One of the greatest physicists who ever lived was also the 9th president of Morehouse College, who also guided Bank of America through the greatest financial crises in history—Walter E. Massey ’58. The Hattiesburg, Miss. native has led an extraordinary life that has taken him from being a Ford Early-Admittance Scholar to later earning his Ph.D. in physics, running the National Science Foundation, leading some of the most respected institutions in the country, and ultimately becoming a two-time college president. Dr. Walter Massey’s journey is one of great accomplishment and courage, but also one marked by overcoming odds. In 2020, he published “In the Eye of the Storm: My Time as Chairman of Bank of America During the Country's Worst Financial Crisis,” a memoir about his time as chairman of the board of directors for Bank of America during the financial crisis of 2008. In the book, Massey recalls and recounts what informed his decision-making as well as the path and the preparation that led him to the place where he was comfortable enough to take the reins of the major financial institution. Below, Dr. Massey shares details about his life, career, and his book “In the Eye of the Storm,” which is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and where other fine books are sold.
What have you and Mrs. Massey learned about yourselves during the pandemic?
We learned just how important it is to have close friends and family to offer support and to provide a community of connections. Thanks so much for Zoom! We also learned that even after 50 years together, we still love being around each other.
Why was it important to name the College’s Executive Conference Center in honor of Mrs. Massey?
I had nothing to do with the naming of the Executive Center. In fact, it came as a surprise to both of us. Shirley and I are very grateful to the trustees for this honor. I think it is great and significant to have a major facility at Morehouse named after a woman, and Shirley really did contribute a lot to the College during her 12 years as First Lady.
What advice would you give a first-year student at Morehouse about seizing the opportunity in front of him?
Well, my grandson is a first-year student and I told him that Morehouse is a place that will not only provide him a solid educational foundation, but will also inculcate values and modes of behavior that will benefit him throughout life. And that he will become a member of a select Brotherhood that will always be there for him.
What is something that Dr. Mays, Brazeal, McBay, Mapp, etc. taught you or said to you that’s been impactful on your life?
One of the most important things these gentlemen instilled in me was a sense of confidence that with hard work, persistence, and commitment, I could learn and master the most difficult subject matter. I also learned how to learn from them and others.
You're one of the most celebrated physicists in history and you enjoyed a successful career in higher education that included two college presidencies where your terms were known for historic high watermark accomplishments. Looking back, how did your training prepare you for your career work?
My undergraduate experience at Morehouse was the foundation for everything that followed. I received a wonderful liberal arts education. I learned about integrity, hard work, and persistence; and I gained a sense of confidence in my ability to learn on my own.
My physics career provided me with an ongoing sense of curiosity about the world around me and the analytical tools to try to understand it.
You obviously have a great love and appreciation for the arts. When did that begin and which artists should Morehouse graduates be more aware of?
My first course in Art Appreciation at Morehouse, taught by Professor Ethel Werful, opened my eyes to a new world. And at Brown, my best friend was a sculptor and artist, Richard Fishman, who further educated and brought my wife Shirley and I into the creative world of art. We also spent a lot of time at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) getting to know students and faculty. My tenure as president and chancellor of SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) deepened my appreciation of art and design and made me aware of some of the similarities between the creative processes of artists and scientists.
Morehouse graduates should definitely know the art of our alumnus Sanford Biggers, who is also an alumnus of SAIC.
How did you overcome your biggest professional or career challenge or setback?
My biggest professional challenge was probably being chairman of Bank of America during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. In the book just published, I write extensively about dealing with that episode in my life.
Where is your favorite place in the world to visit and why?
The favorite places of my wife Shirley and I are Paris and London. We both like cosmopolitan, urban environments with museums, theaters, music, great restaurants, and diverse people.
What led to your decision to attend Morehouse? What's your fondest memory of your freshman year in Graves?
I came to Morehouse serendipitously, having won a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend the College from the 10th grade in high school. I had not yet begun to think about where I would like to go to college when this happened.
My fondest memory of Graves Hall is rooming with John Hopps, who became my lifelong friend, and the two Wallace brothers from New Orleans, who taught me to love raw oysters.
During your tenure as president of Morehouse, you made decisions that have had a positive lasting impact years later. What do you feel best contributed to your problem-solving strategy and methods?
“My greatest asset at Morehouse in helping me to achieve whatever successes I had were the great, competent people with whom I worked, such as Andre Bertrand, Phil Howard, Kathleen Johnson, Karen Miller, and above all ‘Butch’ Sheftall.
When you decided to write "In the Eye of the Storm,” how did you arrive on that specific period of your career to chronicle?
I began writing my memoirs about a decade ago, and I have completed a very comprehensive manuscript (not yet published). In 2019, on the tenth anniversary of the financial crisis, I decided – with the advice of my publisher – to write about this particular adventure in my life and make it a “through line” in a book and to include “look backs” to describe my early life in Mississippi and other experiences that helped me to carry out the difficult task of being chairman of Bank of America.
I do intend to publish another memoir that will include more details about being president of Morehouse, for example, and other aspects of my life and career.
What do you hope the public learns from your book?
As I say in the book, "I hope that I have encouraged every reader to be dauntless and courageous when considering a new barrier-breaking path in life.
During a lecture you delivered in 2012, I heard you tell a story about your first day at Washington University. Given the social justice demonstrations that many college-aged people are participating in, how much of a role does higher education play in changing attitudes and practices?
Higher education is one of the most significant ways by which people grow and develop new views, attitudes, and behaviors. We all hope these changes make them better enlightened and tolerant people. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Morehouse is among a small number of non-religious colleges that consciously and deliberately emphasize character development as much as it does intellectual development.
Those who graduated during your time as president of Morehouse witnessed a renaissance that included unparalleled construction, infrastructure overhauls, historic and unprecedented unrestricted fundraising as well as several other campus enhancements. When your tenure began, what goals did you set for yourself and how did you prioritize what you felt needed to be improved or created?
When I arrived at the Morehouse, I did not have a grand plan or a well-developed set of goals. I spent a great deal of time speaking with alumni, talking with faculty, staff, and students before I arrived at a strategic plan. It was clear to me that all constituents wanted an improved physical environment - an “Academic Village” I called it.
It was equally clear that we were under-endowed to afford the kind of campus environment and educational experience to which we all aspired. This is why I put emphasis on fundraising and adding new state-of-the-art facilities.
What is the proudest accomplishment of your career?
My proudest professional accomplishment is presiding over the education and graduation of almost 5,000 young men, overwhelmingly African American, Morehouse men, who are making a positive difference in society. My proudest personal accomplishment is being married for 50 years to my wife Shirley.
Chicago seems to be truly home for you. Why is Chicago special to you? What entails an ideal Chicago day?
Chicago is Shirley's home and my adopted home. As I said, we love cities and Chicago is a great cosmopolitan city. Over the years, we have gained a large number of friends and professional colleagues. I have also kept a relationship with the University of Chicago over all these years, which is important because it involves us in an academic community, which we love.
There is no typical ideal Chicago day, which is what makes it so interesting. It can range from walking or riding a bike along the lakefront, going to the symphony and dinner, socializing with friends, and—very important—hearing great live jazz.
What advice do you have for Morehouse students and alumni who are looking to find a true balance between their ambition/career pursuits and their personal life?
I have been fortunate in this regard. I think one has to set out consciously to try to achieve this balance and not leave it to chance. I have found that the most competent people with whom I have worked or who have worked for me are those who have a satisfying personal life.
Who are the two people who had the most impact on you during your time as a student at Morehouse?
I am not sure I can narrow this down to just two people but, I would have to say Dr./Prof Sabinus H. Christensen, my physics teacher and mentor, and Dr. Benjamin E. Mays.
You worked at Brown, Washington University, the University of Chicago, and in the University of California system. What lessons from those experiences prepared you for your college presidencies at Morehouse and the SAIC?
I learned what it means to be a senior administrator, rather than just a professor of physics. I learned about budgeting, management, strategic planning, working with various constituencies, and—most of all—how to build successful collegial and dedicated teams of people to help one in one's job.
When you led the National Science Foundation, how did you manage balancing the actual research work with the task of running such a large and influential organization?
At NSF as at Morehouse and elsewhere, I had a marvelous and supremely competent group of colleagues to help me. And the NSF has, over the years of its existence, developed a very effective organizational structure that makes the director's job more manageable than it might appear from the outside.