of countless major and minor conflicts since before the Civil War.

Meiklejohn asked a dangerous, high-stakes question. In an Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, “we, the people” included far fewer Americans than would a “pure Democracy.” Preserving America’s aristocracy would mean only the country’s original “we,” or privileged White men, would continue to enjoy the fruits of freedom. And since the enrollment of Amherst, like most of the early colleges, was dominated by the sons of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, he was asking whether to preserve or scuttle the status quo.

By contrast, the pursuit of what Meiklejohn called a “pure Democracy” would require far more work. In a pure or mature democracy, “we, the people” would necessarily encircle all other Americans, irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or any other label used to distinguish one human being from another.

Interestingly, Meiklejohn’s viewpoint was rooted in the history of Amherst. Within 12 years of its founding in 1821, a third of the student body had established an Anti-Slavery Society on campus. Amherst—and Grinnell, a couple decades later—were not alone. Abolitionism defined or influenced campus life at a number of other institutions, including Berea College in Kentucky, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Oberlin College in Ohio, and Miami University in Ohio. Unfortunately, the Amherst president in that era, Heman Humphrey, led a number of faculty members to dissolve the campus-based anti-slavery effort. Yet that brief push for equity was compatible with the kind of institution Meiklejohn envisioned. To his chagrin, it did not translate into tangible alumni or faculty allyship in his quest to evolve Amherst.

Nor did Meiklejohn benefit from Amherst’s moral roots. Unlike the firm influence of denominational Christians in the founding of many American campuses, Calvinist Christians only mildly influenced the launch of the nondenominational Amherst. But no matter the degree of Christian authorship of American higher education, the early churches failed to inform and enrich their respective campuses with a consistently compelling moral and ethical answer to the “we” question. That helps to explain why, regarding Black education, at least two brands of Christianity were in play in post–Civil War America. One set of Americans who called themselves Christians shared a definition of “we” that motivated them to help make HBCUs possible. Unfortunately, a larger set of Americans who also called themselves Christians shared a definition of “we” that motivated them to make HBCUs necessary.

Meiklejohn understood that the answer to the “we” question had the power to perceptibly guide any president’s approach to leading a campus. The answer implies two very different directions to take when shaping living and learning environments. It has obviously and measurably influenced decision-making about the diversity of each campus community, including faculty, students, and staff. Also, over time, an institution’s culture and curriculum are shaped by the directional implications of how its leaders define “we.” More recently, it may also influence or drive the scope and tone of support services, the necessity for and funding of affinity groups, and whether or not a campus undertakes a serious effort to ensure that everyone feels like they belong. At stake is the quality of life, both on and well beyond American college campuses.

Most importantly, Meiklejohn understood the “we” question as a general navigational matter faced by every institution. Thus, he recognized that one reason why presidents can be vulnerable to the judgment of boards is because these larger directional questions are typically answered, too, from the balcony view of governance. Very simply, on a variety of issues, Meiklejohn’s board disagreed with his navigational instincts. He was a progressive, reform-minded leader looking to evolve Amherst, but he was at the mercy of trustees who did not share his views and whom he failed to persuade.

In hindsight, Meiklejohn was not wrong in believing it was beneath America to persist as a racial aristocracy. He was simply executing his presidency from a loftier balcony than that from which his board operated. And from there, he glimpsed a troubling future that he desperately wanted Amherst to care far more about. By 1935, as he remained impatient with America’s stubborn eschewal of self-examination, he wrote What Does American Mean? It reads like a clarion call for the common good. Deeper still, the sheer power of Meiklejohn’s prescience is underscored as much by the book’s substance as by his originally proposed title, Education for Democracy.

One Humanity

In essence, Meiklejohn was prevented from doing at Amherst what Mays succeeded in doing at Morehouse—which was to design an undergraduate experience capable of empowering and arming students with a clear understanding of the unparalleled value and promise of democracy. To that end, one of the reasons why Mays insisted that his Morehouse students “understand every item in the Constitution of the United States” is because he saw that document as one of their best reference points in the quest for justice. In fact, civil rights leaders generally shared the view that America’s laws and ideals provided the best source material for making the strongest, most compelling case for equity. This is what civil rights leader Vernon Jordan had in mind when he referred to the Howard University Law School as “the West Point of Black America’s freedom struggle.”

It was all very logical. The idea of humanity’s oneness is a recurrent theme throughout America’s most recognizable foundational concepts. “E pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one,” is often referred to as America’s motto, and it is as basic as such core, universal ideals as equality, justice, and opportunity. These themes and ideals have always been aspirational, or more theory than practice. And while many citizens proudly echo the national anthem in calling America the “land of the free,” those in power have expanded the prescribed and touted freedoms only slowly over the course of nearly 250 years, grudgingly moving from an exclusive aristocracy toward a pluralistic democracy reflective of humanity’s oneness.

Therefore, it matters that democracy’s most dramatic surge toward broad actualization in the 1960s emerged largely because a handful of undergraduate experiences were intentionally shaped by people with a balcony view. Students were challenged to imagine the idea that America might finally come true—that is, they dared to believe that their efforts would help to finally prove the elusive concept behind the American experiment—that is, all citizens in a pluralistic democracy can experience the cherished “self-evident” right to equality.

Because the founding documents inarguably paint America as a pluralistic, one-humanity democracy, Mays and so many other HBCU leaders strategically wove those seminal ideas into the undergraduate experience. That may help to explain why, on the night before he was murdered, King—Mays’s prize student—declared, “All we say, America, is, be true to what you said on paper!”

Democracy’s fate depends on whether America will finally elevate itself to become that one-humanity country originally theorized on paper. And the mindsets, aspirations, and drive of the new graduates of American higher education may make all the difference.

What would differentiate America’s new college graduates from the old ones?

Consider that Bill Gates used his mathematics and computer science focus at Harvard University between 1973 and 1975 to eventually become one of the world’s wealthiest people. When he returned to the campus as the commencement speaker in 2007, he lamented, “I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world and the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.” By contrast, by the time King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948, Mays had ensured that he and many others were acutely aware of and focused on everything to which Gates and so many others were blind.

Unlike Harvard and other elite institutions, Morehouse and other HBCUs had deliberately enriched their graduates with a recognizable inclination to repair humanity’s brokenness. Although Gates would later reeducate himself to become a distinctive force for good in philanthropy, the campus-born difference between Gates and King is the reason why trustees need to be concerned about helping to provoke a new embrace of the common good. Ultimately, the impregnability-themed capital optimization agenda is about a better institution, and the one-humanity-themed character optimization agenda is about a better world.

Is all of this a formula for trustee overreach? No.

Instead, it is designed to correct a long tradition of governance myopia. Rather than delve into campus affairs, trustees can remain disciplined about their balcony outlook and posture, ask campus leadership the right questions, and provide and seek elevated guidance and investment for the general cause. Based in part on a long-range assessment of the track record of alumni, trustees can also get a measure of whether and how their institutions’ outcomes have already been aligned with preparing graduates to advance a one-humanity democracy. In addition, they might evaluate much of their own board performance based on those measures, as more and more of their institutions’ graduates become recognizable advancers of a fully optimized democracy. At a minimum, as they look to the future, it makes “common good sense” for trustees to carefully choose leaders whose navigational instincts are in harmony with that lofty but attainable vision. Doing so could help to ensure that the confidence they collectively hold in their presidents is sufficiently firm and flexible to withstand the crucible of any atmosphere akin to McCarthyism.

The stakes are sky high, but so are the prospects for hope and healing. And that is why the countdown is so consequential.

The four trustees redefined and fortified governance on the basis of the twin optimization of capital and character. The three outcomes not only proved Dewey’s midwifery concept but also offered a meaningfully textured answer to the education-for-democracy alarm sounded by the 1947 Truman Commission. While Meiklejohn’s two directions, aristocracy or democracy, were a stark choice for America in 1921, they appear to be a starker choice in 2024. Fortunately, not only is the organic vision of one humanity thematically consistent with the education-for-democracy narrative, but it also serves as a North Star for America’s lengthy and inconstant quest to actualize what was set down on paper so long ago.

Bystander trusteeship is negligence. It is unacceptable for boards to do nothing as the world’s great challenges become increasingly complex and lethal. Now is the time to elevate governance. Beyond keeping institutions alive, boards must embrace their duty to keep them relevant. The best perspective on relevance can be secured by gazing from the same towering balcony that has always been shared by campus and society. From there, mindful of the common good, trustees can reenvision a connection between higher education and democracy, as well as a recalibration of higher education for democracy.

John Silvanus Wilson Jr.’s 38-year career in higher education has included service as the executive director of the White House Initiative on historically Black colleges and universities and as the 11th president of Morehouse College, his alma mater. His trustee board memberships include Harvard University and Spelman College. He is the author of Hope and Healing: Black Colleges and the Future of American Democracy, released by Harvard Education Press in May 2023. He is now managing director of The Open Leadership Program in collaboration with MIT and chairman of The Open Leadership Council.


Notes

2. John Dewey, “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy,” in The Middle Works, 1899–1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 10:139.

3. See Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), especially the introduction.

4. W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, Reprint (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 27. Reprint, citation refers to the Transaction edition.

5. Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, “Renewing the Democratic Purposes of Higher Education” (Washington, DC: AGB, 2019).

6. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Tyranny of the Minority: How Democracies Die (New York: Penguin Random House, 2023), 7.

7. Alexander Meiklejohn, “What Does the College Hope to Be During the Next Hundred Years?” Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, August 1921, 336; https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/What_does_the_College_hope_to_be.pdf.

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