Morehouse President Thomas: What MLK Would Say About Inequality of COVID-19

PULSE ENCOUNTER SERIES

In 2013, historian Jon Meacham writing for the cover of Time magazine, called Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the architect of the 21st century, and a founding father in a commemorative edition to mark the 50th anniversary of the August 28, 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, where King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What followed later was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

But the civil rights leader, intellectual giant and most prominent anti-poverty crusader of the last century would perhaps not have had a consequential and enduring impact on American life, and the global community at large, without the training he received at Morehouse College under the tutelage of its former president Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. The historically black male college in the nation continues to shape men into greatness, and it remains a powerful educational force of excellence and bearing testament to the intellectual prowess of the institution.

Given how COVID-19 has lifted the veil on America’s perennial underclass especially African Americans, who are mostly dying from the pandemic,  journalist Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s anti-poverty think tank, turns to Dr. David Thomas, the 12th president of Morehouse College, and the former dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business to put in perspective the historic nature of the virus that is ravaging black lives, how the college is responding, and what its most famous alumnus Dr. King would say about the pandemic today.

PULSE: How is Morehouse responding to the pandemic? 

DAVID THOMAS: Morehouse College has taken proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff from the threat of COVID-19. Our efforts began in mid-February and early March after consulting with our Emergency Management Team. During the first week of March, we canceled all faculty-led international trips, and then later cut faculty-led domestic travel as it became clear that the outbreak was reaching the pandemic level. We made contact with our students studying abroad to make sure that they were safe, and also met regularly with our colleagues at the Atlanta University Center. It was clear from the path that COVID-19 was taking from Asia to Europe and the United States, that the virus was highly infectious. Currently, nearly 4 million cases of the virus have been confirmed worldwide.

We, at the Atlanta University Center are in such close proximity that we agreed that we needed to speak as one voice regarding some of the key strategies involving the education of our students for the remainder of the Spring Semester. The AUC is composed of Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University. Many of our students take classes throughout the AUC.

On March 12, 2020, Morehouse announced that all campus events had been canceled and that Spring Break would be extended by one week so students could transition to online instruction. Our fellow AUC institutions also canceled in-person instruction. Morehouse also decided to allow non-essential staff to work remotely. We wanted to be sure that our faculty and staff were also out of harm’s way.

We continue to communicate with our community of students, faculty, and staff about our plans for summer instruction and beyond. In working with the president of the Class of 2020 and the Student Government Association, we decided to postpone our 136th annual Commencement ceremony until December 13. While the new plans might temporarily break from our history of having a May Commencement, pushing the ceremony to December gives us time to have it as far out as possible yet still within the same calendar year. We will create new college history by demonstrating the level leadership, cooperation, and trust needed to thrive despite unprecedented circumstances.

PULSE: How is the transition to online learning? 

DAVID THOMAS: The Morehouse experience is built on the foundation of brotherhood, scholarship, and leadership in a shared academic environment.  However, due to the risk of exposure to COVID-19, Morehouse decided to move instruction online to prevent our community from teaching, learning, and working in close proximity.

Online instruction began on March 23 and has continued throughout the semester. Our summer classes will also be virtual.

The transition was not without its challenges. Faculty had to quickly optimize their in-person lessons and classes for the very different online medium – and, that included getting home offices set up and being trained on that platform. We had an intensive period of professional development for our faculty to get them up to speed. We continue to support them. They are doing a great job, and they are open to feedback from their students.

Our students have responded to surveys that gauge how we are doing in the delivery of their online classes. They tell us what is going right and what is in need of improvement. We have made some modifications based on their suggestions.

We have also developed strategies to build community online. Now, between online classes, administrators check in on the emotional health and financial needs of distant learners several times a week to provide them with support, spiritual guidance, and motivational talks. It is helping our students to cope with the distance and build closer ties across the miles.

Graduating students at the 2019 commencement ceremony at Morehouse College.
Photo Credit: Morehouse College

PULSE: Do you see online education as an opportunity to extend higher education to low-income students? 

DAVID THOMAS: Morehouse was already exploring strategies to help us grow revenue online before the pandemic hit. We had developed virtual academic courses for students that some utilized last summer and during the academic year. We will continue to build on those opportunities. Just a couple of weeks before the coronavirus disease began to accelerate in the United States, we were working on the late stages of the strategic plan, which would include an online offering in the long term.  

Expanding our presence online is an opportunity to provide the College with an alternative revenue stream. It would bring Morehouse a new customer base beyond the borders of our campus. We are now developing a menu of professional development courses and online programs that will be open to the public regardless of gender or matriculation.

Our first such endeavor, Momentum@Morehouse, will be an immersive 12-week coding school for career-changers and skill-seekers interested in software development that launches online on May 26, 2020. It offers high-demand computer programming instruction, along with career coaching, industry connections, and more. Morehouse is partnering with Momentum Learning, a North Carolina-based coding academy, and Opportunity HUB (OHUB), a global, technology and startup platform based in Atlanta, for this new 12-week course.

In the future, Morehouse could also develop online programs and classes for high school students, educators and others seeking professional development, and those who are incarcerated and are striving to improve their lives.

PULSE: What’s been the greatest challenge for the college during this crisis? 

DAVID THOMAS: Social isolation has given me time to think about the interactions that I miss. At the top of the list is in-person teaching with the Socratic method and learning with my students and executives. Being virtual can be really disorienting.

People lose a sense of connectedness with the place that has been home for them and the underpinning of the Morehouse experience, which is rooted in relationships, mentoring, and advising. Our collegial environment goes beyond the typical experience that one would receive at a state residential college. Our small, family atmosphere is the heartbeat for Morehouse.

We’ve done a good job addressing that through virtual town halls and Crown Forum discussions, through “House Notes,” an online community conversation, through our virtual Admitted Students Day, and other outreach. It is not easy for our faculty and staff to maintain, and it is never a replacement for being present with colleagues and students.

One of the biggest challenges we are still facing now is knowing when to make that call to commit to online or in-person instruction in the fall. The decision will be no small task. I join my colleagues at liberal arts institutions across the nation who are navigating through the fog of uncertainty. We are writing the playbook on leading in higher ed through a pandemic as we go, and I know that we have a lot of tough decisions ahead of us.

PULSE: How is Morehouse meeting the challenges of students facing difficulties during this period? 

DAVID THOMAS: More than 90 percent of Morehouse students are eligible for financial aid. When we extended Spring Break for a week in March to allow our students to evacuate the campus, several of them expressed that leaving Morehouse would be a financial hardship. They needed assistance with travel costs, housing, meals, technology and other support to make a successful transition to online instruction.

The Morehouse College Office of Institutional Advancement launched the “Funds for Morehouse” Campaign to help raise money so that displaced students could continue their education without interruption. More than $260,000 was raised in less than a month. Currently, contributions for the fund have reached more than $450,000. The campaign also includes in-kind gifts and services, as well as other money supplied through the Student Emergency Assistance Fund.

Morehouse used some of those donations to secure temporary housing off campus at downtown Atlanta’s Embassy Suites for about 20 students who were in need of emergency accommodations and wireless service. The students receive visits by administrators who check on their progress and parent association members who bring care packages.

The Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College.
Photo Credit: Morehouse College

PULSE: Black colleges like Morehouse depend on philanthropy. Has this pandemic interrupted that financial support? 

DAVID THOMAS: Social-distancing measures, shelter-in-place orders, and air travel restrictions have made fundraising during a pandemic challenging. We have canceled several fund-raising trips that were scheduled this spring. That said, we are still raising money without making personal visits to each donor.

On Giving Tuesday, for example, Morehouse raised more than $224,000 in our online campaign to rally support for the College. Contributions are still being recorded.

We are fortunate that the Morehouse mission resonates with our community and supporters worldwide, even during difficult times. Morehouse is focused on developing men to be leaders who are academically excellent and committed to service. A Morehouse education has produced a steady pipeline of predominantly black men who learn under the expectation of excellence — an expectation that they will not only graduate and get competitive jobs, but also create jobs, and lead corporations, communities, and nations.

I look forward to the day when our students will return to campus to learn in-person and experience the transformative opportunities that we have to offer them. I look forward to the day that a vaccine is found for COVID-19, face masks are no longer needed, and I can high five the men of Morehouse as I pass them on the yard. More than half of those young men are the first in their families to go to college. I was the first in my family to attend college, and I longed to go to Morehouse, but could not afford the price of tuition.

Before COVID-19, I would spend several days each month on the road talking to philanthropists and potential corporate partners about the important work we are doing at Morehouse. I am determined to raise money so that deserving students who want a Morehouse education will be able to attend this college. I appreciate the support our community has given us despite our distance from them.

PULSE: Is there support for black colleges like Morehouse in the current stimulus packages that have been doled out so far? 

DAVID THOMAS: Yes, Morehouse will benefit from the $1 billion in federal emergency funds that were allocated to Historically Black Colleges and Universities to defray some of the costs caused by the pandemic. The assistance is needed for HBCUs, but it will not be enough, however, to keep some small campuses from suffering financially, particularly if a second wave of COVID-19 hits in December.

Enrollment for HBCUs and other liberal arts colleges will decline in Fall 2020. We are projecting a 25 percent dip in enrollment at Morehouse. Most liberal arts colleges have a tuition-driven model. Institutions operating without large, multi-million-dollar enrollments will face budget challenges. Last month, for example, Urbana University, a small liberal-arts institution northwest of Columbus, Ohio, closed due to the impact of COVID-19 on enrollment and finances at the college.

I’m personally cutting my pay by 25% to support our efforts to continue to deliver a world-class education to students. As the nation’s only historically black college focused on educating men, Morehouse has devoted more than 153 years to the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of leaders. Today, more than ever before, the world needs Morehouse and the critical thinkers and moral leaders that we produce.

PULSE: Given the national reputation of Morehouse School of Medicine, is the college’s medical expertise being sought out in the search for a vaccine for the virus?  

DAVID THOMAS: The Atlanta University Center is playing a key role in the national conversation on the spread of COVID-19 in the black community. Professors at Morehouse School of Medicine and Morehouse College have provided national perspective about how the coronavirus is impacting the health and finances of people of color, as well as the obstacles that small, minority businesses are facing as they struggle to survive under the new normal. Many of the businesses hardest hit in the pandemic are small businesses owned by people of color. Morehouse has offered our expertise to help small business owners access the resources that they need to survive.

Our Morehouse Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center facilitated the webinar series “Your Voice, Our Community,” which offered strategies to help small businesses navigate the COVID-19 landscape. Topics included accessing financial resources from local banks, applying for SBA and PPP loans, as well as other grants and opportunities, marketing businesses in the digital space, managing cashflow in a crisis, and pivoting your business to stay afloat. The average attendance for our weekly webinars has been between 80-100 participants. Along with our partner Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), we continue to assist small businesses in understanding the application process for loans and grants. We’ve also launched a COVID-19 small business resource web page as part of our Ascend Atlanta website. We continue to virtually support the 130 Ascend Atlanta alumni small businesses with virtual cohort sessions focusing on pivoting to recovery.  

PULSE: Are you participating in any research relating to this pandemic? 

DAVID THOMAS: Yes, Morehouse College professors are working on research related to the pandemic. Our Center for Excellence in Education has received grant funding to study how isolation and the move to online learning is affecting our students, some of whom struggle in the digital divide because they lack adequate access to reliable internet and computers. We have provided them with resources so that they could make a successful transition to online learning. The digital divide is another battlefield in the fight for social justice because it is directly linked to income disparities between racial groups. Black and Hispanic families are at the lowest rungs of the household income scale.

According to Pew Research Center’s study on the digital divide, nearly half of adults with a yearly household income of $30,000 do not own a computer. Six in 10 adults with an annual household income of at least $100,000 or more, however, own multiple devices for their children to use for homework.

Low income students are more likely to use cell phones to complete homework assignments if they cannot use computer labs at school. One in four students enrolled in the nation’s 101 Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) are low income.

I am also proud to share that Morehouse was recognized by elected officials in South Georgia for our work in helping to shield public safety workers from the threat of COVID-19 infection. A 3-D printer that was purchased for our STEM outreach at a Clayton County middle school was used to make faceguards for Clayton County police and firefighters on the frontlines.

PULSE: Martin Luther King Jr. belongs to Morehouse, whose legacy can’t be separated from the college. King in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” championed Universal Basic Income (UBI) to guarantee a decent living wage for every American. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week said she’s open to the idea of a UBI in the wake of the pandemic. How does Morehouse regard this new development in advancing the idea of a UBI and what role do you see the college playing in a national conversation of this issue in furthering King’s legacy? 

DAVID THOMAS: Dr. King was a champion of worker’s rights and organized labor. In fact, the last speech that he gave on April 3, 1968, was to support sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis, Tenn. because they wanted union recognition and fair wagesThat day he said: “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

The discussion of a Universal Basic Income that would guarantee a decent living wage for every American aligns with King’s fight against poverty, which is an economic issue that spans the racial divide. The staggering unemployment caused by COVID-19 has resulted in more than 30 million jobless claims being filed since March. People of all races and ethnicities are beginning to experience the struggle in the margins that many black families endure on a daily basis –the struggle to pay rent, to buy food, to afford health care.

I would hope that this experience leads to more conversations about income disparities rooted in racism and implicit bias. The ability to earn a living is a basic human right for workers. If we can emerge from this pandemic with greater unity around issues of pay for the economically disadvantaged, we would have achieved something positive out of such a tragic period of history.

PULSE: As the leader of Dr. King’s alma mater, what in your view would King say about this coronavirus moment and moving beyond it, how should the nation finally address the issues of poverty and inequality championed by King, that this pandemic has exposed? 

DAIVD THOMAS: One of the lessons we have learned from this pandemic is how interconnected the world is. I am reminded of the quote from Dr. King: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

For a moment in time, we put aside our differences and came together as a state, a nation, and world to slow the spread of this disease – Democrats and Republicans, majority races and minority races, Americans and citizens of the world. This is the kind of caring and support that King championed.

But this feeling of togetherness has been short-lived as states have placed the health and safety of vulnerable populations and other citizens in jeopardy by rolling back shelter-in-place orders. Black people are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate than any other group due primarily to poverty and the lack of access to adequate health care—issues rooted in systemic racism. The health of the local economy is taking precedent over the health of people. It is as if the coronavirus has now been labeled as a primarily black and poor disease and it is not as important to protect the public.

I believe that if King were still with us, he would reiterate the fact that we have an enduring system of inequality in America that devalues the contributions and lives of black and brown people. Racism, poverty, and war still divides us.

To change the direction of this nation, we must register to vote and come to the polls in large numbers. For King, the right to vote was sacred. We must take up that mantle and be the change we want to see.

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