David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, says the protests in Baltimore, following the death of Freddie Gray, gave the institution an opportunity to help the city heal.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Hi, I'm Eric Kelderman, a senior reporter here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. We're here today talking to David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University, a historically black college located just north of the City of Baltimore. Welcome, Dr. Wilson, to The Chronicle.
DR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you very much, Eric, for having me here.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. Today, as you know, begins the trial of one of the six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a man who died while in custody of police in Baltimore. It was an event that sparked very widespread protests around the city. Those were covered nationally by the media.
I'd like to hear from you about how those events had an impact on your campus, your students, your faculty, maybe even incoming students and the parents of those students.
DR. DAVID WILSON: OK. Look, you know, first of all, our thoughts always go to the family of the late Freddie Gray, and our students, and the Morgan State University community. We always keep that in mind.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure.
DR. DAVID WILSON: But when those events actually commenced to unfold in April, needless to say, we were all at the edge of our seats, because we quite didn't know what was going to happen. So as I recall, about two or three hours before the protests that the nation saw on television, I was on conference call with the mayor, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She had called a conference call to brief the university presidents on what the police were picking up, and how we should actually take that information to make sure that our campuses were prepared.
But I think, then, what happened about three hours later or so was not what we thought would happen.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure.
DR. DAVID WILSON: And so, as we looked at the televisions later on in the evening, and we saw all those young people who had been let out of school, and they were gathering around the Mondawmin Mall, and basically looting, and breaking into stores, and being uncontrollable, in terms of their behaviors. I think all of us then began to wonder, well, what impact will this have on my university as these images actually make their way around the United States, and indeed, around the world? And so, it didn't take long for my office to get phone calls from parents and from students who had indicated a desire to come to Morgan. And they were wanting to know what's going on in Baltimore, and what is Morgan going to do to allay any concerns that we have about whether we should even come to your university?
So immediately, we went into a mode of communicating with our own university community, communicating with the wider community about where we were in the City of Baltimore, about where the riots were taking place in the city, and basically letting them know that this was contained to a certain area of the city, and they were not happening, if you will, where the university was located. However, my students at Morgan, they were very, very active during this period. So Morgan has a very illustrious history of student involvement in movements about equal rights and about justice. Indeed, the first college sit-in movement in America occurred on the Morgan campus.
And so, when this happened, immediately our students gathered in mass numbers, and they blocked an intersection there on the campus, if you will. They were outraged. And this was a way for them to show their support —
ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure.
DR. DAVID WILSON: — what was happening there. Then, the students then made their way down to what we call "ground zero" in Baltimore.
ERIC KELDERMAN: OK.
DR. DAVID WILSON: And they didn't just go down to see what was happening. I mean, they went down because, as these images were unfolding on television, some of those images were of children who simply were trying to get home. And the buses were not running, and there was no mode of transportation to get them home. And so, our students went down and they served as escorts to these young people, who were just simply wanting to get out of that mess.
And so I was very, very proud of the way that our students comported themselves. And then the next day, and in the couple days that followed, our students once again took note of some of the destruction that had taken place in some of the neighborhoods, and said, you know, this is time now for us to go and assist in cleaning up our city. And so they went down once again, in record numbers, to participate in a massive cleanup movement throughout the city.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Excellent. Can you talk a little bit about, sort of, what you personally learned from these events, and how it impacted, I guess, your leadership, your leadership style, how you interacted with your cabinet and staff?
DR. DAVID WILSON: Well, what I learned was that, over a period of time, you really need to listen to individuals who have been affected by policies that have been made. And some of those policies, perhaps, were made with good intention. But they served, if you will, to further marginalize neighborhoods, marginalize communities, and it seemed that, along the way, from the perspectives of these neighborhoods and these communities in and around Baltimore, no one had really heard them.
And so, the discussions that we were having in the cabinet was around the power of listening, and the power of knowing that sometimes universities don't have the answers. You have to go into the neighborhoods and you have to have genuine conversations with the neighborhoods and ask the neighbors, if you will, what are the solutions? Because these are the individuals who are living these kinds of challenges every single day.
And so, it seems that in Baltimore and in other cities around the country, there's this breakdown of universities, or even elected officials, and public policy on the one hand, who kind of want to do good and basically bringing to neighborhoods what they see is the recipe, without any kind of input at all from those neighborhoods. And so, that was the first piece that we learned. The second was, you have to communicate, communicate, communicate, and communicate. And in the absence of communication, people kind of fill this space with a lot of things that are not necessarily accurate. And given social media and the way it proliferates, once you kind of come up with something that is inaccurate and you put it on social media, it's very, very hard to correct it.
And so, I then commenced to communicate with the university community every single day, updating them, letting them know what was going on in the city, sending out daily e-mails and the like, getting responses, responding to those responses. Sometimes, I was practically up 20, 21 hours a day, just to make sure that I was fully aware and fully informed so I can inform the university community.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Right. The possibility exists, as these trials go forward, that there is going to be more protest over the outcome, depending on what that is. Does the university now sort of have a plan in place based on your previous experience?
DR. DAVID WILSON: Yes. And so I do meet with our officials at the university, the executive director of public safety, our university police, the cabinet, the faculty, the students. We have ongoing conversations about our values at the university.
First of all, this morning, before I came here, I sent out an e-mail to the campus, basically saying, today starts the jury-selection process in the first case involving the untimely death of Freddie Gray. And just remember, as we see what is about to unfold, that I hope we use this as an opportunity to talk about racism, and classism, and discrimination, and policing within the African-American community. Because what we've seen over the last couple years or so are far too many incidents where young black men are losing their lives.
And so we put in front of the university community, always, these are our values. This is what we embrace here at Morgan. And certainly, we encourage our students to be true to the great history of Morgan, and to participate in civil disobedience, but to always do so in a respectful manner.
ERIC KELDERMAN: Very good. Thank you very much for coming in, Dr. Wilson. We appreciate your time today.
DR. DAVID WILSON: It was a pleasure being here.