EXCLUSIVE: Morehouse president eyes growth while preserving historic roots

One goal is enrolling students ‘who will value the distinctive Morehouse mission and culture’
Morehouse College President David A. Thomas, who has led the college since 2018, speaks during the Morehouse College commencement ceremony in May 2023. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas, who has led the college since 2018, speaks during the Morehouse College commencement ceremony in May 2023. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

David A. Thomas touts the many advances made by Morehouse College since he became president in 2018, but believes his work isn’t done.

The board of the private, historically Black men’s college recently extended his contract for four years. In that time, he expects Morehouse enrollment to grow following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision that restricts how colleges can consider race in admissions. And as political backlash mounts against diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Georgia schools, Thomas plans to hold tight to Morehouse’s legacy of supporting those who have been marginalized.

He envisions more student housing on a renovated Atlanta campus and a larger global stage for the college.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with Thomas about his first five and a half years at Morehouse and what’s next. The interview, conducted before the deaths of two students in a Labor Day crash, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are the biggest successes since you came here?

A: I think we’ve restored confidence in the college and created a real sense that Morehouse has a relevance to the 21st century that’s as important as our relevance to the 20th century. If you go back to 2017 and you look at social media coming out of and about Morehouse College, it seldom had a positive theme to it. Our president then, John Wilson, and our board were having an open conflict that had spilled into the public. We had not recovered from the 2008 recession, where our enrollment went down by a thousand students from about 2,800 to 1,700.

We had not been investing in our infrastructure, so we had $40 million of deferred maintenance. And, our alumni were not sending their offspring to Morehouse in big numbers.

Morehouse President David A. Thomas shares a laugh with Wendell Shelby-Wallace (left), then vice president of the Student Government Association, Marcus Washington, MarKuan Tigney Jr., David Jeffries and Kayden Molock after he moved into his room at historic Graves Hall in Morehouse College in 2018. Thomas temporarily lived in the hall to learn more about student life and college affordability. (Hyosub Shin / AJC file photo)

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And you fast-forward to today and if you look at our social media, which is largely student-driven, it’s overwhelmingly positive. Our alumni are sending their offspring to Morehouse or having them apply in unprecedented numbers. This year alone out of the 700 new students at Morehouse, 100 of them are legacies. We’ve raised over $250 million, and we’ve invested more than $20 million in our infrastructure.

Q: What do you want to achieve in the next four years?

A: We’ve just approved a $170 million project to transform the main campus. That will include a new state-of-the-art campus center. It will also include new dorms and increase our housing capacity by at least 100 beds as well as renovation and upgrades to our academic buildings.

We are also now focused on completing a $500 million capital campaign, and the biggest chunk of that is focused on affordability because if there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it is the fact that for Morehouse to continue to do what it has done, we really have to focus on affordability. And our goal is to make Morehouse, by the end of this decade through philanthropic support, an institution where students can come and leave debt free.

Colin Vaughn (left), from New Jersey, and Will Sears (right), from New York, move their belongings into their Hubert Hall dorm room at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Credit: Michael Blackshire

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Credit: Michael Blackshire

Q: Is there a start date for the construction work?

A: August 2024, shovels in the ground.

Q: Do you still think interest in Morehouse will increase following the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision?

A: I am convinced of it, and we already see it. We are looking at inquiries now. We have now opened our application portal, and we are already running about 100% ahead of where we were last year.

Q: Will Morehouse grow in enrollment?

A: This year, our enrollment numbers just came in, and we’re at 2,350. So we are up another 150 students. We also had more students accept our offer of admissions than we predicted for this year, which accounts for that growth. We think our maximum capacity right now without adding more beds, more faculty, more infrastructure is 2,500. And our enrollment predictions suggest that with the increased applications that we’ll likely experience, we could move to a lower admissions rate.

Tech billionaire Robert F. Smith (from left), Morehouse College President David A. Thomas and actress Angela Bassett prepare to walk to the graduation ceremonies at the college on Sunday, May 19, 2019. Smith and Bassett received honorary degrees. (Bo Emerson / AJC file photo)

Credit: Bo Emerson/AJC

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Credit: Bo Emerson/AJC

Q: So will Morehouse admissions become more selective?

A: We are going to be forced to because we only have so many beds. This past year, our admissions rate was about 50%. We’ve already targeted for this year 40%. And I’m a little less conservative than my admissions staff, and I actually think we’ll be at 35%.

Q: What will admissions look for?

A: We are looking for students who in some way have shown leadership and who value the notion of service. We are going to enlist a network of our own admissions staff and alumni to interview applicants ... because what we want to focus on is really getting students here who will value the distinctive Morehouse mission and culture.

Q: The Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which oversees teacher preparation programs, removed references this year to diversity and equity from its rules that guide education colleges. How has Morehouse responded?

A: We’ve made a very conscious decision that we will not alter our curriculum, and that we are willing to lose our status for certification of teachers in Georgia ... if it comes to that. And we’ve already identified alternative pathways for our participants in our preparation programs to gain certification. We’ve made a very conscious choice not to bow to that pressure because we think it would be hypocritical and self-serving for an institution that represents what Morehouse has represented to the world to bow to that pressure.

Q: Has the commission asked you to make changes?

A: No. I think that’s likely not a battle that they will find worth taking on in public with institutions like ours.

Members of the Morehouse College Class of 2023 walk toward Century Campus during the Morehouse College commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 21, 2023, in Atlanta. The graduation marked Morehouse College's 139th commencement program. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Q: What’s needed to support HBCUs?

A: If you look at the distribution of philanthropy — foundation and individual — across institutions of higher education, historically Black colleges have received less than their fair share. You just look at Atlanta and look at how much has flown out of local philanthropy to Emory or Georgia Tech versus all the AUC (Atlanta University Center) schools combined. So that independent private philanthropy, putting greater value on what HBCUs contribute to our region, our economy and the nation, would be huge.

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