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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Morehouse Searches for a Leader and a Way to Keep Making Gains

At an unspeakably early hour for college students on a Sunday, several dozen young men recently boarded buses here, dressed so elegantly they appeared to be engaged in silent sartorial combat. One even wore an ascot.

“Gentleman,” the dean would remind them, “remove your hats, please.”

Morehouse, the only all-male historically black college in the country, has long possessed an aura of impeccability and privilege. Founded to serve newly freed slaves, it has educated generations of the black elite, counting among its graduates Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta; David Satcher, a former surgeon general; the film director Spike Lee; and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But if its place in history is secure, Morehouse’s future has often, in the past decade, seemed precarious. And it will reach a milestone this spring, when Walter E. Massey, who became president in 1995, retires. Dr. Massey has been credited with helping the college rebound from hard times. As Morehouse searches for a replacement, many students and faculty members say the stakes are high if the college is to consolidate its gains.

When Dr. Massey took over, applications were declining because the country’s top colleges had stepped up their pursuit of qualified black men. The historic campus in the heart of Atlanta was aging. The endowment, at $118 million, is still relatively tiny; Swarthmore, a smaller institution, has more than $1 billion.

This year, applications are expected to reach 3,100, up from fewer than 2,700 last year. Four new buildings have been completed, and the ground will soon be broken for a fifth, a performing arts center.

Last year, the college took custody of the papers of Dr. King, bought with $32 million raised by Atlanta’s mayor, Shirley Franklin. And the college completed its largest fund-raising effort to date, a capital campaign taking in $120 million.

Not all the news has been good. In August, Morehouse dropped in an annual ranking by Black Enterprise magazine, from the top institution for African-Americans to No. 45. Dr. Massey said this was because the magazine placed more weight on graduation rates and used data from a Morehouse class that had a particularly low one.

The college has since introduced a scholarship for upperclassmen, to help increase the graduation rate, now at 61 percent. It has also received a $500,000 grant to recruit Hispanic students.

Over the summer, four former students were charged with murdering a current student in what prosecutors say was a robbery attempt. In September, students from Spelman, Morehouse’s sister school, marched on campus in protest after rumors of multiple rapes, which later proved unfounded, by Morehouse students. The result was soul-searching throughout the campus.

“The guys just felt, you know, that the world was collapsing,” Dr. Massey said. “I tried to put it in perspective” by explaining that the timing of the episodes was coincidental.

This year, Morehouse began requiring interviews for applicants, a move that some students on campus viewed as a response to the murder indictments, but that the administration says was done to match the practices of other exclusive colleges.

Naturally the college wants a new leader who will continue to raise its profile. But alumni and students, some of whom fret over the inroads of hip-hop and gangsta cultures on campus, have also wondered whether the choice of someone like the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, would signal a renewed emphasis on moral leadership. Mr. Butts, who is also president of SUNY College at Old Westbury, is one of the many influential black pastors still minted at Morehouse.

Other frequently mentioned candidates include Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund; Robert Franklin Jr., a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory; and John S. Wilson, a faculty member and former executive dean at George Washington University’s Virginia campus. All are, like Dr. Massey, “Morehouse men,” or graduates of the college.

Dr. Massey, a physicist who directed the National Science Foundation under President George H. W. Bush, left the post of provost of the University of California system to return to Morehouse because, he said, he thought he could have a greater impact at a small institution. He said his goal was to push Morehouse into the ranks of the country’s top liberal arts colleges. But one of his first jobs on arrival was raising money.

“We really had not had, in 20 or 30 years, a capital campaign,” he said. “There was no focused and concerted effort to generate funds and support. But the name Morehouse always resonated positively, even though people didn’t know too much about it. Some people didn’t even know it was all-male.”

Playing on, and against, the much-discussed plight of young black men, Dr. Massey tapped celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who has given $11 million during Dr. Massey’s tenure, and Ray Charles, who gave $2 million to the capital campaign. Other contributors include David Geffen, who gave $500,000.

Dr. Massey persuaded corporations like Bank of America, Motorola and American Express to think of their contributions as substantial investments rather than token support. All three became major givers. “We’re not a charity. We’re not a poor small struggling school in the South that’s going to fail if you don’t give it money,” Dr. Massey said, recounting his sales pitch. “I also make the case that not all black men are in danger of falling off a cliff.”

A sign that the college was meeting its academic goals came in 2003, Dr. Massey said, when a study by The Wall Street Journal ranked Morehouse 29th on a list of the top 50 feeder schools for the country’s most prestigious graduate programs, ahead of Emory, Brandeis, Reed and Washington University in St. Louis.

Still, Dr. Massey points out that despite its prestige, Morehouse is poor. Its endowment breaks down to $42,000 per student, compared with $360,000 per student at nearby Emory and more than $1 million per student at the wealthiest institutions.

Emory recently announced larger tuition grants for lower-middle-class students, thus creating even stiffer competition for Morehouse, which cannot afford such policies. Morehouse’s graduation rate is relatively low in part because upperclassmen simply run out of money, said Sterling H. Hudson III, the dean of admissions and records.

For prospective students, a big selling point of the college is the “Morehouse mystique,” which holds that its graduates are recognizable by their bearing (the saying goes, “You can tell a Morehouse man, but you can’t tell him much”).

In interviews, students brim with ambition and loyalty. “I have a lot of classmates who want to someday be the president of the college,” said Marcus Edwards, the departing student body president.

That pride means that when Morehouse hits a rough patch, as it did when the former students were charged, morale plummets. As part of the soul-searching, Dr. Massey said he reviewed the records of the four men, but found no red flags.

But he did find a way to buck up the student body. “I said, ‘The more prominent Morehouse becomes, the more anything that happens here is going to be newsworthy.’ ”


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