Q&A: John Silvanus Wilson

Marjorie Malpiede / January 13, 2020

Discussing diversity and inclusion with the president of Harvard University’s senior adviser and strategist

This past October, Harvard University won a closely-watched lawsuit that kept at bay an effort to overturn affirmative action in higher education, making Harvard a standard bearer once again.

As the leader in charge of the school’s diversity and inclusion agenda, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson is hoping to utilize Harvard’s precedent-setting abilities to create a national model for “sustainable inclusive excellence” – the term Harvard uses to describe a culture where each member of a diverse campus community is thriving, thus improving the whole.

Wilson’s approach to creating a greater sense of inclusion and belonging at Harvard begins with his work to fulfill the recommendations of a Task Force appointed by former president Drew Faust. Those recommendations form the foundation of a larger inclusion and belonging agenda that has been eagerly embraced by current president Larry Bacow.

Hearing Wilson describe what it takes to achieve “sustainable inclusive excellence,” it is clear he gets it like few others can. As the former president of Morehouse College and an alum of the school, Wilson recounts a college environment of mutual respect and high expectations, absent the “othering” that can complicate or compromise the living and learning experiences of minority groups at majority institutions. As an African American scholar who also attended Harvard, Wilson has experienced the stress and distraction that comes from struggling to find a sense of belonging.

Wilson sees this quest for authentic inclusion at Harvard as one of the greatest roles of his career. He calls Harvard’s seriousness about becoming a place of acceptance a “Dr. King moment,” alluding to King’s “Beloved Community.” But Wilson is candid about the magnitude of achieving the full transformation of an institution that, until the late 20th century, was the epitome of white privilege.

In September, the Mary Christie Foundation spoke with Dr. Wilson at his office in Harvard Square.

Mary Christie Foundation:
How did you come to this role?
JSW: When I left the president’s office at Morehouse, Drew Faust [then-president of Harvard] invited me to be a President in Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I had earned two degrees.

While I was there in the fall 2017, busy writing a book about the future of black colleges, she asked me to review the report from the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging called “Pursuing Excellence on a Foundation of Inclusion.” She hoped I’d lead the charge in implementing it, but the first thing I thought was, “this sounds like the standard approach to that stereotypical “diversity guy” on majority campuses…and that’s just not me!

I know what the diversity person in a predominantly white institution does and I never held any interest in being that person. But then I had several deeper conversations with her, and I read the report again and I began to think, “this is actually not that cookie-cutter syndrome – instead, it could be something really different and powerful.”

One line in the report really struck me— “The intellectual fruits of diversity do not harvest themselves.” In other words, this goes well beyond the conventional quantitative dimension of these jobs – it is not just about admitting more students and hiring more faculty and staff of color—it’s about fundamentally changing and enriching the institutional culture so you can reap the full benefits of the diversity you are steadily building and stabilizing.

That’s the key to “sustainable inclusive excellence.”

MCF: How does your work here fit in with Harvard’s history in this area? What’s different?
JSW: President Larry Bacow talks about “true excellence.” He says, “you can’t get true excellence by sampling from a small fraction of the human talent.” For years at Harvard there was a sameness. The people who sat in the classroom to learn looked the same as the people who stood in the classroom to teach, and largely the same as the people who worked to manage and improve the environment around the classrooms. That means for roughly 3.5 centuries Harvard sampled from a small fraction of the human talent.

I’ll put it in terms of my own story. When I arrived at Harvard for graduate school in 1979, the student body was less than 10 percent diverse. The tenured faculty was 99 percent white male. And there was this tiny, “wannabe” division called the division of Afro-American studies.

The Harvard I returned to, first as an Overseer and now as a senior staff member, is one where half of the deans are of color, women, or both. And we just admitted the second incoming class that is predominantly minority.

The tenured faculty is now 41 percent women or of color, and that tiny division with just a few courses has grown into the number one African and African-American studies department in the world! That is progress!

Harvard is better because women are now here. Harvard is better because people of color are now here. Harvard is better because people from the LGBTQ community and other communities of difference can now be here and feel more and more like they belong, and that’s the key.

The progress that was made on the quantitative side was great, but for years, Harvard only emphasized the quantitative side of our required progress. This report serves as a kind of blueprint for making a shift from the quantitative to the qualitative.

The goal is to retain all the things Harvard is known for—excellence in all ways, especially in teaching and discovery— but to get much better at seeing what new and exciting imagining and creativity can flourish, now that we are well beyond the centuries-old sameness.

MCF: That’s hard work. How are you going about it?
JSW: It is hard work, and its pioneering work because no one – no college, university or company - has gotten this right. One of our initial goals was to get some hard, baseline data on how people are feeling about the Harvard experience – getting beyond the anecdotal testimonials, that is.

Last spring, we issued the Pilot Pulse Survey on inclusion and belonging. “10 questions. 3 minutes. Your voice.” Since we knew not everyone was feeling included, we wanted to gather more precise data on the depth and nature of the challenge to fix it. (See “Pilot Pulse Survey” sidebar.)

Beside the baseline data coming from the community, the president asked each of the schools and major administrative units to create and submit a strategic plan for how they are going to pursue excellence on a foundation of inclusion. The schools and units have also identified a point person who is accountable for steering their efforts, and each of them will be members of a new council to be regularly convened by the president’s office.

We are also doing what Harvard does best—we’ve created a Harvard Culture Lab that incubates ideas on how to increase a sense of inclusion and belonging on campus.

We just funded a new classroom innovation called “Teachly,” which we hope to eventually scale university-wide. It is a mix of technology and psychology, in that it gives professors a sense of their own bias, which is often hard for people to identify, understand or remedy.

It can detect patterns of bias—like consistently calling on single student profiles—before these become reputational problems.

Another example is a new technology called “This is How You Say My Name,” which addresses a seemingly small but enormously important issue which tends to complicate the Harvard experiences of people from different cultures.
It is built into the Harvard directory now and allows professors to hear the correct pronunciation of students’ first and last names.

It is incredibly powerful. Think about it. When you say someone’s name correctly the first time, you exhibit respect and immediately remove a barrier, and maybe also send a not-so-subtle signal of belonging as well.

MCF: What have been your own experiences with inclusion and belonging and how has that shaped your work at Harvard?
JSW: The four years I spent as a student at Morehouse was so liberating for me, because I didn’t have all of the distractions that go along with being “othered.” That had been my high school experience in a predominantly white Philadelphia suburb, where I had to deal with the hassles of doubt, marginality, rejection and even hostility.

We now call it the “bandwidth tax”—worrying about whether you belong, whether you are accepted socially, worrying about a teachers’ low expectations of you. These tend to draw down on the mental bandwidth we all have available to us to perform and succeed.

At Morehouse, I had a name. I had an identity. The people who were looking at me believed in me. They didn’t have low expectations—they had sky-high expectations.

I didn’t feel that way when I first came to Harvard. When the culture has been dominated by privilege, whiteness and maleness, there’s a lot of “othering” still going on.

It is my dream to help ensure that Harvard becomes a place where people of whatever background or identity can thrive here just as I did at Morehouse.

It sounds like a lot of this has to do with mental health. Is that a part of your agenda?
JSW: Absolutely. The feeling of not belonging has enormous mental health consequences for students.
In looking at the well-being of the community, you need to support the wellbeing of the individual, so at the heart of the report is a whole section on mental health.

We have to understand and tend to the wellbeing of people of difference, and we need to make sure that our support services are equipped to do that.

MCF: What about the affirmative action lawsuit? What does this mean for what we’ve been talking about today?
JSW: In and of itself, this is a victory for Harvard, higher education and all of America. Putting together a class is a difficult thing to do and we, like all educational institutions, are imperfect at it. But that said, not only did the judge rule that we passed constitutional muster, she saw the larger societal value of what we are trying to do here.

The law allows us to have race and other personal considerations factored in and that is very important to us.

In order to pursue excellence on a foundation of inclusion, you have to have first pursued it on a foundation of diversity.

You have to have different people from different backgrounds in the environment in the first place before you can harvest that diversity.

MCF: Do you see this as sort of a crescendo to your life’s work? (Not that you’re anywhere near retiring.)
JSW: I believe if we get this right, or when we get this right, our approach to sustainable inclusive excellence will be a model, not just for colleges and universities but it will be a model for the nation and the world in which we live.

The work really boils down to meeting the familiar challenge of moving toward the kind of beloved community emphasized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like him, we are seeking ways to emphasize character over color and compassion over conflict, all while preserving and enhancing our trademark excellence. So, we have a King-like agenda here at Harvard.
But more than a crescendo for my life’s work, we are looking for this to be a crescendo for the life and work of Harvard University.

And consider that Harvard’s original Charter of 1650 called for “the education of the English and Indian [male] youth of this country,” a fact of history which means our current work to further plant and harvest diversity is a long-overdue quest to finally handle our unfinished business.

So, like a “final frontier,” realizing sustainable inclusive excellence is pursuant to Harvard University’s full maturity as a first-rate institution, able to both reflect the world as we educate leaders to enhance it.