Stranger Things at North Carolina Central

Less than 24 hours before today’s investiture of North Carolina Central University Chancellor Johnson Akinyele, news broke that a lawsuit had been filed against him and two members of the University of North Carolina System Board of Trustees by a former NCCU vice-president, alleging improper spending on a luxury SUV and being fired after raising concerns over an attempt to skirt procurement rules on a multi-million construction contract for student housing.

The lawsuit comes two years after Dr. Akinyele was named acting chancellor of the university, following the medical leave of absence and later death of former Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who a year prior settled several lawsuits from former faculty and executive employees who accused her of discrimination and improper spending – two years after she was named chancellor.

One HBCU with two chancellors in less than five years, both facing charges of improper spending and wrongful treatment of employees. What are the odds?

In North Carolina, which like most states empowers its lawmakers and higher ed officials to work in concert to achieve political gains over public institutions, the odds are highly likely that this is more than a coincidence.

NC’s legislative-higher ed pairing has worked diligently to reduce the strengths of what used to be one of the nation’s best networks of higher education and has wrought particular havoc on its HBCUs. Since 2014, the system has appointed three chancellors at Elizabeth City State University, two without a search, and has taken over its executive cabinet despite the school being on track for a second consecutive year of enrollment increases before its new $500-per-semester tuition price tag takes effect this fall.

NCCU was among a handful of schools in the system to have its law center banned from helping poor and marginalized citizens receive legal counsel or litigation assistance.

North Carolina A&T’s campus was split down the middle into two voting districts, diminishing the Aggies’ voting bloc power based upon racial demographics.

There’s a reason that the New York Times profiled the state in 2013 as among the worst in the union on education, racial equity and social justice; and it’s not because its systems just don’t play fair.

Forget this lawsuit and any other that’s been levied against NCCU; just look at the issues and the timing of when controversies pop-up at black colleges operating in state systems all over the country. Is it a coincidence that so many African Americans trained in state systems are being made presidents of the same black colleges the systems themselves are working to destroy? That HBCU stakeholders in a blue state have pushed Maryland to the brink of perhaps a billion-dollar payout to solve historic discrimination against black colleges?

Is it a coincidence when PWI presidents openly rally for an HBCU to hire a specific candidate? Or when HBCUs get audited and publicly reprimanded at greater rates than their predominantly white counterparts? Or when a system constructs a mega-university just miles away from an HBCU? 

Maybe two chancellors at the same school getting hit with lawsuits from former employees for nearly the exact same reasons, almost the exact number of years after their separate arrivals is all a coincidence. But maybe it is in the best interest of HBCUs nationwide for alumni, students, faculty and supporters to at least pretend like there are no such things as coincidences.

Especially when predominantly white schools and their leaders don’t seem to have the same bad luck.

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