George T. French, Jr., Ph.D, became the newest president of Clark Atlanta University (CAU) in September 2019, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was not officially inaugurated as the institution’s fifth president until this April.
The world may have shut down during his first two years as president, but that doesn’t mean the work stopped. French focused on meeting the needs of the students, establishing partnerships to provide free laptops, paying down student debt and creating a platform so students’ concerns could be immediately heard and addressed.
After the inauguration ceremony, French took some time to be interviewed by The Atlanta Voice, to talk about his plans and vision for the institution, which was established in 1988 by the historic consolidation of Atlanta University (1865) and Clark College (1869).
The Atlanta Voice: Considering that being a president of an HBCU is one of the hardest jobs in the country, why did you want to take the job at Clark Atlanta?
President George T. French, Jr.: I was at Miles College as president for 15 years. I had reached my long term goals well ahead of schedule and as I was determining whether or not I was going to take on another 10 years, because when I looked at new goals, it would have taken another eight to 10 years to complete. I decided I wanted a different challenge, and the challenge of (administering) a larger university.
AV: So is it a challenge?
GF: (Laughs) Stan, I got everything I’ve asked for. When I arrived [at Clark Atlanta], COVID-19 hit. It is indeed a challenge, but it’s such a huge opportunity.
AV: What issues did the school’s board of trustees want you to focus on during your first five years at CAU?
GF: The number one reason they invited me was for my fundraising experience. They want a $100 million capital campaign. But after doing an assessment, it was determined that that amount would not scratch the need. So, I increased it to a quarter of a billion dollar capital campaign. Number two was to be sure we stabilized our enrollment. And third was to increase our research capacity. We are one of the few Carnegie Research Institutions among HBCUs (11 total). We don’t have enough research capacity for us to be considered a serious contender within this space.
AV: Where does CAU stand when it comes to enrollment?
GF: We’re just at 4,000, which includes undergraduates and grad students. Our physical capacity could handle 5,000, which I feel would be better for stability.
AV: Considering the competitiveness of colleges and universities when it comes to recruitment, how does CAU get the good students to commit to the school?
GF: Within the landscape of HBCUs, we are not monolithic. We have different classes, different missions, we have different capacities. Your choice was between Howard and Clark. Truth of the matter is that you don’t have to sell those schools. The question is, what kind of financial aid package can you offer the best and the brightest. It’s not that they don’t want to come to CAU; it’s how can we make it advantageous to them financially.
We know we are in an environment where national debt is up and student loan debt is increasing exponentially. But the fact of the matter is that when you graduate from a top tier HBCU like Clark Atlanta University, you are going to see the natural return on your investment. We try to keep the dollars down as much as we can. We can’t lower tuition, so we have to increase aid to our students. That is the main challenge when it comes to recruiting.
AV: How is the capital campaign going?
GF: Right now, in our $250 million campaign, we are just under $50 million raised. We are doing very well. It is a 10 year campaign.
AV: I may need to start doing a recurring gift.
GF: We don’t get those big million dollar gifts from alumni, but those recurring and annual gifts really make a difference.
AV: In your opinion are HBCUs changing fast enough to keep pace with a forever changing workplace?
GF: It is a challenge. We make adjustments based on the marketplace. We have done well. We need to do better. At CAU, in the last two months, I’ve met with about 17 different tech companies, and my question to them is not what resources or internships can you provide to our students now, but more importantly, what are the jobs that don’t exist today that I need to be preparing my students for. They have the information about what the marketplace is going to require much more so than we. That’s why we meet with them on a regular basis: to prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist currently.
Currently, CAU is keeping up very well with the marketplace in all aspects, whether its mass media arts from a journalistic perspective, whether it’s a digital approach, expanding our scope in business to entrepreneurship and innovation; so, we aren’t just training our students to get a job. In education, we have the latest teaching and learning mechanisms. We’ve done well. We can do better in the STEM disciplines and in some of the hard research areas, and we will do better with more financial support from the federal government.
(Washington is an alum of Clark College (1976) and a former staffer at Clark Atlanta University for nine years, from 1983-1991.)