By Maria Saporta
When David A. Thomas was 10 years old, his ambition was to attend Morehouse College.
On Sunday, the board of trustees of Atlanta-based Morehouse College named Thomas the 12th president of the prestigious historically-black institution.
Thomas comes with a 30-year academic background working for Ivy League institutions. He currently is the H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, a position he’s held since January. Before that, he was the Dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business from 2011 to 2016. Previously, Thomas had served as a professor and administrator at Harvard University and as an assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
Dale Jones, chairman of Morehouse’s presidential search committee, reached out to Thomas in April to see if he had any interest in the post that had become vacant with the departure of John S. Wilson Jr.
For Thomas, it was a way to finally become a Morehouse man.
“My parents instilled in me that I needed to go to college – neither of them had gone to college,” Thomas said in a telephone interview Sunday night. “I was a star-struck young kid during the Civil Rights movement, and I had read that Martin Luther King Jr. had gone to Morehouse.”
In 1974, Thomas, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, applied to two colleges – Morehouse and Yale University.
“I got into both, but Yale had a special scholarship for young men that paid my entire tuition plus room and board,” said Thomas, noting that Morehouse did not offer him a scholarship. “My father said, ‘I know you love Morehouse, but you can add.’”
So Thomas ended up going to Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior Studies and a Master of Philosophy in Organizational Behavior degree. He also received a Master of Organizational Psychology degree from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Administrative Sciences degree from Yale College.
“I went to Yale, but I always had Morehouse as my icon for producing the kind of men I respected and admired in my youth,” Thomas said. “That continues to be true when you look at the amazing men Morehouse has produced – amazing men.”
In addition to King, those men include the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, filmmaker Spike Lee, actor Samuel Jackson, politician Herman Cain, Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, the late Civil Rights legend Julian Bond and Jeh Johnson, who served as secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.
Thomas actually met Atlanta Mayor Jackson in the mid-1970s when the mayor visited the Yale campus. Thomas was part of a small group of students who had lunch with the first African-American mayor of a major city in the South. “I remember being so impressed,” Thomas said of Jackson and his depiction of Atlanta.
Come January, Thomas will become the first Morehouse president in 50 years who did not attend the institution. Benjamin E. Mays, president from 1940 to 1967, also did not go to Morehouse.
“I start with the notion that being a Morehouse man is more than being an alum of Morehouse,” Thomas said. “I meet the criteria of what it means to be a Morehouse man without being a Morehouse alum. I really feel like there’s an alignment between what I value and what I’ve done in my life.”
Thomas, 61, will become president on Jan. 1 – taking the helm of the 150-year-old institution, which has had tumultuous leadership since the departure of Walter E. Massey (1958 alum) in 2007 after serving for 12 years. President Robert Franklin (1975 alum) then served for five years during a tough financial period and with a divided board of trustees.
Wilson (1979 alum) inherited the divided board and a financially-strapped institution, serving as president for four years. The board decided to not renew his contract earlier this year.
In April, the board named William Taggart, who had been serving as the chief operating officer of the College, as interim president. Less than two months later, Taggart, 55, died suddenly of a brain aneurism. Shortly after, Morehouse named Harold Martin Jr., who was serving as the secretary of the board, as interim president – a role he will have until the end of the year.
Thomas said he believes the board has become more unified in the last seven months under the leadership of Willie Woods, chairman of the Morehouse board. Incidentally, Woods was one of Thomas’ students during his first stint at Harvard University’s business school.
“It gives me confidence that Morehouse wants to move in a direction that embraces change and at the same time respects the history of Morehouse and what it represents in our society,” Thomas said. “It is the only place I know of in higher education that is focused and dedicated to the positive development of men of African-American descent to be leaders and to be of service to their professions and their community.”
That mission will not change under his leadership, Thomas said, adding that his goal will be to make Morehouse the best among liberal arts institutions in the world.
“Dr. Thomas is a nationally respected business educator and visionary leader with a support network that will bring transformative change to Morehouse College,” said Woods, a 1985 Morehouse graduate, in a statement. “Having David at Morehouse will raise the profile of our world-class institution and lead to 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.”
Thomas said he has several priorities – improving fundraising, building the endowment (only $136 million in fiscal year 2015), increasing enrollment (from 2.200 to 2,500), raising academic offerings such as professorships and scholarships while modernizing the school’s infrastructure in technology, laboratories and its buildings.
Thomas is planning to launch a major capital campaign to increase funds for student scholarships, among other needs. He will also focus on making Morehouse a premier institution for research on the black experience, and will work to expand Morehouse’s international outreach, including in its student recruitment and hiring practices.
Although he hasn’t yet taken office, Thomas already has determined what it will take to be successful during his tenure as Morehouse president.
“When I leave Morehouse, I would love to have created the condition where we will never see another David Thomas – where you have a young man who really wants to come to Morehouse but can’t because Morehouse didn’t give him enough money to make it possible.”