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Morehouse president’s priorities include the college’s financial outlook & issues of sexual assault

The operative word in David Thomas’ rhetoric is ‘community’

Ambition is priceless, it’s something that’s in your veins

Lyrics from Wale’s ‘Ambition’

As the newly appointed president summarized his plans for the future, it was clear that the word “overambitious” must not be in David Thomas’ vocabulary.

In his first news conference since assuming the role as Morehouse College’s 12th president, Thomas addressed how he plans to bring the institution into the 21st century.

From the outset of his discourse, Thomas’ business acumen was on full display. The majority of Thomas’ objectives, some of which include doubling alumni giving and increasing Morehouse’s endowment by over 100 percent, dealt with rectifying some of the institution’s financial woes.

“One of the challenges of Morehouse — and my own story is representative of it — is that we will need to do the work to garner more resources to support our work,” said Thomas, referencing his oft-told story of how Morehouse did not offer him an undergraduate scholarship.

Finance has not been the only issue plaguing the institution. Last November, the #WeKnowWhatYouDid campaign thrust the topic of sexual assault into the conversation of students across the Atlanta University Center (AUC) of Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Spelman College. Designed to call attention to the AUC’s history of mishandling sexual assaults, the movement gained traction throughout social media and even forced institutions to examine their own practices.

This was something that Morehouse SGA president Kam Rollins expressed to Thomas during one of their earlier meetings. It was Thomas who originally approached Rollins, inquiring about the campus culture as well as issues revolving around sexual assault. Their brief interaction sold Rollins on the future president:

“When he asked both questions, he sat and he listened,” said Rollins. “It was an open dialogue, and I think that was pretty powerful. There were other people there and they kind of tried to talk, and he was just like, ‘Hold on, I really want to listen to what they have to say.’ ”

Rollins wasn’t unique in his experience. Many students have reported having similar experiences with Thomas, a far cry from the institution’s recent history. Even more encouraging was the fact that this element of Thomas’ persona did not seem fabricated.

“When he started talking about sexual assault and also connecting with students and alumni,” said Moses Washington, a student trustee, “it felt genuine. It didn’t feel like he had to address just to address it. It felt real.”

Rollins’ statements didn’t fall on deaf ears. In fact, the newest member of Morehouse’s community made it a priority, one of Thomas’s first actions as president, to meet with Spelman College president Mary Schmidt Campbell to discuss how they could alleviate the recurring issues stemming from sexual assault.

“We are also committed, in this moment, to building what I like to call a healthy community,” said Thomas. “That is a community that is defined by respect. That is a community that will allow us to address some of the challenges to create a community where people feel safe, where people feel respected, where issues of harassment and assault, if not become nonexistent, become immediately addressed and people feel the integrity of their humanity is safe here at Morehouse.”

Despite the intertwined histories of Morehouse and Spelman, the U.S. Department of Education has required the institutions to handle their Title IX cases separately. Unfortunately, many issues have involved students from both campuses. Thomas hopes that this collaboration will be a catalyst.

“If she and I are linked, I think that facilitates the members of our communities feeling authorized and empowered to innovate and bring to us ideas that will make this a much healthier community and a much better relationship between two important institutions that have grown together for 150 years almost,” said Thomas.

Whether referencing his financial or educational goals, the operative word in Thomas’ rhetoric was “community.” His word choice was no coincidence. Rather, it suggests Thomas’ cognizance of the shared identity among him and the institution’s students, something that he believed added another layer of pressure.

“It feels weighty in ways that I didn’t experience at Georgetown,” said Thomas. “And part of that is that I wake up every day and walk outside my house and I see young men, I see young David Thomases.”

Despite these pressures, Thomas is excited, focusing on first mending his institution’s relationship with Spelman. In addition to collaborating with Spelman, Thomas planned to host a reception for those affiliated with the AUC and committed to minimizing the center’s number of sexual assaults. A community’s culture, according to Thomas, determined its future:

“In my view, the most powerful driver of behavior is the culture of the community,” said Thomas. “Culture establishes norms, it establishes expectations, it sends messages about what the standards are, and it’s the culture of Morehouse that will determine whether or not we live up to the greatness that Morehouse has represented in the past.”

Only time will tell whether Thomas’ objectives are overambitious or just extremely bold. Aside from his stellar résumé, part of the reason Thomas was chosen had to do with his lack of previous affiliation with the institution. Not since Benjamin E. Mays, who led Morehouse from 1940-67, has the institution had a non-alumnus at its helm.

Thomas enters the Morehouse community at a pivotal time in its history. Having just celebrated its sesquicentennial birthday, those connected with Morehouse want to know what it will take for this institution to sustain another 150 years. Thomas may be the answer.

His selection signals Morehouse’s willingness to journey the road less traveled. While Thomas’ financial objectives may seem far-fetched, it may be just what the institution needs.

At the end of the day, possibility is relative. If his early actions are any indication, Morehouse might have found the one to lead them to new heights.

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.