Contrary to best practices touted by the organization that oversees college boards of trustees, on Jan. 14 Morehouse Chairman of the Board Bob Davidson and the board members he allowed to participate voted not to renew President John Wilson’s contract.
Davidson prohibited as much oversight as possible by banning six board members (three faculty and three student trustees) from attending the meeting. That triggered the Student Government Association’s lawsuit against Davidson aiming to force the board to vote again about Wilson’s future. The president’s contract ends in June.
However, he is serving only a one-year renewal of his original three-year contract, a strong indication that there was tension between Wilson and the board, and evidence that the board questioned whether he was the best person to be the longtime leader of the College.
Davidson, whose term as board chair also ends in June, released a brief statement “recognizing” Wilson and his team’s contributions to the College, but did not offer any reasons for why his contract was not renewed. Davidson’s office did not respond to requests for an interview in time for this story’s deadline.
The only information available on the Board of Trustees’ website was the biographies of some members, a link to every law currently enacted in the state of Georgia, and the website for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB).
Oddly, much of the research found on the AGB site cautioned against actions such as the Morehouse board’s and warned of the potential consequences.
Wilson’s pending departure will result in the hiring of Morehouse’s third new president in the last decade. According to a 2014 AGB report, instability from presidential turnover is a major threat to advancing an institution.
“Excessive presidential turnover is corrosive to strategic and sustained change,” said the report “Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where It Matters.”
Another AGB report specifically for HBCU trustees said, “The relationship at the top – between the president and the board chair – sets the tone for governance.” The report titled “Top Strategic Issues Facing HBCUs, Now and into the Future” also advised board members to “look both at themselves and the presidency to build and sustain effective institutional governance and leadership.”
As discussed in the AGB documents, the Morehouse board is not the only institution creating a tradition of presidential turnover. National HBCU attrition is consistent with Morehouse’s situation.
Florida A&M University President Elmira Magnum left office after two years in 2016 because of “power struggles with the trustees and other campus groups,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. South Carolina State University trustees fired President Thomas Elzey in 2015 after only one year after he was investigated twice by the state’s Inspector General, once for trying to fire three whistleblowers.
“There are presidents who can win over students, the alumni can love the president and all of that, but then for whatever reason if the board turns, that president is out,” Voorhees College President W. Franklin Evans told the Philadelphia Tribune. “Institutions after institutions are having trouble with boards. You can be in today and out tomorrow.”
Evans said his statements were not directed at any particular board.
A restraining order was filed against Davidson by the president of the Student Government Association, Johnathan Hill. Hill said he and the other two student trustees filed the suit immediately after not being allowed to attend the meeting where voting was held.
“The suit is not against the school or the board – just the chair,” Hill said. “The judge is still deciding, but if he rules in our favor, then the board will have to hold another vote.”
When contacted for comment, Sociology professor and President of the Faculty Council, Dr. Derrick Bryan, directed the newspaper to the following statement he released to all media outlets:
“We, the faculty of Morehouse College, strongly object to the decision by the Board of Trustees not to renew the contract of President John S. Wilson without explanation and without the inclusion of faculty and student trustees in the discussion and decision. The faculty also expresses concern regarding the timing of the Board’s decision. We demand an explanation and will investigate these decisions.”
As with Hill, many vocal students were less outraged at Wilson leaving than at Davidson’s handling of the process.
“I wasn’t surprised that his contract wasn’t renewed,” sophomore Brandon McClung said. “I feel like there needs to be some sort of explanation given by the Board of Trustees.”
In Wilson’s four-year presidency, there were repeated calls by alumni and students for his resignation, but there is no information regarding the number of dissenters. Ironically, the most complaints arose two years ago when Wilson abruptly fired staff members and announced that many vacant positions would not be filled – 75 total – and lacked transparency in that process.
Since the board’s decision about his contract, Wilson has held meetings with students, faculty, and alumni. He has also spoken with various news agencies. In an interview with CBS News, he said he raised more money than any other Morehouse president in a four-year period – totaling $70 million – and regrets that he has to leave.
As the SGA president, Hill said Wilson is one of the most brilliant men he knows, but only described their relationship as interesting and complicated. He added that he stands with the decision the board reached, but sincerely hopes for the best for Wilson.
“The ’House really looks divided,” Hill said, “but at the end of the day, Wilson and Davidson are still our brothers and this is bigger than any one man.”