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Dr. Walter Massey

Dr. Walter Massey:President, Morehouse College

By Gillian Granoff

Diversity begins at home, according to Dr. Walter Massey, the President of Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black college, with prestigious graduates such as Martin Luther
King. For a former physicist, being at the helm is not an exact science. Dr. Massey defines leadership as having a vision and
a goal and the strength and conviction to be able to share them with others. This includes having the commitment
and fortitude do the things that are required even in difficult circumstances. Dr. Massey applies this philosophy with a commitment to individualism and a respect for race. His incredible down to earth and open nature have made him a natural success at being a leader, witnessed by his more than twenty honorary doctorates and awards for excellence in teaching.

Growing up in racially segregated Mississippi, Walter Massey did not begin his career with aspirations to become a college president. His proclivity for science led him to a career as a physicist. Massey achieved success at the University of Chicago as President of the prestigious Argon Laboratories. The turning point in his career came when he assumed a faculty position at the University of Illinois, Urbana. The offer to join the faculty of University of Illinois in 1968 coincided with the movement to integrate American Americans into higher education. An increase in the number of African American students being admitted to Illinois placed Dr. Massey in the unique position of serving as a role model and advisor to these new incoming students. This almost accidental career move motivated his desire to work with students and planted seeds for a career in academics. Dr. Massey humbly attributes his success to being in the right place at the right time.

Dr. Massey went on to become a professor and later an administrator at Brown University, a Vice President at the University of Chicago, and a Provost at the University of California school system. His decision to accept the presidency of Morehouse, his Alma Mater, was influenced by Massey’s own desire to give back to the African American community. At the helm of Morehouse for nine years, Dr. Massey has sought to instill in his students an appreciation for their heritage. He believes connecting them with their roots will make them stronger and more confident to address the challenges in a diverse world. “The students leave with a sense of confidence and pride in themselves which allows them to go out and interact with people of all backgrounds because they have a sense of who they are.” For Dr. Massey, diversity starts with learning to appreciate the unique nature of individuals, which, Dr. Massey believes, will help his students to respect racial and gender differences as well. “When you learn to understand and appreciate differences among individual people, you learn to deal with racial, gender and other diversity issues.”

Dr. Massey underscores the diverse student body at Morehouse. “Our students come from all over the country, from different socio-economic groups. We have a large international contingent. From the outside this may look like a homogenous community but these students are a very varied group.”

Though clearly committed to the growth of the African American community, Dr. Massey’s vision is not colored strictly by race. His firm belief in individualism has influenced his vision for Morehouse. His goal is to make Morehouse competitive academically with the most elite universities in the country.

Since arriving at the university he has come closer to achieving this goal. He has improved the quality of student and faculty recruitment, enhanced the college’s fundraising capabilities, and improved the college’s reputation, by making Morehouse one of the leading undergraduate institutions in the nation and the number one African American college.

One of the challenges Morehouse faces as a small, undergraduate and predominately African American institution is in the area of financial resources. Morehouse’s small endowment has limited its ability to expand. “Being a historically black college, there are certain traditions that you want to keep in mind whenever you’re planning for the future.” Massey discussed the challenge of historically black colleges, many under mandates to become more diverse, and those like Morehouse whose goal is to maintain roots in the black community and to be faithful to the traditions while becoming competitive with most schools in the country. He hesitates to overstate the distinctions between historically black colleges and others: “The audience and traditions are different but overall, the major things I deal with are about the same.”

Dr Massey’s belief in the importance of tradition has inspired an atmosphere of cooperation and unity at Morehouse. “We try and help students appreciate what it means to be an African American male in society, what the responsibilities and obligations are. What we find is that our students tend to bond together more closely. The guys depend on each other a lot more, and it creates a learning environment in which the students are much more responsive to helping each other.”

His deep-seated belief in the value of mentorship has made him appreciate the intimacy of working at a small undergraduate college. “I have much more interaction with students than I did at the larger research institutions. He holds office hours at least twice a month. His own mentors include Sabinus Cristensen, his physics teacher whom he credits with helping him to realize his own strength in the sciences and Howard Swear, the former President of Brown, who mentored him in his first administration. And he credits Hannah Gray with helping him to understand leadership.

His advice to his students is simple: find the things that you like to do and that will give you a sense of satisfaction and pride. You, of course, should want to earn a living in life, but that should not be your primary goal.

Dr. Massey is optimistic about the growth and progress in the African American community, although he notes that many inner urban areas still lag behind. The challenge ahead, he says, is to integrate those communities in the inner city, who have been unable to benefit from the changes and help them to take advantage of the opportunities that students at Morehouse have clearly shared.#



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