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Morehouse College president
tells Northeastern undergraduates
they have been ‘a candle
in the dark’

David Thomas, parent of a D’Amore-McKim grad, both received an honorary degree and gave the keynote speech at the undergraduate ceremony at Fenway Park on Sunday, May 5.

Headshot of David Thomas.
David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, spoke at Northeastern University’s 2024 undergraduate commencement ceremony. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern University’s 2024 commencement.

Morehouse College and Northeastern University may seem like drastically different schools. One is a historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta. The other is a global research university renowned for its experiential learning programs.

But they have something in common, Morehouse College President David Thomas said during his address at Northeastern University’s undergraduate commencement at Fenway Park on Sunday.

“It may not seem obvious at first, but both institutions are unique or distinct at what they do best,” Thomas said.

Thomas, an honorary degree recipient, has a long history of working in higher education. He was a dean and professor at Harvard, Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania before joining Morehouse in 2018.

During his speech, Thomas opined on what he’s learned about dreams, purpose and failure throughout his career — from the “dream killer” that prompted him to give up on his childhood goal of becoming president of the United States to his failure to become the dean of Harvard Business School, which led him to becoming president of Morehouse.

He also reflected on the challenges the class of 2024 has faced, from COVID-19 impacting many of them early in their academic careers at Northeastern to the current global strife. Because of this, Thomas said this class is “stronger than any generation of students we have seen … over the last 40 years.”

“Yet out of this period, Northeastern has emerged stronger,” he said. “Northeastern’s distinctive competencies in experiential education, its focus on bringing together theory and practice. … There’s more demand for what makes Northeastern unique than there has ever been because they provided a light. 

“At Morehouse, we have a phrase that we are a candle in the dark,” he said. “In that way, we are a sister to Northeastern. You have been a candle in the dark.”

Thomas closed his speech by urging graduates to remember to find the humanity in others and “not see them as the other.”

“The highest purpose of education,” he said, “is to create individuals prepared to protect the humanity of those on the planet, to understand that we are all connected in our humanity.

“It starts with empathy,” he said. “It is accompanied by respect … and it must be accompanied by courage not just to see people’s humanity, but the courage to step up for people’s humanity — especially in those moments we’re seeing now. … We must all have the courage to step up and protect humanity lest we lose our humanness.”

Thomas is a consultant and author. He’s co-written three books: “Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience”; “Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America”; and “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County.” He’s also led successful capital campaigns for corporations, nonprofits and governments around the world.

Thomas grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale University, as well as another master’s degree from Columbia University. 

With the conferring of his honorary degree, he joked he became a Husky alongside his daughter, Somer, who graduated from D’Amore-McKim School of Business in 2019.

“You dedicated yourself to creating positive change in the world, pursuing the field of organizational behavior to deploy, to explore the synergies between people and institutions,” said Kellee Tsai, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. 

“You became a global voice for the idea that organizations benefit from diversity, only when they fully empower people to make a difference. Now you are creating a dynamic platform for talented young Black men to achieve their dreams while staying true to their authentic self.”