Knowing God and having an opportunity to lead Clark Atlanta University during “a time as this,” are a couple of truisms that George T. French Jr. has been grateful for when he reflected on his first year of service as the sixth president of the Atlanta historically Black university.
Clark Atlanta University emerged from the consolidation of Atlanta University and Clark College in 1988. Its founding institutions each enjoyed more than a dozen leaders at their respective helms dating back to 1865 and 1869.
French, who was hired at Clark Atlanta from Miles College in 2019, had to face the challenges of losing a student weeks after arriving and helming the Atlanta University Center’s largest institution during a global pandemic.
“It’s actually been a phenomenal year,” French said. “When you look at the fact that we are dealing with a global pandemic, and we were able to migrate online fully for nearly 4,000 students and several hundred faculty and staff it’s unbelievable that we’ve been able to sustain our enrollment.”
Additional government funding helped the school with protecting it from spreading the coronavirus and facing a potential debt that would’ve also been catastrophic. The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act protected higher education institutions across the country and Clark Atlanta was no exception.
“So the CARES Act had a special funding set aside for HBCUs, which was right at about $1 billion,” French explained. “So all HBCUs and PWIs (Public White Institutions) were able to benefit from those CARES Act funds, and, particularly, Clark Atlanta University, we were able to recoup some of our losses due to the CARES Act being passed.”
When Clark Atlanta and the other AUC member schools decided to migrate to virtual learning after spring break, the question immediately emerged about what steps to undergo when the students would be scheduled to return to campus to start the fall semester in September.
When French realized that over 97 percent of the student body were from areas of the nation that were considered “hotspots” for spreading COVID-19 at the time, he and the other AUC presidents met once again to make a unified decision to continue virtual learning into the next semester.
Relieved, French said, “It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, we’re now being commended for making that tough decision and finally allowed my leadership team to change our paradigm to being wholly informed by data in our decision-making process.”
A few weeks after his arrival at Clark Atlanta, French would have to use his pastoral experience to help heal the school after the murder of a student, Alexis Crawford, in October 2019.
Crawford, an Athens, Georgia native, was reported missing from her on-campus apartment and later found in a Dekalb County Park. Another Clark Atlanta student, Jordyn Jones — Crawford’s roommate and “best friend” — was one of two suspects in Crawford’s murder.
According to reports, Jones and Crawford got into a physical altercation. Jones’s boyfriend, Atlanta native Barron Brantley, later got involved in the fight.
“As a result of the physical altercation, Barron Brantley choked the victim until she was deceased,” an Atlanta Police Department report says. “Afterwards, Jones and Brantley placed Alexis Crawford in a plastic bin and transported her body to Exchange Park in Decatur, GA, where they placed her body in the woods.”
Jones and Brantley were later charged with felony murder. Following a week-long search for Crawford, Brantley admitted to investigators he had choked and killed her, according to court documents.
For the five days Crawford was missing, French provided counseling, consulting, and ministering to his students and Crawford’s family before her body was recovered by detectives and medical examiners. Distraught from their grief, Crawford’s family asked French to deliver the eulogy at her funeral.
When asked to speak, French’s reacted, “that allowed us as a community to come together, and to actually embrace my leadership early on, perhaps earlier than some may have done otherwise.”
French’s rollercoaster of a year not only brought with it the challenges of navigating a global pandemic, but it also brought in an uproar of police brutality and racial injustice that would potentially affect his students.
For French, the murders of unarmed Black men and women like Brunswick native, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor by the hands of law enforcement was an issue that could not be swept under the rug anymore.
“The social unrest was needed and our nation had become comfortable,” French said. “In some instances, the murders, the abuses of our people, they had become such a common thing that they had to be addressed.”
When citizens emerged from their quarantines in peaceful protest of a wave of incidents in early summer, French himself embraced the movement by making sure his students were socially conscious and equally aware of similar struggles that took place during the Civil Rights Movement.
He mentored his students in the spirit of the mentorship that Benjamin Mays and Mahatma Gandhi provided to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on being deliberate, international, and methodic when he stood for justice in the 1950s.
“So we taught our students that you have methods of protest, which include requests for negotiations and demands before protests even took place,” French explained, emphasizing the power that comes with people of color having a presence in spaces that will permanently affect change.
“We at (Clark Atlanta) do not just protest certain issues, but to also make sure that we research those issues and that we have data to support our decisions, so that not only are we in the streets marching on Saturday and Sunday but on Monday morning, we’re in the boardroom making demands for changes in policy that would assist our people to make advances in society that they may not be able to make or have made before.”
When Rayshard Brooks was killed by the hands of an Atlanta Police officer in a fast-food parking lot off of University Avenue in June, Clark Atlanta alumna and Slutty Vegan restauranteur Pinky Cole reached out to French to see what her alma mater could do to help.
When presented with the opportunity to help the Brooks family, French said he “unequivocally didn’t have to have any deliberation” upon Cole’s request. Days later, French pledged full scholarships to all of Brooks’s five children, which will pass down generational education to his family.
“The very premise of education is that it does break cyclical generational barriers,” French said, “and it’s the great equalizer of being one generation that receives an education is impactful for the generations to follow.”
The demand for change has also empowered Clark Atlanta to receive large donations from the likes of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and his wife, Patty Quillin, who is among several wealthy donors and large corporations who had made contributions to HBCUs like Clark Atlanta.
A couple of weeks ago, author and philanthropist McKenzie Scott donated $15 million to the institution, the largest single gift in the university’s history.
The majority of these donations are inspired by the social injustice that African Americans have had to endure and French said he is supportive of their charitable giving.
“They realize the social unrest,” French said. “They realize the disparities economically and educationally within our society, and applaud them for taking action for taking note and not just turning their heads.”
French announced in November that the school will begin a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning for the spring semester in 2021. Classes for the spring 2021 semester are scheduled to begin on Feb. 1.
The university, along with other AUC member institutions, has implemented a rigorous science-based safety strategy which includes ongoing COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, isolation, quarantine, and treatment measures to mitigate the transmission of the virus.