Morehouse president: Progress made in 1st year but ‘we have work to do’

Morehouse College’s search for a new president in 2017 wasn’t pretty.

Many didn't want to see the prior man in charge let go, a major distraction amid the college's 150th anniversary celebration. Its interim president died, stunning the community. Eventually, college leaders hired a man with no ties to the all-male, historically black college in Atlanta as its president, David A. Thomas, previously the dean of Georgetown University's business school. He started on New Year's Day 2018.

This weekend, Thomas will celebrate his first anniversary at Morehouse with an official inauguration and the college’s annual fundraising gala.

Thomas sat down this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to discuss his goals for increasing student graduation rates, making Morehouse more affordable for students and improving campus facilities.

Here are excerpts, edited for brevity.

Q: How’s the first year gone?

A: I think we've made progress in a number of areas. We have taken steps to shore up the foundation of the school. We set up some aggressive targets around graduation rates. Our (four-year) graduation rate last year was 44 percent. Our goal for the class that graduates in 2022, which is my first full class, will be 70 percent. The school, the faculty and staff are working aggressively around that. We've seen some results. Our applications were up 43 percent last year, and we're on pace to be up again this year.

Q: When you talk about affordability, it’s such a problem for all colleges, particularly HBCUs. Can you talk a little more about how you tackle that?

A: We are trying to approach it from a number of different directions. One is raising more money for scholarships. That's probably the most direct, both for endowed scholarships and current use scholarships. Second, we've begun to look at alternative streams of revenue, very much from the perspective of taking on activities that will create a surplus that will help us to underwrite some of the costs of our liberal arts degree. So, we're looking at online education. We're also looking at the possibilities of other types of certificates. Morehouse for the last 50 or 60 years has not had any evening offerings. We're looking at ways we can create opportunities for men who came to Morehouse but never finished and desire to finish.

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Q: Morehouse has seen greater competition from schools like Georgia State and other predominantly white institutions to recruit African-American students. How do you recruit the best and the brightest?

A: A couple of things. One is being very intentional about our value proposition … I was on the faculty of Harvard Business School for 22 years. For more than three decades, Morehouse has been the No. 1 feeder of black men to the Harvard Business School. So if you come here and do well, I know for a fact you can go anywhere.

Q: You’ve talked about making Morehouse more relevant in the lives of African-American men. How are you trying to do that?

A: I think the vision that we're working toward is to become the global voice of issues of the educational development and advancement of black men and men of color in this society. Our work on social justice … is an example of that. We have lots of faculty who in their research that is a theme.

Q: What are you doing to try to improve the infrastructure here? I met with Edwin Moses here a couple of weeks ago, and he talked about the track facility needing work. Occasionally, there are issues that pop up about campus facilities.

A: We are now in our budget planning prioritizing capital improvements. In the past year, we put in over $1 million, significantly redoing one of our older facilities, Hubert Hall, as well doing significant work in another one of our dormitories, Brazeal. We've identified a set of projects that will be high priority in the coming years.

Q: Earlier this school year, you announced a review of Morehouse’s transgender student policy. Where does that stand and what would be your vision?

A: We are still in discussion about what that policy will be. We've surveyed our alumni, students, staff and faculty. One of the things that's very clear is there's no overwhelming consensus in the community about what that policy should be. … The policy will deal with admissions and matriculation, but underneath it will be an unswerving commitment that every student at Morehouse College should feel included and safe in our environment.

Q: What grade would you give yourself for this first year and what would you say needs improvement?

A: I would probably give myself an A-minus. I think what needs improving is our physical plant. We have work to do there and we need to organize a strategy around it. And I think the next phase of work for me is to really focus on energizing the innovativeness that is in our faculty and staff and really inviting them to help us make this a greater Morehouse as opposed to the president having the answer.

More of our interview with President Thomas:


Age: 62


B.S., Yale College

Master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University

Ph.D. in organizational behavior studies and a master’s degree in philosophy in organizational behavior, both from Yale University

Work experience:

Former professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he served as dean from 2011 to 2016

Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School

Sources: Morehouse College, Harvard Business School