What a Difference a President Makes at Morehouse

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In the early weeks of 2017, it seemed virtually impossible to think that Morehouse College would return to its lofty days of national regard as the country’s elite professional training ground for Black men. The tumultuous presidency of John Silvanus Wilson, who once proclaimed during Crown Forum that he would remain as Morehouse president “until God said so,” came to an unceremonial end and divided both leadership and campus alike.

It was among the most noticeable waves in tidal churn within the sector, caused by falling enrollment, political tension, and financial strain over a four-year stretch.

Seven months later, former Georgetown University Business Dean David Thomas was introduced as the school’s 12th president, the first non-alumnus in 50 years to hold the post. Like most HBCUs, Morehouse had longed to recapture the magic of its most distinguished president in its newest appointee.

What Benjamin Elijah Mays had been in building the Morehouse culture, they hoped that Thomas would deliver in business acumen and sustainability.

He hasn’t, at least not by himself. But Thomas is the face of a community-wide recommitment to the Morehouse ideal. His arrival greenlit a rush of philanthropic support to the institution, and a relaunch of the Morehouse brand as one of covert and explicit excellence in all areas of industry and culture.

You notice Morehouse more often in headlines, on social media, and in the promotion of graduates. There is a sense, even before the riches and attention created by the killing of George Floyd and the global coronavirus pandemic, that the elitism of Morehouse was returning to a prominent place in Black culture and conscience, and not through lenses of “why can’t Morehouse get right,” or “they aren’t what they used to be.”

This week, Black Enterprise profiled a donation of artwork to the college valued at more than $1 million. The collection highlights work from artists representing and underscoring diverse themes of racial and sexual freedom and identity.

The donor; Morehouse alumnus and Wall Street financial executive George Wells.

“I will always be grateful for my Morehouse education and the springboard it created for my career on Wall Street and in business, and I want to recognize that with this gift. Owning multiple works by Johnson and Thomas is like owning a piece of history to me. Their practices both showcase black resiliency and triumph but in different ways and from different gender perspectives. It is my hope that this gift will serve as an impetus for furthering racial equality within the art world during this exceptionally vulnerable time for Americans and race relations.”

The gift, along with others from luminaries like Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith, is one of several dozens of overtures to Morehouse that feel like they are coming out of the blue. But when you talk to Morehouse alumni, they are really floodwaters that were waiting for the right gatekeeper to say and do the right things to make Morehouse feel like an institution deserving of saturation.

Thomas looks the part, says the right things the right way, and does the right things that, from the outside looking in, seem to fire the pistons of the Morehouse machine and makes its engineers want to expand upon its grand design. Alumni and supporters were waiting for the right figurehead to represent Morehouse the right way so that they could fulfill the work of advocacy on behalf that seemed to be blocked by the previous administration.

Morehouse still has far to travel; it remains under financial stress even with millions pouring into the institution to support student scholarships, endowment building, and unrestricted budget stabilization. The college is still working to retain top teaching and student talent, and to hold against the rising tide of the University System of Georgia intentionally seeking to poach talent and resources from it.

The college is still moving to be a more equitable, welcoming place on the question of gender and sexual identity, and a safer place for women who engage with Men of Morehouse on and around campus.

But the difference over the last four years is that its stakeholders at varying levels of influence and affluence, both publicly and behind-the-scenes, hold near-unanimous consensus about the revitalized culture of the institution. And in turn, they are galvanizing the college’s subgroups and cultures to move forward in unison.

They no longer have a president who fails or even struggles to engage them in following and pushing Morehouse to greater heights, but a leader who compels them to carry her there.