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A Higher Calling: How the Presidents of Morehouse and Simmons Are Expanding Access to Education

Written by Ebony Lee on Aug 23, 2021

Related content: Higher Education, Leadership

L-R: Dr. Lynn Wooten (President, Simmons University), Dr. David Thomas (President, Morehouse College), Ebony Lee (Managing Director, Graduate Programs, 2U), and David Sutphen (Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer, 2U)

A couple of weeks ago, several of my 2U colleagues and I traveled to San Diego to attend the 2021 ASU+GSV Summit, which every year brings together leading minds from around the world to share their insights into the future of education, work, and innovation. One of the most memorable sessions of the conference featured two extraordinary leaders I’m proud to work alongside, Dr. David Thomas and Dr. Lynn Wooten, the presidents of Morehouse College and Simmons University. They discussed how embracing digital transformation has helped their institutions expand access to high-quality education, support lifelong learners, and accelerate opportunities for traditionally underrepresented populations.

Hearing from the leaders of these two 2U university partners was incredibly inspiring, as they each spoke to their respective institutional experience. Read on to learn why they feel the world needs more schools like Morehouse and Simmons, how online education is expanding and extending their mission, and why the right digital transformation partner makes all the difference.

The World Needs More Schools Like Morehouse and Simmons

As the nation’s only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) dedicated to the development of men, Morehouse College has spent more than 150 years empowering students to “defy racial gravity” and assume leadership roles across industries.

“Two years after the Civil War, our founder decided that we could do something that most people in this country thought was not possible, which was to educate formerly enslaved men at high levels to be leaders to serve their community,” explained Thomas. “Today at Morehouse, we continue to defy the racial gravity of this nation. We represent the ability to create Black male excellence at scale."

Not only is this mission exceptional—it’s essential. As Thomas put it, “The world needs schools like Morehouse creating an environment for young Black men with the assumption of excellence.”

Since its founding in 1899, Simmons University has pursued an equally inspiring mission of expanding opportunities for women and forging fields that advance equity and justice locally and globally. Part of this process, explained Wooten, is building a “village that supports students” of all backgrounds.

“Students need access to cost-efficient education with a strong ROI as well as faculty members who believe in them and are committed to providing them with transformative learning experiences,” she explained. “That’s what we provide at Simmons. We create a culture of lifting as we climb.”

L-R: David Sutphen, Dr. David Thomas, and Dr. Lynn Wooten speaking at this year's ASU+GSV Summit

Online Education Expands Access and Extends Institutional Missions

Thomas and Wooten both view online education as an opportunity to support institutional imperatives.

“It occurred to me that Morehouse had only ever delivered education in one modality: students would come to our 66-acre campus for four years to get their degrees in person,” explained Thomas. “But by going online, we had the opportunity to bring Morehouse to the world, not just bring the world to Morehouse.”

By providing welcome flexibility, online education supports lifelong learners throughout their careers. “A number of people applying [to our programs] who are ages 50+ do not want a degree for a job, but to complete themselves,” said Thomas.

Similarly, launching online degree programs has allowed Simmons to expand access and support learners across a variety of ages, geographies, and backgrounds. Today, this near-decade-long partnership has scaled from nursing to several online graduate degree programs and hundreds of online undergraduate courses that are set to launch this fall. “2U has enabled us to take the Simmons brand all around the world,” said Wooten.

The Right Digital Transformation Partner Makes All the Difference

While searching for a digital transformation partner, Thomas was often asked one recurring question: Why not do it yourself?

For him, the answer was obvious. “If places like Morehouse want to impact the 21st century and move beyond our traditional populations, we have to move at an accelerated rate to have an accelerated impact on the world,” he explained. “Being in the online space with impact takes a set of skills, capabilities, and perspective [that wasn’t] on our campus. It would take us five to seven years to build what 2U brings as a tech partner. If you’re going to be viable for 2050, you have to change at an accelerated pace.”

Wooten echoes this sentiment. “We asked ourselves, do we partner [to move online] or do it in house?” she explained. “We chose to partner with 2U because they brought a level of excellence in creating their products in a way that complements and enhances the Simmons mission through their services, technology, and more.”

Looking back, Thomas and Wooten both stress the importance of choosing a digital transformation partner that closely aligns with institutional values. “Finding a partner [to move online] is the easy part,” said Thomas. “The hard part is finding a partner that shares your values and represents them in the way they operate and in the people in key roles influencing the organization. The people in 2U’s leadership—Black people in roles influencing strategy and product—you don’t see that in most tech organizations.”

When vetting prospective digital transformation partners, Wooten also saw her institution’s values reflected in 2U’s leadership. “2U walks the talk in advancing equity, and you see it in the people across the organization,” she said.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.