As the first college graduate from a sharecropping family in rural Alabama, David Wilson came to regard education as the country's most powerful agent for change.
That faith has fueled Wilson's actions throughout his steady ascent as a leader of universities. The next president of Morgan State believes in research not simply for its own sake, but as a tool to solve problems in America's struggling communities, urban and rural.
At Rutgers University, he helped to earn a community empowerment grant that spurred development in Camden, N.J. At Auburn University, he reworked the tenure program to benefit faculty who addressed community problems with their research. In Wisconsin, he beefed up degree offerings for working adults and extended 4-H programs traditionally reserved for rural communities to urban centers.
"He just lives and breathes outreach," said Renee Middleton, a former colleague at Auburn who chairs the education department at Ohio University.
Wilson, currently chancellor of the Wisconsin university system's two-year colleges and the state's extension service, hopes to do the same kind of work at Morgan.
"I think we have the basis for a nationally renowned research program that could be about connecting to some of the larger problems facing urban America," he said in an interview last week. "Morgan can be indispensable for Maryland's future and produce research that brings about real reform."
Science and technology, criminal justice and urban planning are areas ripe for such initiative, said Wilson, who will be paid $375,000 a year in his new position.
Wilson, 54, grew up in Marengo County, Ala., the youngest of 10 children living in a two-room shanty with no plumbing or electricity. His father was illiterate, and Wilson did not attend school full-time until the seventh grade because he was needed to pick okra and cotton in the fields. But he read everything he could get his hands on and caught the attention of Beatrice Jones, an elementary school teacher and the only college graduate in town. She nudged him to give readings at area churches and, from there, he drew the interest of other teachers and local leaders. They nurtured Wilson's belief that education could transform his circumstances and he went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from Tuskegee Institute and a doctorate from Harvard.
"It's an extraordinary story, a great American story," said Kevin Reilly, president of Wisconsin's university system. "He really bootstrapped himself to the highest reaches of American education and, as a result, he's able to get people very excited about education."
Wilson turned his focus to the problems of urban America as director of minority programs at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., and then as an associate provost at Rutgers' Camden campus. He lived in Philadelphia during those years and worked to gain a federal community empowerment grant for that city and Camden. He drove along the Camden waterfront recently and saw the city's aquarium, its minor league baseball stadium, its amphitheater and new condominiums, all projects aided by federal development funds.
"That was where I understood that a university could have a major role in connecting to real progress in urban areas," he said.
Then, he went home.
Despite its background as a land-grant institution, Auburn did not maintain deep connections with Alabama's desperately poor agricultural sector known as the Black Belt. President William Muse hired Wilson in 1995 to change that.
"He felt I had a kinship to the area and that I would be able to come in and establish credibility," Wilson recalled.
His broadest reform focused on the tenure and promotion policy, which had long given more credit for published research than for academic outreach to solve community problems.
"Outreach was not appreciated at the same level as research," said Middleton, then an education professor at Auburn. "David was brought on to make that happen, and he did. Everybody said they wanted it, but it took a lot of skill to get it done. He had to explain to people that this is not just going out to help the local Boys & Girls Club sell cookies."
Wilson looked for people and programs focused on reaching the places traditionally overlooked by Auburn and other universities.
He found $300,000 to jump-start a program called Rural Studio, the dream of two maverick architecture professors who were weary with seeing their affluent students become home designers for the rich and prominent. Instead, they wanted to plop these students 200 miles away in the Black Belt, where they would use indigenous materials to build homes for farmers used to living in dirt huts.
The students built homes out of recycled windshields with roofs made of old highway signs. They built a chapel out of used car tires. The program has won numerous awards in the years since.