Morehouse College and new President John S. Wilson made headlines this week, as a group of prominent Morehouse alumni decried the president’s decision to amend an invitation to a prominent alumnus to serve as the College’s Baccalaureate Ceremony speaker. At issue, an appearance by alumnus Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, which, depending on whom you believe, was either canceled or amended by Dr. Wilson shortly after an editorial penned by Dr. Johnson and critical of President Barack Obama was published in the April 14 edition of the Philadelphia Tribune Newspaper.
According to the Citizens for Change, the alumni are demanding the restoration of Dr. Johnson’s invitation to be the college’s sole Baccalaureate speaker, or risk the dismantling of the institutional legacy of free speech, political diversity and cultural critique built by prominent alumni like Dr. Marting Luther King Jr. From the release:
“If the goal here is to subject potential speakers to an ideological litmus test as a precondition for speaking during this historic weekend at Morehouse, the college administration should have done its due diligence in thoroughly vetting the potential speaker in advance of extending the invitation. Dr. Johnson represents the best of the Morehouse tradition and the best of engaged political support of President Obama, even if at times critical of the President. Whether one agrees with Johnson or not, the coalition of Obama supporters consists of people with varying viewpoints, and of varying points of agreement and disagreement with the Obama Administration. Punishing the expression of political dissent is the wrong message to send young African-American men charged with being global citizens in a diverse world.”
The Morehouse president responded shortly afterwards. From the open letter:
“In brief, I extended an invitation to a distinguished alumnus to speak at our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I subsequently made a decision to adjust the format of the Baccalaureate program and opted for a more creative, multi-speaker approach that is used by many leading institutions. This sharing of the stage comports with the spirit of upholding democratic ideals, including freedom of speech and expression, and is entirely consistent with the spirit of camaraderie that Morehouse holds dear.”
By his own words, Dr. Wilson either proves to be the world’s most ineffective planner and manager of personalities, or the world’s worst liar. He invites an alumnus to speak at the college’s most important commencement weekend since the graduation of Dr. King, only to decide after the fact by way of epiphany that the ceremony format the college has observed for generations is now not creative enough or in keeping with what other leading institutions do.
Most supporters would take pause at the sentiment from a Morehouse graduate and president that the college’s Baccalaureate traditions, among the most revered and beautifully orchestrated among all historically black colleges, aren’t good enough or in step with other leading institutions. But that pause could only come if they were naïve enough to believe that Dr. Wilson, a former Obama appointee, suddenly changed the Baccalaureate program to merely create a new way of doing business, and not as a measure to protect the Morehouse brand from a well-known Obama critic on the weekend of the US president’s appearance on the campus.
It is the kind of episode that could cause Team Obama to rethink the president’s invitation to Morehouse; after all, why would a president with a PR problem with Black America seek to heal it at an HBCU with this much infighting with its leadership?
Dr. Wilson’s talking point since arriving at Morehouse has been for the college and its supporters to separate the ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio; that is, to find points of pride in the college while diffusing and ignoring the qualms and concerns of outsiders. As good as that line may sound and for as much as the college may have paid for its development by way of a PR firm, it does not diminish the reality that most of the ‘noise’ has historically come from within the college’s own esteemed alumni ranks, and this case is no different.
The only difference with this latest Morehouse headline, is that the signal we all expected Dr. Wilson to broadcast has finally blared for the nation to hear. It is the sound of Dr. Wilson’s critical miscalculation of his own influence, leadership acumen and authority that has caused embarrassment for the college, and should cause examination of his ability to lead it.