Morehouse interim leader hopes to boost enrollment, graduation rates

The man leading Morehouse College as it continues its search for a president can be direct.

Its graduation rate is too low.

So, too, is its enrollment.

The college hasn’t done enough to engage its alumni.

Harold L. Martin Jr., the college’s interim president, is upfront in interviews, meetings with students and conversations with potential donors. He’s also talking about, and eager to show, the ongoing work to make Morehouse better.

Martin is hoping to share a different story about Morehouse, the nation’s Historically Black College and University (HBCU) only for men, near downtown Atlanta. It’s attempting to turn the page from recent leadership discord and some alumni outrage.

One topic Martin won’t talk about publicly is whether he wants the job full time.

“My role is to lead, not to answer the question,” he said.

The college celebrated its 150th anniversary during the 2016-17 school year, but it was marked with strife and sadness. Student leaders felt they weren’t being included in important decisions. The faculty issued a no-confidence vote in its board chairman. The board eventually voted in April to remove its president and board leadership. Morehouse named William J. Taggart its interim president in April, but he died in his home in June at 55 from an aneurysm.

Martin, a 2002 Morehouse graduate, resigned his seat on Morehouse’s board and became interim president.

Martin calls it all a “wake-up call” for himself and alumni.

Martin and a team of veterans and some newcomers are all seemingly in on what he describes as a five-point plan to improve Morehouse.

The plan — an ambitious one — includes raising the four-year graduation rate in four years from its current 40 percent to 60 percent, increasing enrollment from this semester’s 2,100 students to 2,500 next year, recruiting more students with strong science, technology, engineering and math skills and boosting alumni giving from its present 20 percent rate.

Morehouse will attempt to achieve those goals by more aggressively recruiting students in private and high-achieving schools, helping students faster when they’re struggling, making sure alumni tag along on recruiting trips, hiring more people to assist with financial aid and sharing more information with alumni.

“We’re not articulating our value the way we should be,” Martin said.

Martin wants to bring successful alumni to campus, at two week intervals, to teach non-traditional courses in early January before the spring semester begins. He also talks about creating signature academic programs and initiatives, such as a school reform center.

“There’s no school in the country better equipped to provide teachers in school districts in urban environments than Morehouse College,” Martin said.

Jamel Chambers, a junior political science major, said the financial aid office needs to be improved, saying some of his scholarship funds were held up unnecessarily one year. Chambers also hopes Martin can build a stronger relationship with alumni.

“We haven’t reach out to (alumni) the right way,” said Chambers, an aspiring Olympic boxer who wants to someday become Chicago’s mayor.

“He’s straight to the point,” Chambers says of Martin.

Joshua Butler IV, a 1995 Morehouse graduate, waited to meet Martin one recent evening at a campus reception. He agreed alumni must do more for the college and is hopeful about Martin’s role in that effort.

“I think we have high hopes for him,” said Butler.

Morehouse, like many HBCUs, is trying to provide coursework that draws top students as it faces increased competition from well-funded, predominantly white institutions. In one meeting with students, Martin spoke of Georgia State University — not by name — which is graduating more African-American students than any college in the nation.

Martin has a unique perspective on leading a college. His father has been chancellor of North Carolina A & T, the nation’s largest HBCU, since June 2009. Martin said he’s learned from his father by watching him work.

Slim and energetic, Martin walks fast and said he’s impatient about improving Morehouse. His workday begins around 8 a.m. and typically ends at nightfall. In between come visits with faculty, chats with students as he walks the campus, pitching potential donors and down time with his wife and twin toddlers.

Morehouse needs some work. Its performing arts center is comparable to many of Atlanta’s best. Other buildings, though, have torn materials hanging from some staircases. The football field is in need of repair, Martin said.

Morehouse produces more African-American males with doctoral degrees in fields such as computer science and education than any college in the nation, according to some data. About 6,000 graduates live in metro Atlanta, and many of those professionals play a major role in the region’s economy and its politics. Three current Atlanta mayoral candidates are Morehouse grads.

Still, half of the students who enter Morehouse don’t graduate in six years.

Morehouse leaders want to better connect with its younger alumni. More than half of Morehouse graduates are younger than 40, Martin says, and many are carving out successful careers. Yet, most know Morehouse for alumni like Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee and others who graduated decades ago. Its chapel is filled with paintings of civil rights legends, as are the hallways of other buildings. Younger faces are less visible.

Martin’s point was emphasized during an hourlong meeting with Morehouse student ambassadors, young men dressed in sport coats and ties. Martin asked one of them to name eight alumni. The student named five. Martin, 36, was the youngest person he named.

Morehouse has created a website with profiles of 500 of its younger graduates.

Henry Goodgame Jr., the college’s director of alumni engagement and giving, said the website is part of an effort to get current and prospective students to discover Morehouse’s “new heroes.”

No timetable has been set on when the presidential search will be completed. Martin believes a decision will be made soon. The last five Morehouse presidents were graduates. Some alumni have suggested outside-the-box ideas for its next president, ranging from former President Barack Obama to a woman.

Martin vows to stay engaged in Morehouse’s future, regardless of who becomes the college’s next permanent president.

“Either way,” he said, “I have a long-term commitment to the college.”

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