Morehouse Finds Middle of the Road to Nowhere on Presidential Extension

If you support Morehouse College President John Wilson, and believe him to be a visionary who is rebuilding the Morehouse brand as a social and industrial asset to the nation, then the one-year contract extension he received from the Morehouse Board of Trustees vote last week is the worst example of real progress being stunted for political and interpersonal trivialities.

But if you don’t support Wilson, and believe him to be an arrogant, ineffective manager who has maligned the brand and built resentment among key stakeholders, then the one-year extension is an unearned probationary period designed to heal injured egos and to cool attitudes simmering over what many believe to be a predictably unimpressive tenure.

If you support Morehouse, the one-year extension leaves everyone, on both ends of the spectrum, angry and confused about the future of a flagship institution within the HBCU community. And once again, an HBCU Board of Trustees hopes that time and silence will wash over growing discontentment about the unknown intersections of leadership, culture, politics at the highest levels of black college administration.

In most cases, a one-year contract extension for a new president means one or some combination of several things. A board agrees that a president has been ineffective, but has not agreed to finance or facilitate a national search for a replacement. Or it could mean that the board is prepared to move on from its hire, but concedes to pressure from personal or political alliances to hold for a time when the president will either himself make the case for dismissal with his own incompetence, find another job, or when the time becomes more suitable to announce a non-renewal.

Or, the board is divided on the president staying, and elects to go one more year until it hashes out internal disagreements on how it evaluates executive performance.

John Wilson’s one-hitter quitter eerily resembles that of Morgan State President David Wilson, who three years ago was ousted by board vote, given a new, one-year contract after campus outcry, and currently works without a contract within an ‘indefinite appointment.’

The Wilsons, both HBCU undergrad alumni with advanced degrees from Harvard with years of experience at predominantly white institutions, have both publicly grappled with issues of campus crime and sexual assault, campus LGBT tolerance, and issues with administrative vision and management style. Both claim commencement visits from high-ranking White House officials among their primary presidential ‘wins.’ Both held unique positions with the Obama Administration, and maintained loyal silence in their knowledge of changes to the federal PLUS Loan eligibility system that, in 2011, forced HBCUs nationwide to lose thousands of students and millions of dollars in tuition revenue.

Both have their respective allies among board members, alumni and students, and their respective enemies within these same groups. And now, both share a similar discomfort in knowing that they do not have the full confidence of their boards, which in the last two years have positioned to efficiently fire them without the burden of a heavy salary severance.

And in both cases, stakeholders have little information on why they were spared in spite of the boards’ clear desire to move in another direction. Its this lack of insight, this utter dismissal of students’ and graduates’ intellectual capacity to handle the truth about how good or how bad these presidents must be performing, that continues to roil the HBCU community and to diminish confidence in why they, or any HBCU, should be supported.

Yes, it would be counterproductive to make a full and transparent report to the public about every issue presidents face with boards. Especially when the core of most board-president issues revolves around things like a president calling and checking in with his favorite board members instead of all trustees, or implementing institutional strategy without full board consultation, or dismissing trustees’ efforts to facilitate fundraising or development opportunities with personal appeals or engagement to their friends and corporate partners.

But those same board members who don’t make concerns and actions known to the public, either through fear of labor law violations or general preference for secrecy, almost always share their inner most decision making with friends and allies. And those friends and allies tell their inner circles. And eventually, board concerns and motivations become a widespread part of the general HBCU scuttlebutt, with the salacious seasoning of rumor and innuendo which typically comes with third-party information.

That is what makes people not want to give back, come back, or look back at the sorry state that has become HBCU culture, and specifically, HBCU board leadership. That is the fault of board members and the politics they value more than the integrity of their work, or the future of their institutions.

Alabama State University is among the worst cases of bad board-president relations ever to be chronicled in media. Florida A&M, a still-emerging storyline, is not that far behind. But Alabama State, by the slimmest of voting margins, recently gave president Gwendolyn Boyd a three-year contract extension — a sign that their concerns and infighting are not more important than the university’s progress, and that their interpersonal discomfort with her as a leader doesn’t weigh more than her actual ability to lead the institution.

Or, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley worked votes behind the scenes to force the board to extend her contract. Either way, ASU looks better for it in the short term, until the next time they decide to slander her.

There will soon come a time where board nonsense will lead to viable candidates avoiding HBCU leadership opportunities, much in the same way students avoid enrolling at HBCUs today. And that executive talent deficit will result in the hiring of an unqualified president, which will spur dramatic declines in enrollment and alumni giving, which will expedite the financial demise of a large, reputable HBCU.

Hopefully that time is still some years away for Morehouse, which hired Dr. Wilson despite rejecting his candidacy for the same job in 2007, and who was known as a paper tiger as the White House Initiative on HBCUs Executive Director who left in his wake years of undocumented federal neglect towards HBCUs and a slew of harassment claims filed by current and former Department of Ed employees.

Hopefully, one more year won’t cost Morehouse, or the next HBCU to shy away from public disclosure on institutional expectations and presidential output, its very future.

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