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Be audacious. Take the challenge. Do the right thing.

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Morgan State President David Wilson describes building a research institution that fulfills an access mission. 

Morgan State University President David Wilson was recently at a meeting on STEM learning when a chemist from a large national corporation rose to speak. 

Wilson was pleased — but not surprised — to learn she was a Morgan State graduate. She recalled her first chemistry course, where she struggled so much she was about to switch majors.

But the chair of the chemistry department at that time, Alvin Kennedy, instead asked her to be his research assistant. When she said she couldn’t do that, Kennedy told her, “No, you don’t understand how brilliant you are.” That assistantship put the graduate on the path to a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon and corporate success. 

Wilson — recipient of the 2023 Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education for Higher Education — told the story during the McGraw Prize 2024 webinar series, hosted by Catalyst @ Penn GSE. In his conversation with Penn GSE professor Julie Wollman, Wilson described how Morgan State has grown and transformed into a research institution during his 14-year tenure. 

Crucially, Wilson said the Historically Black University has not moved away from its founding mission to be “a caring institution, a belonging institution, an institution that was absolutely committed to quality teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level.” It will remain a place where students who don’t yet believe in themselves can discover their brilliance. 

Innovative programs to support student success have seen Morgan State’s graduation rate rise by 60 percent under Wilson. 

“We don’t want to lose sight of the resilience of our ancestors. And so our future is one where we want to be committed to this dual mission,” Wilson said. “When we get to R1 … we will not abandon those students who have come to Morgan to move into the middle class in this country.” 

Morgan State’s mission also makes it a different type of research institution. 

“Our research at Morgan, in my view, must focus disproportionately on issues of equity and inequity, justice and injustice, fairness, and all of those things associated with marginalized populations, urban centers, that is being true to our soul,” Wilson said. “And our soul is understanding, if you will, that you were audacious, that you didn’t run away from challenges, that you were all about doing the right thing.” 

Watch the full webinar here.