David A. Thomas, a professor at Harvard University and a former dean at Georgetown University, will be the next president of Morehouse College, school officials announced Monday morning.
His selection comes after a tumultuous year at the historically black college. The board voted in January not to renew the contract of John Silvanus Wilson Jr., who had been president of the college for men in Atlanta since 2012. In March, a quorum of faculty members voted no confidence in the chairman of the board of trustees, Robert C. Davidson Jr.
In April, William Taggart was named interim president. He died in June.
The school’s interim president, Harold Martin Jr., will continue to lead the school until January, when Thomas will take office.
It’s a time of challenges for most historically black colleges, given the intense competition from other schools for top students and faculty members. Thomas said Sunday that his short-term goals include increasing enrollment from 2,200 to 2,500 students, boosting graduation rates and strengthening the alumni network to play a greater role in recruiting students.
For his long-term ambitions, he said the school will need to build its financial support to fund scholarships and improvements that will help lure top students and faculty members. Experiential learning is increasingly important, Thomas said, and that requires investment in buildings, labs and classrooms.
While dean of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, Thomas led a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $130 million in five years.
Thomas said he had wanted to go to Morehouse since he was a young boy. He won admission to Morehouse, he said, but he was not offered financial aid. His second-choice school offered aid. So he went to Yale University.
“It wasn’t the search process for president that made me think about Morehouse,” Thomas said. “Morehouse has always been in my mind as a beacon.”
Thomas received a master’s degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from Yale. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and Harvard University.
Thomas has a résumé “that would probably make me think I’m about five inches taller than I am,” he said Sunday, laughing. “It’s a long résumé, and I’m not a very tall guy.”
He’s a really strong leader, said Pietra Rivoli, vice dean and professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. She said Thomas would be remembered for initiating fundraising for faculty chairs and leading an overhaul of Georgetown’s MBA curriculum that included a number of beneficial changes. Among them: adding interdisciplinary courses such as a class on principled leadership taught by both a faculty member with expertise in organizational behavior and a political philosopher.
Rivoli said Thomas was respected by faculty, was a strong student mentor and had a good relationship with alumni.
“David tends to own the room,” she said. “He’s an excellent speaker. He’s very thoughtful. … I think they’re lucky to have him.”
Willie Woods, chairman of the board of trustees, said in a written statement that Thomas is a nationally respected business educator and visionary leader who would raise the school’s profile. He anticipated partnerships “that will allow Morehouse to be more competitive for top students, expand our academic programs, improve our facilities, and provide more signature opportunities for leadership that make Morehouse Men among the most sought-after graduates in the country.”
“I think the entire Morehouse family will be very excited about the appointment of President-Elect Thomas,”said Robert M. Franklin, president emeritus.“David is deeply committed to educating African American men and to innovative approaches to higher education. … He appreciates the signal honor of being selected as the first non-alumnus Morehouse president since Dr. Benjamin Mays, and we stand ready to support and serve with him.”
Mays, Morehouse’s sixth president, mentored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thomas said he has heard a strong message from alumni about why they chose to attend Morehouse. One graduate told him it was a place that, as a young black man, he could come and just “be,” Thomas said, “meaning be who he was and discover who he wanted to be.”