Exemplary Non-Profit and Higher Education Leadership – Blenda Wilson, PhD

Retired President, Nellie Mae Educational Foundation

This article is part of groundbreaking leadership research has received extensive endorsements and enthusiastic reviews from well-known prominent business, political, and academic leaders who either participated in the study or reviewed the research findings. A total of sixteen leaders were interviewed on the subject of “Leadership and Overcoming Adversity.”

Dr. Wilson overcame multiple adversities. These included significant race, gender, and age discrimination. Blenda’s first experience with major discrimination was during her high school years in New Jersey. Though Blenda was in the National Honor Society, Wilson’s high school guidance counselor totally refused to discuss or help Blenda get into a college. Blenda’s comment was “Actually, she told me to ‘take a typing class’… then said, ‘You’re nice looking, and you might be able to become a secretary. ‘”

Wilson just ignored the “mean” counselor and she directly contacted several colleges for admission and scholarship information. Wilson was accepted to all of the colleges she applied to, including major prestigious universities, such as the “Seven Sisters.” However, major colleges only offered one-year scholarships with a series of renewals. Blenda wanted to get a full four-year scholarship to ensure that she could complete her college education. Cedar Crest College guaranteed Blenda four years of tuition scholarship money, a travel budget and a job. So, Blenda went to Cedar Crest College and got her degree.

She did not allow anything to stop her from receiving her education. After Blenda graduated from Cedar Crest College she earned a Master’s degree in Education from Seton Hall then completed a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Boston College.

Before she earned her Ph.D. and launched her higher educational leadership career, Blenda experienced gender and age discrimination from African American males, both from within her organization and the local community. Though Wilson was clearly more qualified and had more education than her male competition many people were vocal in their opposition to her being appointed as the Executive Director of the Middlesex County Economic Opportunity Corporation and the Head Start Program. Blenda Wilson pointed out, “The African American men in the community were upset that a woman would get this key position… One of the criteria was that they wanted someone with a Master’s degree. I had one. None of the African American men did.” Blenda experienced age, and gender discrimination and prejudice from from black men and white people.

Blenda Wilson shared that taking a leave from her local high school teaching position to become the Executive Director of the Middlesex County Economic Opportunity Corporation, “actually changed my life. I started doing the Head Start program… This was all in the 1960s, with the “War on Poverty,” the Office of Economic Opportunity. I [Wilson] was going to change the world.”

In 1969, after earning her Ph.D., Dr. Wilson began her career in higher education administration at Rutgers University. Then, from 1972 to 1982 Blenda “was youngest Senior Associate Dean in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard,” where, once again, she encountered age discrimination.

Dr. Blenda Wilson was the First Vice President for Effective Sector Management at Independent Sector (1982 to 1984). Independent Sector is a nonpartisan coalition of approximately 600 organizations that lead, strengthen, and mobilize charitable communities.

While serving in the governor’s cabinet as Executive Director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, she created a plan (that became law in 1985) advocating for more efficiently organizing higher education within the state.

Dr Wilson was the first woman to head a four-year higher education institution in the state of Michigan becoming Chancellor of the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus from 1988 to 1992. Wilson was widely recognized for her outreach to Dearborn’s Arab-American community and Detroit’s African-American community.

During Dr. Wilson’s tenure as president of California State University, Northridge, from 1992 to 1999, Dr. Wilson enacted a number of strategic plans to better serve the populations of the San Fernando Valley. Wilson also led the University in the enormous task of rebuilding of the California State University after the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Dr. Blenda Wilson was a former Chair of the prestigious American Association of Higher Education. Wilson was the first woman to Chair the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and was Deputy Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston where she served on the Board of Directors from 2003 to 2006. Dr. Wilson has served on the Board of Directors of numerous non-profit corporations such as the Getty Museum, The College Board, and has recently served as the interim President of her undergraduate Alma Mater, Cedar Crest College.

Dr. Wilson served as the first President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation from 1999 to 2006. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, established in 1998, is New England’s largest public charity dedicated to improving academic achievement for underserved communities. During her seven-year tenure Dr. Blenda Wilson was a very successful CEO at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Under Dr. Wilson’s leadership, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) distributed more than $80 million in grants to various educational institutions and to non-profit organizations to improve the access to college for deserving students. The NMEF was established to promote accessibility, quality, and effectiveness in education from preschool through postsecondary levels, especially for under-served populations. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has net assets of approximately $400 million, making it one of the largest foundations in New England, and the largest focused exclusively on improving higher education.

Dr. Wilson has received honorary doctorate degrees from more than 25 colleges and universities, including Cedar Crest College, Rutgers, the University of Massachusetts, Brandeis University and Boston College. Wilson has served on the boards of trustees of Boston College and Union Theological Seminary, the board of directors of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, the board of directors of Higher Education Resource Services, and the boards of Boston’s “After School and Beyond,” Boston College, and Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses. Wilson currently serves on the Board of Directors of Medco Health Solutions.

Dr. Blenda Wilson has an impressive lifetime track record of effectively dealing with complicated issues of education policy. Dr. Blenda Wilson still takes time out of her busy schedule to mentor and coach select prospective female leaders.

The Dr. Blenda Wilson story shares a lifetime struggle against adversity, especially age, race, and gender discrimination, and is an excellent example of a prominent successful leader who overcame adversity!