He couldn’t afford Morehouse; now he’ll be its president

3:11 p.m Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 Education
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David A. Thomas is the president-elect of Morehouse College. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED

David A. Thomas admired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and wanted to attend Morehouse College, the Atlanta school where King earned his undergraduate degree in 1948.

His childhood dream didn’t become a reality because Thomas didn’t receive any financial aid. He went to Yale College instead on a scholarship.

Decades later, Thomas, 61, is hoping to make his mark at Morehouse in a different way, as its next president.

Board members voted late Sunday to hire Thomas, a Harvard University professor, administrator and former dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He’ll take office on Jan. 1. at Morehouse, the nation’s only historically black college exclusively for men.

One goal for Thomas is to provide more scholarships to help students like he was, interested in attending Morehouse, but unable to afford the tuition.

“I want to leave Morehouse in a position where there will never be another David Thomas,” he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “A young man who knows Morehouse is the right place for him and the only thing that separates him is the ability to pay.”

Thomas led the Georgetown business school from 2011 to 2016. It exceeded a $100 million fundraising goal by $30 million during his tenure, according to published reports. It also increased the percentage of women and minority students under Thomas, news accounts say. He’s served as a professor and administrator at Harvard University and co-authored two books, both focused on minority achievement.

Thomas comes to Morehouse after a tumultuous period that began with the dismissal of president John S. Wilson in April, two months before his contract expired. Wilson butted heads with some board members. William Taggart, named Morehouse’s interim president in April, died in June.

Thomas said he’s convinced Morehouse has made reforms in its board governance structure that ensure he’ll avoid any similar friction. He was also encouraged that Morehouse’s new board chairman, Willie Woods, is one of his former Harvard students. Woods issued a statement praising Thomas’ hire.

“It gave me confidence that I’m working with a board leadership that is open to change and moving the school forward,” Thomas said.

Thomas will be the first Morehouse president who didn’t attend the college since Benjamin E. Mays. Board members and others are hoping his tenure will be as productive as that of Mays, who mentored King when he was a student and led the college for 27 years, starting in 1940.

Student government association president Kamren Rollins said while some students, faculty and alumni would prefer a Morehouse graduate to be president, Thomas’ recent work at Georgetown and his academic background suggest he’s up to the job.

“We just want a great president, regardless of whether he’s an alum,” said Rollins, a senior English major.

Thomas is tasked with doing what many college presidents must do these days, particularly at historically black colleges and universities: raise money and boost graduation rates. Morehouse’s six-year graduation rate is 51 percent, higher than most HBCUs, but lower than the national average of 60 percent. Thomas said those are goals of his, along with increasing enrollment, from the current 2,200 students to about 2,500 students.

He wants to improve research, hire more faculty, improve the college’s facilities and get more involved in issues that improve outcomes for African-American men. He said Morehouse “is a place where we can offer solutions to those issues.” Thomas also wants to create ways for every student to study abroad during their academic careers.

Thomas, who has no direct Atlanta ties, said he’ll try to build relationships with local business leaders and foundations to grow Morehouse’s endowment and pay for some of his goals.

Marybeth Gasman, who’s done extensive research on HBCUs, said on paper Thomas appears to be a sound choice. She echoed the goals Thomas has for the college, and stressed he’ll have to spend time listening to students and faculty to “focus on what’s right for Morehouse.”

Thomas said the Morehouse community will learn he’s a good listener.

“And I’m cool, too.”

David A. Thomas:

Age: 61

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

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

A Morehouse graduate was elected the youngest mayor of Birmingham, Ala., in modern history. Randall Woodfin, 36, beat Birmingham's two-term incumbent mayor, William Bell. Wood graduated from Morehouse with a bachelor's in political science. "It’s hard for me to know where to begin to talk about what Morehouse did for me," he wrote.
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