Morgan State University hails as the number one university in producing African-American electrical, civil, and industrial engineers. As the 12th president of the university, Dr. David Wilson continues to lead the institution to greater heights in STEM advancement, outreach, and innovation.
With over 30 years in higher education, Dr. Wilson brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his campus and beyond. He received a B.S. in political science and an M.S. in education from Tuskegee University. He also received an Ed.M. in educational planning and administration and an Ed.D. in administration, planning, and social policy, both from Harvard University.
Dr. Wilson was appointed to President Obama’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 2010 and serves on a host of boards and councils in the state of Maryland, including the Maryland Humanities Council, the P-20 Leadership Council of Maryland, and the Governing Board of the Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center.
Dr. Wilson has created an atmosphere of forward-thinking support and strategic development for STEM opportunities at Morgan State. We had an opportunity to speak with him about the importance of fostering, growing, and maintaining STEM programs at colleges and universities.
USBE: Why are STEM programs important to universities like Morgan State?
Dr. Wilson: It is critically important for places like Morgan State and other HBCUs to encourage, enroll, support, and graduate more students who are prepared to be the innovators of this country. That is very important given the shifting demographics we are seeing coming our way. In a few short years, the United States population for the very first time will be majority non-white. If we are not paying close attention to the pockets of the population that are growing and will be in the majority, we can find ourselves as a country in 25-30 years not having a significant number of the majority population in a position to be our astronauts, scientists, and engineers and to come forward with the inventions that are necessary to keep America strong and competitive.
USBE: Based on your experiences at Morgan and other major universities across the country, what is the state of STEM advancement with respect to higher education overall and, more specifically, with respect to HBCUs in 2016?
Dr. Wilson: My career has spanned some of the top institutions in the country. I have a pretty good sense of what is taking place on those campuses and what is taking place here at Morgan. I have to say that I have seen more talent in the African-American students in the seven years that I’ve been at Morgan than I have seen in those 25 years that I’ve spent someplace else. The students who come here are supported by a faculty that truly believes in them.
I heard a former HBCU president say it best: When places like Morgan State and other HBCUs accept students in STEM fields, we accept that they are good. We assume that they can be successful. Our role is to support that. Our role is to make sure that light bulb is continually shining brightly. On some of the other campuses, the opposite could be true. If students who are people of color show up as STEM majors, the perception, intended or not, might be that they are NOT up to snuff-and they have to prove that they are. Consequently, those students can start out with a level of doubt. Once they run up against their first hurdle, they switch majors to something else because that doubt has been confirmed, and their brilliance is not being affirmed. At Morgan, if they run up against an obstacle, professors immediately jump in, provide them the support and nurturing that they need, and convince them that they can get over this bump and over that hurdle.
What I’m seeing now in terms of the state of STEM across higher education is that too many Black students are stumbling in these fields at institutions that have not perfected a culture of support. As a result, unfortunately, these students turn their backs on the fields. What we have to do at HBCUs is to say to some of those institutions, “We really have perfected a culture in terms of how you can take students in STEM fields and imbue them with the preparation that they need to do so, in a way that will enable them to not just get their baccalaureate degrees but to go on and compete at the very highest levels in master’s programs and Ph.D. programs in some of the more elite institutions in the country.” That’s what I’m hearing the traditionally white institutions right now are struggling to incorporate on their campuses-a culture that is similar to the culture that exists on HBCU campuses. They could learn a great deal about the cultures that we have established on these campuses over decades that churn out some of the top scientists, engineers, and innovators in this country-and must continue to do so if we are going to make an appreciable dent in producing graduates who are Black in STEM fields going forward.
USBE: That sounds like something that is inherent at HBCUs but would almost seem impossible at other universities. Is there a way for other universities to do that, or is that something that is intrinsically part of the experience with HBCU STEM programs?
Dr. Wilson: think it takes a long period of time to bend the cultural arc. What I’ve learned as a result of my tenure here at Morgan is that it really starts with leadership. It starts with deans of these schools that actually believe in the work that they’re doing, that believe they can take students where they are and turn them into world-class scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers. Then that leadership has to go out and recruit a faculty that is very well-educated, very well-equipped in understanding the nexus between the practical side of the science and engineering industry and the academic side. They have to really get the mission of the institution, and they have to have that mission in their guts. They have to feel that, and they have to get a lot of enjoyment in working with students in this space.
Over a period of time, that’s how the culture on the campuses is directed.
When you look at places like Morgan, North Carolina A&T, Tuskegee, and Howard, those institutions are leading the nation in the production of Black engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists. It is because that leadership [at those institutions] has been in place, and that leadership has recruited faculty who believe in the work that they’re doing. As a result, it’s almost as if, as one of our graduates at Morgan said at one of the convocations, we love you to success. That’s what I’m talking about. The leadership recruits the right type of faculty member who is going to challenge the students, support them, and put in place networks and support systems to ensure their success. That’s the kind of thing that leads to “loving students to success” and supporting students to success. That is built up over time; it cannot happen overnight.
USBE: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in building STEM programs and opportunities at Morgan?
Dr. Wilson: Funding is always a challenge. I think one of the things that I’ve been absolutely struck by here at Morgan is the ability of the institution and the faculty, staff, and deans of the various schools to be so prolific in producing top-flight graduates on a shoestring budget. I think there are so many HBCUs that are doing this work very impressively. Every survey that I see from the NSF (National Science Foundation) or some of the other surveys we could look at when you look at the top 10 institutions producing the most graduates in STEM fields year in and year out, almost all of them are HBCUs. So we’re doing a lot of things right. It’s just that we could do even more of those things if we had more resources.
We are making a case more and more to federal agencies to invest more in institutions that are disproportionately producing Black STEM graduates. We are enjoying some success. We just received a $23 million grant from NIH over five years. Through that grant, we are training a cadre of Black students in the biosciences. We are giving them research experiences; we are partnering them with professors, and they are working with them in the laboratories. We are giving students small grants, and they are able to come up with their own research design to conduct their own research based on what is of interest to them. They are then charged with presenting the results of that research to a national panel of experts. That takes money. So the more places like NIH, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education understand that these types of investments in places like Morgan and other HBCUs are critical because they return dividends five or six times more than the investment, I think the better off we will be in seeing more of our graduates coming out of our institutions in these fields.
USBE: What sort of collaborative opportunities to advance STEM innovation do HBCU presidents explore?
Dr. Wilson: At Morgan, we are now building expertise around security and the Internet of Things. This is a growing field. According to a recent report, in five years, every person in the United States will have 1,000 sensors connected to them through their cell phones. They will be able to do almost everything with their cell phones. If you multiply that times the seven billion people in the world, you’re talking about seven trillion sensors. I think there’s a great opportunity for Morgan and other institutions to recognize this as the future and then to collaborate with other research institutions to build an expertise in this area. Also, I think we have to be on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence.
This is the direction that the world is going, that the nation is going. We have to make sure that we are at the forefront of that and collaborate with other institutions, federal agencies, and the private sector to garner the support needed to build research expertise in this area and to have our students working in cutting-edge laboratories in this field so we can churn out on a continuing basis the talent in these fields that will shape the very way human interaction is taking place in the next 25-50 years.
USBE: How do you plan to increase opportunities for students to get hands-on experience and to promote inclusion in the technology sector?
Dr. Wilson: We are vigorously promoting internships for our students. We place quite a few of our students in internships. Our goal is to double and triple that. I was recently on a panel at the Push Tech 2020 Summit, and in the room were representatives from many of the Silicon Valley firms: Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. We had some pretty vigorous discussions around this question. Basically, what we (Morgan, Morehouse, Tennessee State, and Bowie) were saying is, if you’re not looking at all of the institutions for talent, then you’re not going to get the best talent. You’re not going to have the most innovative workforce.
You need to open up your doors to enable students from HBCUs to come in and do internships and begin to stitch together the classroom experiences that they’re having on our campuses with the type of culture and innovation that is existing within companies like those in Silicon Valley. We explained that if you expose students to the culture of those companies while they are in school, then that is no longer a mystery to them. We assume that they have the knowledge to come up with creative ideas for a position in the company going forward, but we also need to demystify the culture of the company. I think it is critically important for our students to understand the ecosystems that exist in some of these companies that are giving rise to the type of innovation that we see. I am hopeful that as a result of the issues that we are raising now with the technology sector, we will begin to see that sector look again at our institutions more and more, understanding that they are good resources that they are currently underutilizing.