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Morehouse College decided to open but is now closing based on the science 

In the time of COVID-19, leadership means making the right decision, not needing to be right, says president David A. Thomas

This month began with Morehouse College in Atlanta announcing a detailed plan to bring students back to campus for the fall 2020 semester with a mix of online and in-person classes. Residence houses would feature single-student rooms. Masks would be required in all public areas, and besides social distancing, COVID-19 testing would be required for all students, faculty and staff.

The move was well-received, said Morehouse College president David A. Thomas. Students and parents reached out “telling me how much they really wanted to be on campus in the fall,” said Thomas, “how much they were looking forward to it. I was even talking to a parent who told me that their son had already packed the car.”

But less than three weeks later, the college reversed its decision. In an announcement Monday, Thomas said that due to a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases (which now stands at almost 4 million, with more than 143,000 deaths) Morehouse was forced to change course. The college decided to keep campus housing closed and to take all of its proposed in-person classes online beginning Aug. 19. Fulton County, Georgia, had only 20 coronavirus cases in March when the campus emptied after spring break; there are now almost 14,000.

The decision was made with Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College, all part of the Atlanta University Center (AUC) Consortium, with only the Morehouse School of Medicine moving forward with its hybrid reopening plan because of its role in public health.

Since early spring, Morehouse had been planning around three scenarios for the fall. “We wanted everyone to be maximally prepared if we were going to continue down the path of the hybrid” schedule, said Thomas. But “we weren’t sure what the final decision would be,” he said. “We were watching the virus.”

Thomas spoke with The Undefeated about decision-making in the consortium, Morehouse’s virtual learning plans for the fall and the need for leaders to be forward-thinking and flexible in the global pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What went into the initial decision to have a hybrid fall schedule and open up the Morehouse College campus for certain students?

So just to give you a sense of the context and how dynamic this environment has been for us – in April, I announced to my board that we would be all-virtual and we even submitted our budgeting based on being all-virtual. By the time we got to the end of May, the curve on the virus here in Atlanta was starting to flatten and the big hot spots at that moment were essentially New York, California and Washington state. We thought there was a good possibility that here in the Atlanta University Center, which includes Spelman, Morehouse School of Medicine, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College, that we could develop a best in class, if you will, health security regimen. That means testing, monitoring and social tracing, as well as coming back in a low-density format, where we would only have on campus all of our freshmen and a relatively small group of about 200 or so upperclassmen, with each one having their own room and low-density use of our bathroom facilities. We could do those things. As well as requiring masks.

We’re privileged here at the Atlanta University Center because we have the Morehouse School of Medicine, which has a special expertise in community health. And so they took the lead in developing the protocols. All students were going to be tested before they could come on campus and they would have to have a negative test result to be given housing. And then we were going to have random testing throughout the semester using sort of common health care protocols for how you monitor. So that got us to July 1.

What was the collective decision-making process for the AUC?

We were watching the virus. And just to give you a sense of that, every week, the presidents of all of those schools would meet for at least an hour to be updated on our preparations and also to update ourselves on trends that were happening in the country, and here in Atlanta. So we thought we could open and we made that announcement. Relative to what I’ve heard, most other schools that have talked about opening are actually not requiring testing. And, you know, we just couldn’t understand how that could be.

Part of what was in this mixture is that all of the schools of the AUC agreed that it was best that we coordinate our decision to the maximum extent possible. Once it was decided that going virtual had become the right decision, some schools needed more time to work that through with their board and faculty than others. We had the advantage that I had already spoken to our board in April and gave them the expectation that the highest likelihood was that we would be virtual in the fall. My instructions to our student services and academic affairs people who were leading new-student orientation sessions was to emphasize to people that this is a fluid situation.

When was the final decision to go virtual made?

Everyone agreed on what we thought was the right decision late Friday evening. We also agreed that some presidents needed time to go back and talk to their boards, so we would embargo the decision until Monday morning, which was the official release. The decision actually leaked out and the next thing we knew, it was out on social media Sunday. But since we were coming out Monday morning at 8 o’clock with the decision, it didn’t do any harm.

How much would the Morehouse testing program have cost? Was your decision to test based on funding from the CARES Act?

We’re talking about $100 per test. So you can just do the math of 2,200 students times $100. We’re not doing an extra assessment on students. So that’s the college picking that up, and another 200 random tests each week.

When we decided to explore the hybrid, low-density model, where we would require the testing, we committed to that before we knew how much money we were going to get from portions of the CARES Act. That said, once we realized that we were gonna get substantial dollars from the CARES Act, we were relieved, but we’ve really tried to say we should not make any of our decisions with finances being the priority.

Part of what was in this mixture is that all of the schools of the AUC agreed that it was best that we coordinate our decision to the maximum extent possible. Once it was decided that going virtual had become the right decision, some schools needed more time to work that through with their board and faculty than others. – Morehouse president David A. Thomas

Another example of that was that we were the first [NCAA] Division I or Division II school to announce that we would not have a fall sports season. This year was going to be the first year that football would actually be revenue-positive because we had made some changes to our schedule and we were playing more games that actually provide the school some revenue. We had moved the Morehouse-Tuskegee Classic to Birmingham for a much better financial arrangement with significant upside. And we were changing how we work with sponsors for athletics. We thought we were looking at a $200,000 to $250,000 positive contribution from those activities – from football in the fall. And that would be the first time in modern history that Morehouse sports made money. But we didn’t make that primary. Similarly, we didn’t start with ‘What’s the CARES Act going to allow us to do?’ before we decided that testing every student, every faculty member and staff would be a requirement for someone to come on the campus and take classes, teach classes or provide the ancillary services that support the school.

Some areas have seen dramatic protests around mask mandates. Why do you think that wouldn’t have been a problem at Morehouse?

The biggest symbol of challenges to leadership to me is the issue with masks. And there was a time when, not just the president, but some of our leading epidemiologists were saying that they didn’t think masks were central. So, you get locked in on that decision. And you get, you know, the governor of Georgia suing the mayor of Atlanta over masks when all the data is saying masks are one of the few things that we know reduce transmission. So now we need to move to a position where masks are the equivalent of seat belts, right? And now we require people to wear their seat belt because we know that it’s one of the few things that correlates with decreased mortality in car crashes. But I can remember in the 1960s, people were debating mandating seat belts.

Our students would experience no ambivalence in the messages from the school’s leadership and from the student leadership. And leadership matters. So students would step on this campus and it’d be very clear masks are required and social distancing is practiced and this is a no-handshake zone. The other reason I think that wouldn’t be an issue at a place like Morehouse and the other AUC schools is, we have a community, and I’ve been at lots of great institutions in my time, but I think there is a sense in this community greater than I’ve seen anywhere else, I’ve ever been or been associated with, where people really feel a responsibility for each other.

Everybody comes out of high school and it’s all about them, but by the time they finish their first semester at Morehouse, they’ve got a sense that they are part of something bigger than them. They don’t always know how to articulate it or what it is, but it’s, it’s there. And, you know, it starts in small ways, like at new-student orientation. There are a few events where the freshmen have to wear a white shirt and a tie. And the upperclassmen start coming over, straightening up their ties and then telling them to help their brother get his tie straight. Some of these guys have never tied a tie, right?

It’s a very visceral thing. Those are some of the things we’re working on, you know, like how do we create that even in a virtual environment. If we had been able to do that on campus, they would experience that and wearing your mask becomes incorporated into, this is not just about your tie, it’s about your brother’s tie. You wear your mask and it’s not about you, it’s about your brother’s mask. Because if you’re not spreading the virus, his mask doesn’t have to work as hard.

What do you think the Morehouse experience will be like this fall with the move to an all-virtual learning environment?

We’ve always been planning around three scenarios. Scenario one was the hopeful scenario that we thought was least likely to happen – this virus would take a dip and we could return in our normal format. Scenario two was the low-density hybrid format with freshmen on campus, a smattering of upperclassmen, a smattering of commuters, and scenario three was all-virtual. We devoted similar effort to planning around all three of those. Based on what we learned in the spring, we put out a requirement that all faculty who will teach in the fall have to be certified in online education and pedagogy. We realized that there’s a difference between remote instruction and online education and learning promotion instruction. You’re just delivering it on camera, so to speak, that’s remote instruction. Online education has a particular set of pedagogical methods that make it a dynamic learning environment, just like the Morehouse classroom that has much more hands-on activity that allows for small-group activities. So all of our faculty who are teaching our students this fall will be certified in that. And that means we’re going to create a much higher-quality learning experience.

What makes Morehouse special is community. So, we’re focused on how we build community among our students, even though they’re not here physically for in-person instruction, but also for cocurricular activity. We think we’ll deliver a high-quality experience this fall, even though our students won’t be here on campus, and we’re planning and we think the likelihood is there that we’ll be able to come back residential in the spring.

What are some of those virtual cocurriculars?

We were continuing certain practices, like our Crown Forum. It’s where all the students in the community come together and engage around topics that we think are generally important for Morehouse men. They range from issues of social justice to issues of culture. We continued that and perfected it. We also realized there were certain things that Morehouse students weren’t getting, so we created something called Tuesday Meditations, and that’s where we bring this sort of spiritual, philosophical set of considerations to our students. We developed something called Morehouse Notes, which was essentially a communication device.

Our students would experience no ambivalence in the messages from the school’s leadership and from the student leadership. And leadership matters. So students would step on this campus and it’d be very clear masks are required and social distancing is practiced and this is a no-handshake zone. – Morehouse president David A. Thomas

What are you planning for the spring 2021 semester? What do you think will happen?

We’re hoping for scenario one or two. We’re back in the low-density format; scenario two, or scenario one, cross our fingers and add some prayers, we’d be able to come back in our normal format and probably still enforcing masks being required. Essentially fully residential is what we’re hoping. Five months is a long time in terms of what turn the virus can take. If today Georgia looked like New York and the way it was able to bend the curve of the virus, Morehouse would be open in a residential format of some sort. I’m hoping that Georgia will at least be on that trajectory by the time we actually get to the middle of the fall.

We’d have to see the curve of infections and hospitalizations and deaths decline and be at least equivalent to where they were at the end of May. It was in that time period that we decided that the most likely option would be the hybrid on campus, residential option. If Georgia were to do what was necessary to make themselves look like New York state looks today, where I think they’re below 500 new infections a day, we think that would be manageable. The other thing that would be a game-changer would be if by January there was an effective vaccine broadly available here in Georgia that we could administer to all our students. Our capacity to do that would be greatly enhanced, because when the vaccine does come online, we have the Morehouse School of Medicine right here as part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, literally one block up the street from the college.

How do you balance the uncertainty of these times, of learning new things about the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly daily, with the need to make long-term decisions and maintain credibility?

I think it’s basically best practices in operating in an environment of extreme uncertainty. The moral hazard for leaders in moments like this is that you’re trying to inspire confidence in people at moments of legitimate worry. If you only plan around the moment and what you think is the right decision, then if you have to pivot, the hazard is that you essentially become a prisoner to that one decision that you thought was the right decision and you start to defend that rather than take in new information that allows you to pivot. By us saying we’re going to do everything we can to be totally online while at the same time, mid-May through June, we thought we could come up with a residential format.

We avoided being focused on being right by focusing on the right decision. We managed the tension between, as late as Saturday, having sessions where we were talking to people on the basis of the July 1 decision that we were going to be in a hybrid format. The tension was to be able to talk about that, but also alert people to the fact that we’re still monitoring the situation and not have them lose confidence in us where they say, ‘Well, gee, you know, these guys don’t really know what they’re doing. So are they credible?’ That’s a tension that many leaders, and I think some of what we’re seeing in our national and local politics is people having gotten locked into being right, rather than focused on the right decision.

Before I got to Morehouse, I had spent 30 years as a business school professor and dean of a business school, and I taught many courses on decision-making under uncertainty, in crisis. To me, it’s just best practices, whether you’re in an HBCU or PWI [predominantly white institution], whether you’re a large research university or small liberal arts college.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.