While Morehouse College alumni, students and faculty members recently argued about executive motives, power and respect for the better part of a month, former president John Silvanus Wilson was unusually silent. It was perhaps the school’s most publicly tumultuous period, but the same headline grabbing voice in commentary on HBCU presidents meeting with the Trump Administration, and over the years on HBCU culture at large, was absent.
Key voices on the Morehouse board and among its campus rank and file would say this was tied to his effort to mobilize sentiment against his January non-renewal vote, and the seizure of his daily oversight of campus operations in early March.
Eventually, Dr. Wilson’s plans fell in on him and Morehouse in a public, messy way. And now, the same thing is happening at Kentucky State University.
KSU isn’t branded enough to get the national headlines Morehouse can command, but in many ways, the manipulation of its people and its regional clout are to scale with the way Morehouse captured Black America’s attention last week.
The similarities are uncanny: a board of trustees doesn’t want a president to stick around, and the president quietly works to whip stakeholders against the board, selling is it as an incompetent, failing collection of political movers and shakers.
Kentucky State’s faculty is divided along racial lines, its student government elections are mired in controversy, and feelings remain hurt on campus because interim president Aaron Thompson was not included in its formal presidential search. And when you talk to officials at KSU and observers around Frankfort, the growing sentiment is that even now, Dr. Thompson is an active figure working to create enough discord on the campus so that there will be no new administration; only a current one with more permanent power and interest.
An interim president’s primary job is avoiding major meltdowns, not in building a campus to unprecedented heights. Kentucky State in the last two months has melted down, and when you consider that Raymond Burse, KSU’s last permanent president resigned in a storm of financial uncertainty, campus angst and lawsuits, it begs the question of why there has been no response from anyone in leadership at the university.
Throughout the last few months, Dr. Thompson has integrated a golf club with a deep history of discrimination against black folks, stood silently as the faculty has splintered into two groups separated by race, and has avoided any real call for campus unity in support of the school’s presidential search and its move towards transition. These things do not a president make; acting, interim or permanent. But his press clippings and the support of some lawmakers and officials on campus must have him believing that he is primed for the comeback of the century.
Kentucky State faces major challenges in enrollment, public funding from state and federal government, lawsuits, and programmatic development. And the president known best by the board and which wanted him nowhere near the possibility of permanent installation is doing his best to force a done deal on its next president back into ambiguity favoring his extended stay.
KSU has a lot of ground to cover in healing racial wounds on campus, growing enrollment, identifying programmatic pairings with changing industries in the region, and dealing with a bevy of lawsuits and external mistrust in Frankfort and beyond. The school won’t effectively cover that ground if the man in charge of running it, insists upon throwing the campus and any hope of progress in reverse for his own benefit.