Alabama State Saga Tests Limits of Public HBCU Governance

Denzel Washington brought life and complexity to the role of an alcohol-addicted commercial pilot in the movie ‘Flight,’ a story of how the most heroic of circumstances can be, behind the scenes, little more than a delicate blend of profound failure and inner strength.

The same appears to be true for Alabama State University, where questionable motives and ethics on both sides of the controversy surrounding on-leave president Joseph Silver, have yielded a new context about influence, impact and the future of public HBCUs.

Local media coverage of the ongoing story has painted a picture of an HBCU executive gone rogue for all of the right reasons. Dr. Silver, two months into his term as university president, stumbles upon alleged untoward dealings within the university’s awarded contracts. Silver, long known for being a no-nonsense leader who has flirted with accusations of micro-management and impulsive boorishness against faculty and executives in previous leadership stops, looks good to sound an alarm; if only to cover his backside from the possibility of harsh media and legislative inquiry about financial impropriety at a school he only recently inherited.

But weeks after being placed on administrative leave, Silver has yet to produce any evidence supporting his thinly-veiled accusations of financial malfeasance against the board. Despite strong student and alumni backing, none of which Silver shied away from in the early days of the controversy, no formal information about his claims have been strengthened by facts. “I’ll let the public decide,” has been Silver’s rallying cry from beginning to end. And the students, to their credit, have been responsible agitators given their access to limited information on the issue.

But the deeper moral of the story? Don’t pull the thang out, unless you plan to bang.

Seemingly, Silver has taken issue with the worst-kept, unsubstantiated secret in Montgomery; that friends, associates and family of ASU executives and employees are often given the first or only shot at public contracts. Rumors of non-bid extensions and sole source procurements have long circled around Alabama State, from food service up to the university’s largest project to date, the new Hornet Stadium.

If discovered to be true in the university’s upcoming audit, improper awarding and bidding of contracts is at best, unseemly.  At worst, it’s illegal. But in both cases, it is no different from the business being done at every other public institution in the state of Alabama. All major business, even those built and maintained off of public dollars, are built upon nepotism and personal relationships. That there is a possibility of the same being done at an historically black institution doesn’t make it respectable or tolerable, but par for the course of business in higher education, with benefit to black families and communities surrounding ASU.

Given the Board’s “bring it” attitude, two questions emerge. Does Silver really have anything? And if he does, was it really worth all of this?

Both sides in the case have their reasons for standing their ground. Silver wants to maintain promises and a career reputation of being a leader who values transparency and doesn’t suffer fools, even if his reputation now adds a perceived overreaction and sweating minor details, as many believe in this case. Conversely, the board shouldn’t take lightly it’s newly hired president accusing it of fraud and deceptive financial practices, and it would rather be caught and claim ignorance than to admit wrong doing at this point of intervention by the state governor, Robert Bentley.

But there’s a deeper perspective interwoven through all of this ASU drama, one that holds the future of public HBCUs, particularly in Alabama, in a unique place. What happens when presidents and boards divorce? Is the public expected to foot the bill to pay off an unwanted president, finance a new presidential search, and agree to terms with a new campus CEO?

What happens when public funds are misappropriated at HBCUs? Does the fallout not only negatively impact state funding for the offending HBCU for years to come, but sister institutions in the state as well?

Alabama State has not only tampered with the trust and loyalty of its students and alumni, but has now, through the media and involvement of Gov. Bentley, stoked new fires around their integrity in delivering higher education, equitable growth for small and minority businesses in the state, and the perceived capability of black people to run our own schools. There’s no indication that any major shake-up of ASU’s board leadership is near, but for ASU’s matters to rise to the top of the priority list of the state’s pressing issues, it’s a good bet that Alabama State will suffer long range consequences through a punitive legislature, or a jilted constituency of ASU supporters.

Silver should have never let his ego drive him to a public condemnation of his board. Good presidents know that a governing board is always right, even when it is totally wrong. The board should have never suspended Silver, and should have subdued its passions in agreeing to a more substantive review of awarded contracts and procurement policies.

The spat between Silver and the Alabama State Board started as a pissing contest, but has the potential to rain on many undeserving Hornets and supporters for years to come.

  • Terrence Maurice Cummings

    An absolutely EXCELLENT editorial, and as you indicate, it is applicable to any HBCU – and I would say any TWI. This is especially necessary for digestion of current and future leaders. Well done!

  • Terrence Maurice Cummings

    An absolutely EXCELLENT editorial, and as you indicate, it is applicable to any HBCU – and I would say any TWI. This is especially necessary for digestion of current and future leaders. Well done!