Blenda Wilson Interview
New Path, Same Goal An interview with Blenda Wilson
By Margaret A. Miller

From the September 1999 AAHE Bulletin

Educator, diversity advocate, and former AAHE Board Chair Blenda Wilson left academia in July to promote her education agenda in a different, yet related, realm, as president of the newly established Nellie Mae Foundation. The nonprofit charitable organization, recently separated from the for-profit student loan organization Nellie Mae Corporation, focuses on improving education in the New England region through grantmaking, research, and policy initiatives.

In this interview with AAHE President Margaret Miller, Wilson discusses her new career, her continuing commitment to improving equal access to education, and her views on the negative impact of California's recent anti-affirmative action legislation.

MILLER: What prompted you to move from a presidency at Cal State-Northridge to one at the Nellie Mae Foundation, and what do you hope to accomplish in your new job?

WILSON: I learned about Nellie Mae through the search process. As the search consultant described to me what the board wanted in the foundation and where they were focusing, I said at the time, ÒThat's what I do." It is an organization that is addressing the questions that have been the most difficult for me and my institution for the last decade.

MILLER: What are some of those questions?

WILSON: The foundation's mission is to promote access, quality, and effectiveness of education from preschool through to adult years, focusing on under-represented students. There is the belief that if you give students money, you are dealing with the biggest barrier to college. But money alone is not necessarily the biggest barrier. Poor school preparation, lack of motivation, families that don't understand the financial aid process or the admissions process, students who cannot connect education to what they want to do for the rest of their lives Ñ these things are all barriers. And the foundation is committed to working with schools, universities, and community groups to encourage a larger percentage of students in general, and particularly minority students, to be prepared to go to college.

MILLER: What are the biggest levers you have to get people's attention, to make things change?

WILSON: We have people's attention. The state of public education is very, very high on the public agenda. People are very worried about the economic and civic health of our country, given the poor performance of our high school graduating students. What we need are levers around the solution. We need concerted efforts in communities Ñ deep, prolonged, sustained efforts Ñ that involve both the school system and universities. We must make sure that students get the kind of information they need about going to college, and that the schools get the kind of information they need about what colleges expect students to be able to do and know when they get there.

So, to go back to your earlier question, why me in this role? I've been on both the higher ed and the elementary ed side of this question. In truth, at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Cal State-Northridge, the most difficult issue for our faculty was the fact that students weren't prepared for the rigors of an academic environment like ours. So I thought I could speak the language that would help schools and universities come together Ñ and also relate to the community and parents in ways that would give some hope to this next generation that they, too, can take their place in the economy and in careers and professions, as have immigrants before.

MILLER: Obviously some of the things you're talking about at the Nellie Mae Foundation were things that concerned you in California. As you say, it was what you'd been doing all along. But, as you look back, what are some of the other challenges you see facing your successor and his or her colleagues in the California system, besides access, which is obviously a crucial one?

WILSON: Well, in the policy environment of California, the immediacy of some solutions to this problem of access becomes even more urgent. The CSU Board of Trustees, for example, has a policy to reduce remedial education efforts on the CSU campuses to 10 percent by the year 2007. At Cal State-Northridge, for example, that would mean the percentage of incoming students needing remediation would have to be reduced from about 65 percent down to 10 percent. I must say,I and my faculty weren't clear about how to do that.If that policy were implemented immediately, the consequences to CSU-Northridge would be that the enrollment would drop precipitously. We know that.

MILLER: And what happens to those students?

WILSON: They would have no place to go. What policymakers want to believe is that, by some magic, students would either go to the community colleges, or high schools would wake up and prepare them better. But the truth is that many students who aspire to go to a four-year university, if we don't serve their needs, won't go anywhere. They'll get jobs Ñ because most of them work while they go to school anyway. And we'll just lose the potential that those students could obviously bring to a very rapidly changing workplace and an international and multicultural world. It feels to me like being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

So the remediation question, in terms of the state government and the board of trustees, is, in fact, one of the biggest challenges for the four-year college system in California. The second is obviously a companion to that -- the impact of the demise of affirmative action policies in California. So you've got a double-barreled shot at minority students: both the lack of any means to assure that their achievements as minority students can be weighed and taken into account in admissions, and, if their schools are also bad and haven't prepared them, then the prohibition or increasing prohibition against remedial courses. I do think those are the most serious problems. The issues I'll be working on here at Nellie Mae are, in fact, the most serious issues in California.

At Issue in California

MILLER: In a letter you wrote me in October last year, when we were talking about the location of AAHE's 2000 National Conference, you passed on to me some of the advice your presidential colleagues gave about holding the event in California. And their advice to AAHE was to come to Anaheim and raise the issues of access and diversity that they are struggling with. (See "Looking Forward to 2000," AAHE Bulletin, June 1999.)


MILLER: How do you think we can do that most effectively at the conference? What kinds of conversations do you hope will happen there? What kinds of sessions ought we to have?

WILSON: Well, a lot of things. First of all, I just think it's healthy for the academic community and the public policy community in California to know that there are places where expressing a different point of view is not suicidal. I think having people come from states where affirmative action hasn't been bludgeoned -- though needless to say that number is getting smaller -- is a healthy thing.

But in terms of higher education itself, the kinds of conversations that I think would be most useful at AAHE and elsewhere are conversations that show or articulate the relationship between the education of this and the next generation of new Americans, immigrant Americans, and the opportunities both in the economy and in the world for those students to make a difference. I wish economists would study what it means if you really let 60 percent of your population languish at an educational level below what is required for the 21st century economy. Can't there be somebody who can do projections of what that does to our country?

The problem has always been that affirmative action is seen by its opponents as a social gift or giveaway to individuals. We need to talk about why the education of all children, but certainly minority children and those who may need extra support to achieve the ultimate ends of education, is important to all of us.

We did some research at Cal State-Northridge around the potential of students to complete college. We can demonstrate that remedial math students who complete our math sequence have as good or better a potential of graduating with a bachelor's degree as students who come in without needing remediation.

We need success stories about the achievements of programs that are based on a recognition of how diverse our universities ought to be for this next century. AAHE is a forum where education professionals can really talk across the boundaries of different political points of view.

MILLER: Right. We're going to have several conference tracks. One is on access, preparing students for college. The second is ensuring student success Ñ the kinds of support necessary to foster student success. The third is inclusive pedagogy and curricula. And the fourth is on faculty and staff. Can you say just a word about the last of these? What kinds of public policy challenges are there to diversifying the faculty and staff? And why is that important?

WILSON: Well, "role model" is a term that we have only begun to use comfortably recently. It is true that children model themselves on adults, and adolescents model themselves on what they see or what they've seen. To the extent that you have any profession whose members are limited to one kind of person or one sex or one race, it is a social message that others are not able or entitled or considered for those roles. So, if one expects to have, for example, minority faculty members in math, it's useful for universities both to make certain that minorities can be trained successfully as math faculty and to have those individuals teach students math, not only for the role modeling it gives minority students but also for the picture of inclusiveness that it presents for all students.

MILLER: Right.

WILSON: There's nothing new about the need for minority faculty in universities. What is new is that instead of previous affirmative action efforts, where you could make a special recruitment effort on behalf of minorities, the impetus now has to come from within universities to encourage and train and provide incentives for under-represented students to get doctoral degrees and be interested in academic careers. The fact of the matter is that the most able women and minorities now have options they didn't have before. And businesses are not at all uncomfortable with the realization that if they're going to serve a world market, they need people who can speak different languages and can represent the customers that are in the world. The universities didn't make up affirmative action. It was made up in a political arena. And then, for the most part, universities were as recalcitrant and reluctant to do it as some other industries. But the truth is that universities are the only place, the only place, that someone is likely to become oriented and encouraged and motivated to be a university professor.I'm hoping that there is somebody who, in the face of the public negative approach that California represents, can talk about legal and effective ways of increasing minority faculty and staff.

Words of Wisdom

MILLER: Now that you've moved on to a new place from which to exercise your leadership as one of the pre-eminent academics in this country, do you have any words of advice to give to people who are still working on campuses? Any final thoughts about what they need to be thinking about?

WILSON: I think universities, colleges, and schools are the most noble, the most rewarding, the most important institutions our society has. They're the only institutions that were established with a mission of helping people develop and find their way in life.

Cal State-Northridge, because of an earthquake, went through a major strategic planning process in which the faculty and everybody else on campus concurred with a mission statement that says, in short, that we exist to help students achieve their educational goals. Period. Everybody knows it. And when you focus on students that way, and faculty and staff realize that everything they do can contribute to how students grow or don't, I think the opportunities for real fulfillment in our roles are great.MILLER: Well, Blenda, this has just been wonderful. Thank you so much. We're going to be in Anaheim from March 29th to April 2nd, and we hope you will be there with us.

WILSON: I will definitely be there. I promised you that my colleagues would welcome you, and I wouldn't miss it. I think it's a very important decision you've made in bringing the National Conference to Anaheim. A courageous one and a good one. I'll be there.

Blenda Wilson is president of the Nellie Mae Foundation. She can be reached at

Wilson, a former chair of AAHE's Board of Directors, joined Nellie Mae in July 1999 as its first president and chief operating officer. Wilson came to Nellie Mae after seven years as president of California State University-Northridge, which she helped rebuild after the 1994 Northridge earthquake left the campus with more than $100 million in damage. She was chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1988 to 1992; executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education from 1984 to 1988; and held several positions at Harvard University, Graduate School of Education, from 1972 to 1982, including senior associate dean.

Wilson holds a doctorate in higher education administration from Boston College; a master of arts in education from Seton Hall University; and a bachelor of arts in English and secondary education from Cedar Crest College; as well as nine honorary degrees.

The Nellie Mae Foundation sold its for-profit Nellie Mae Corporation, a student loan financing organization, in July 1999 to the Sallie Mae Corporation.

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