Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., Senior Advisor and Strategist to the President at Harvard University, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Nilagia McCoy/Harvard Chan School)

Culture Change, Flourishing, and Thriving: On Inclusive Excellence At and Beyond Harvard with John Wilson

By Sherine Andreine Powerful

In April 2018, a Black Harvard undergraduate student was punched, tackled, and arrested by Cambridge Police Department officers. This criminalization of a student clearly in distress awoke and outraged the Harvard community. In efforts to address growing concerns over diversity and inclusion, Drew Faust, Harvard’s 28th president, brought on Dr. John Silvanus Wilson to assist the Presidential Taskforce on Inclusion and Belonging. Given his stellar track record in higher education, Wilson was assigned a massive undertaking: addressing the problematic status quo at Harvard, especially regarding the health and wellbeing of students. As he put it:

“A disproportionately high number of people are not able to flourish as much as they should.”

At colleges and universities nationwide, many of which were built upon white supremacist, patriarchal, and heteronormative values, recent protests for equity and justice have highlighted that institutions of higher learning were created by, and for, cisgender heterosexual white men. Students who do not fit into this group need institutional infrastructures and other necessary supports to enable them to thrive. And it is critical these supports are steeped in analyses and consciousness that speak to the past and current lived experiences of excluded communities. Without these vital supports, universities effectively prevent people from oppressed identities from flourishing.

Thankfully, Dr. Wilson is determined to bolster diversity and inclusion at Harvard — and has the experience to do so. Prior to his current role as Senior Advisor and Strategist to the President, he served as the 11th president of Morehouse College, one of the nation’s premier historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). During his tenure, he was instrumental in increasing applications, enrollment, and the school’s graduation rate. Dr. Wilson also served during President Barack Obama’s administration as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, where he advocated for institutional capacity building. A graduate of Morehouse College, Harvard Divinity School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Wilson clearly understands the university landscape from the administration, professional, and student vantage points.

The Voices in Leadership series was thrilled to welcome Dr. Wilson on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, for a discussion on inclusive excellence at and beyond Harvard. Interviewed by Dr. Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Dr. Wilson spoke to lessons that predominantly and historically white institutions (PHWIs) such as Harvard can learn from historically Black institutions like Morehouse, and the challenging steps ahead for inclusion and belonging at our school.

Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., Senior Advisor and Strategist to the President at Harvard University (Right), was interviewed by Dr. Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health (Left). (Photo by Nilagia McCoy/Harvard Chan School)

Culture Change

Dr. Wilson’s charge from the Presidential Taskforce on Inclusion and Belonging is an ambitious one, and he believes initial success will be behind the scenes, as culture change generally tends to take longer than expected:

“Harvard is 382 years old, and for most of that time — for 340 of the 382 years — it has been basically catering to one audience: The privileged sons of the New England aristocracy, early on, and then other white males for most of the time.”

Now that the institution has opened its doors to people of all backgrounds, culture change efforts will require retrofitting supports for matriculating students.

With this history in mind, Dr. Wilson shared his team’s first priority:

“Our task is to try to put in place in the initial set of years, some initiatives, some new infrastructure, some scaffolding, to try to change a culture that has been in formation for 382 years.”

But Dr. Wilson admitted he is not intimidated by the weight and significance of this endeavor. It was affirming to hear Dr. Wilson speak truth to Harvard’s exclusionary history, and to acknowledge that its entrenched cultural values will take tremendous time and effort to change — especially as the representation of different identities within the Harvard community continues to grow.

Watch Dr. Wilson’s full talk for the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Character Preeminence vs. Capital Preeminence

Following Dr. Wilson’s discussion on maximizing the Harvard experience for all students, Dr. Sara Bleich questioned him about the lessons that Harvard as a PHWI can learn from Morehouse as an HBCU. Dr. Wilson centered his response on his alma mater’s intentional establishment specifically for its students, Black men. Throughout his studies there, he said, Morehouse felt like a place where he belonged — where people knew his name and background on the very first day. It provided a “psychologically wholesome” experience for students and challenged them to be forces for good in the world.

Dr. Wilson confidently referenced Mark Twain to summarize his experience at Morehouse:

“‘The two most important days in your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.’ And for me at Morehouse, I had my second day — I found out why I was born.”

Citing his extraordinary undergraduate experience and the personal insight it provided him, Dr. Wilson said he hopes Harvard will emulate the lifetime institutional investment he and his peers received at the premier HBCU. Dr. Wilson defined these aspects of Morehouse as “character preeminence,” and contrasted it with Harvard’s “capital preeminence” — the sprawling campus, huge endowment, and well-paid faculty members.

As president of Morehouse, he wanted to bring capital preeminence to the institution to complement its character preeminence. At Harvard, he hopes to do the reverse. With leadership on board, Dr. Wilson and his team plan to implement an annual survey that, coupled with strategic planning, will “give us the combination of things we need to begin to make change throughout Harvard.”

This discussion of character preeminence vs. capital preeminence reflects a common conflict that many of today’s students face when deciding on which schools to attend. Should a student select an institution with character preeminence, and prioritize their health and capacity to flourish in an environment that honors their identity in a multicultural society? Or should they choose a school that has the money and resources for what is deemed an “elite” education, where they may lack the social support and infrastructure to thrive? Of course, these scenarios are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the realities are still valid. Students should not limit themselves by believing it is enough just to survive at institutions that were not created for them.

Student Moderator Saadia Sediqzadah (Left) leading an off-the-record Q&A session with Dr. Wilson (Right) after his talk. (Photo by Nilagia McCoy / Harvard Chan School)

Getting to Flourishing and Thriving

Returning to the issue of health and wellbeing, Dr. Bleich posed a question to Dr. Wilson about the relationship between inclusion and happiness, or lack thereof. Dr. Wilson mentioned the Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment (AWARE), a mental health initiative that launched this fall with goals of addressing the needs of Asian-American women on college campuses. Dr. Wilson applauded AWARE and its unique programming approaches, which highlights the considerations universities must make to ensure all students have the opportunity to prosper. For him, it is important to consider how Harvard can adjust the educational experience to get more people to flourish, to thrive, and to do their best work.

Here at Harvard Chan, we too want our school to feel like a place where all students can move from just surviving, to flourishing and thriving. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) lounge, curated by our school’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Fellows, acts as a space where students of all sexualities, a/genders, races/ethnicities, religions, nationalities, etc. can be ourselves, and celebrate our identities. The lounge and ODI serve crucial roles — providing a space where we can rant about, push back against, and organize around the oppression of said identities on the micro and macro scales, while providing programming to support the entire school community.

I can only speak for myself, but I imagine that my peers would agree this helps Chan feel a little more like home. I imagine that we feel a little happier and settled when in community with one another, that we feel a little more seen, that we feel a little more like we belong. While there is still so much more to be done, these aspects of the university experience are what I imagine Dr. Wilson hopes to substantiate throughout all of Harvard.

Progress and Greatness Ahead

Dr. Wilson shared his honest conviction that greatness at Harvard is yet to come:

“Harvard University was not at its best when it was excluding people for most of the 400 years we’ve been here.”

He believes that at the moment, it is not a premier institution with regards to diversity and inclusion. But he is confident we are on the right path:

“I believe that the pathway we’ve been on for the last 40 or 50 years is in the direction of progress. The final challenge we have is to ensure that we harvest the intellectual fruits of the diversity we now have. Because the intellectual fruits of diversity do not harvest themselves.”

We very much look forward to Dr. Wilson melding diversity and inclusion initiatives with equity and justice efforts to create a Harvard environment in which each community member truly feels they belong. And we hope that he feels he can flourish and thrive here, too!

Story by Sherine Andreine Powerful, a Doctor of Public Health Candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University. If you can catch her, you’ll probably find her obsessing over the color turquoise, gorging on dark chocolate-covered pineapples, or plotting on her next Carnival/Masquerade/J’ouvert experience.

Story edited by Justin Kaplan, Managing Editor of the Voices in Leadership student blog and a second year student in the Master of Public Health program in Health and Social Behavior at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.



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Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices