Two Years After Failed Presidential Ouster, Morgan State at Leadership Crossroads

The following is Part One of a three-part series chronicling leadership struggles at Morgan State University, Maryland’s largest historically Black university.

Tough questions are mounting against Morgan State University and its Board of Regents on issues of management throughout multiple divisions of campus operation. Last month, the university was listed as one of 67 colleges and universities nationwide under investigation by the Department of Education for possible Title IX violations in its handling of an alleged on-campus sexual assault.

This week, the Baltimore Sun reports on new details of mismanagement of Morgan’s $28.5 million research contract with NASA. The subcontractor agreement with the federal agency to conduct atmospheric research is in jeopardy of termination after more than two years of broken communication, improper financial processing, and a failure to direct Morgan students to research opportunities in NASA.  From the Sun:

In a letter dated July 9, the USRA noted that Morgan had made “some efforts” to improve, including hiring a program manager and a contract administrator. But two invoices submitted after Morgan was first warned in March required “a great deal” of review and help from (Universities Space Research Association) officials before they were correct, which USRA called “unacceptable.” Another document submitted by Morgan to the USRA had pricing errors, while performance problems identified in March had “also not shown material improvement,” according to the USRA letter. Further, Morgan had not provided the USRA with information to support previous payments despite repeated requests.

Two weeks before USRA again warned Morgan of its administrative deficiencies, Morgan President David Wilson wrote in a Sun editorial that its problems were “growing pains” caused, in part, by the state’s lack of equitable funding in the institution.

But the NASA concerns appear to be the latest in a trend of concerns for Maryland’s flagship historically Black college, with many issues tracing back more than two years and following a blocked ouster of Wilson by a cohort of supporters on the university’s Board of Regents.

Chronology of Controversy

In December 2012, the Morgan State University Board of Regents voted against a renewal of president David Wilson’s contract. The non-renewal followed several incidents surrounding the institution, including a high-profile case of murder and cannibalizing by a former student with a history of violence on campus,  two on-campus shootings during the fall semester, and a failed attempt to fire then-head football coach Donald Hill-Eley.

In the weeks following, outcry from students, alumni and faculty swayed the board to rescind its decision, and to affirm a new one-year agreement with new stipulations for Wilson. Then-Board Chairman Dallas R. Evans wrote a confidential memo to board members in January 2013, expressing concerns with the new contract and vulnerabilities it presented for the university. In that letter, Evans specifically cited Wilson’s lack of transparency on critical university matters, including academic development, budget allocation, environmental safety of several campus buildings, and his commitment to the institution.

He criticized Wilson for his name for frequently being published in presidential searches, his lack of on-campus leadership and respect for staff, and referred to Wilson as a central figure in the dysfunction of the board at levels unseen in more than 20 years as a member.

In my opinion, he does not provide the inspiring and insightful leadership the University requires nor has he created a clear and consistent vision for the campus.  I do not believe that he has demonstrated a genuine commitment to the university, but instead often seeks to promote himself.  I have witnessed his attempts to circumvent various state regulations, federal statutes, and/or university policies and procedures: and he seems to resent staff and other resource persons who advise him on the need for compliance in these matters.

The sentiments were countered by Regent Rev. Toni Draper in a letter published by the Afro-American Newspaper.

While I am not authorized to speak on behalf of the Board, here are the reasons for my vote to renew Dr. Wilson’s contract:

1. No documented facts were presented to support the non renewal of the contract;

2. At its closed session on November 6, the board unanimously accepted the report of the committee that evaluated the President’s performance, consistent with the metrics previously approved by the Board;

3. December 4th was the first time the chair openly shared his list of concerns about Dr. Wilson’s leadership style with the full board;

4. It takes more than two and a half years to change a culture in any organization and Morgan is no exception;

5. The Board did not previously communicate its dissatisfaction with President Wilson’s work or work ethic;

6. In my opinion, Dr. Wilson was and is committed to the mission, the students, the faculty, the staff and the success of Morgan;

7. Morgan, under Dr. Wilson’s leadership, is going in the right direction; and

8. If a presidential search takes place at this time, the University loses valuable momentum in key areas such as the capital campaign, new programs and partnerships, student recruitment and retention, alumni giving, federal grants, parental, faculty, student and community confidence.

Evans was ousted as Board chair in February 2013, and eventually replaced by current chairman and Morgan alum, Kweisi Mfume. Last month, Wilson began an“indefinite appointment” as president, serving at the will and pleasure of the board. In a statement, Mfume praised Wilson and assured his continuing presence at the university.

Over the last several years, higher education in this country has undergone a stressful and uncertain period. The challenges have been particularly problematic for our HBCUs; however, Dr. Wilson has emerged as a leading national voice and is guiding Morgan admirably through these times. The Board values his leadership very highly and looks forward to his long and successful tenure.”

Evans, who remains a member of the board, was the lone dissenting vote against the appointment.

Failure on PLUS Loan Crisis

Wilson, who serves as a member of the White House Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, was privy to information about loan reform impact in September 2012, when he was present at a Washington D.C. meeting of the White House HBCU Advisory Board, which opened with discussion on HBCU students being denied PLUS loans at a high rate.

Enrollment at Morgan dropped from a record high 8,018 students in fall 2011 to 6582 students in fall 2013. Wilson attributed the enrollment spike to changes in the PLUS Loan program, which he acknowledged publicly for the first time in an August interview with Morgan State alumna and national White House correspondent April Ryan on the ‘Tom Joyner Morning Show;’ nearly one year after his PLUS Loan briefing at the White House Advisory Board meeting.

That same month, Wilson wrote to Morgan alumni asking for support of an emergency fundraising initiative to help students adversely impacted by PLUS loan changes. What was launched as a 30-day, $300,000 campaign goal, and earned additional promotion on NPR and other news organizations, has since raised just over $100,000 in a year.

Transparency on the PLUS Loan crisis was cited prominently in a May 2013 memo written by Evans to regents following Wilson’s indefinite appointment, which cited Wilson’s false claims for the university’s record enrollment, and inaction on the declines that followed.

“The university continues to lose enrollment despite the president’s claim that the university, under his leadership, achieved the highest enrollment in its history. Truth be told, he had nothing to do with the enrollment increase in fall 2010 and, in the years since, the enrollment has declined. All the while, the president continued to spin the decline to his advantage. Even when other HBCU presidents were warning of the cuts in federal funding to HBCUs and the likely impact on enrollment, Dr. Wilson denied the existence of cuts in HBCU federal funding. It was not until the Washington Post story verifying the drastic reduction in federal funding (due to a change in eligibility criteria for parents seeking loans to defray student costs) that Dr. Wilson suddenly switched his position. Then he conveniently used the cuts to explain enrollment declines at Morgan which he did not foresee and for which he had not planned. Such shortsightedness and lack of planning is particularly relevant to any downgrade in bond ratings because of its effects on revenue.”

Earlier this year, enrollment shortages were cited as a central element in the downgrading of Morgan’s bond rating by Moody’s Investor Services.

A Stepping Stone

In the last two years, Wilson has also been linked to several high-profile executive searches, including vacancies with the University of Albany, the White House Initiative on HBCUs, the University of Wisconsin and Tuskegee University, his alma mater. In each of the searches, Wilson has denied formally applying for the positions – a continuing trend from his days as a vice-president of Auburn University.

In a 2005 interview with the Opelika-Auburn News prior to leaving Auburn to serve as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin’s community colleges and cooperative extension programs, Wilson said he had been approached with an average of one presidential job offer per year during every year of his tenure at the university.

I have probably turned down 10 offers to head universities in my time at Auburn, but those just didn’t seem right. But in this position, its the perfect fit between the academic and outreach sides. It is an opportunity that is tremendously exciting for me.”

Unfinished Business

Among Wilson’s signature initiatives since arriving at Morgan has been the 2013 creation of a committee to reform Morgan’s football program, a rebranding of Morgan’s community outreach efforts, and a training program to improve customer service on campus. Last week, the university released a statement on the football committee’s progress, indicating the that team now has access to meeting rooms, training tables and nutrition guidelines for student athletes, and mentoring programs with former Morgan State football players. The statement followed the release of the annual preseason rankings from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s coaches and sports information directors, which picked Morgan to finish in last place this season.

To date, no updates have been given on the university’s customer service initiatives, or its Community MILE program, which formally launched in April 2013.

One ranking campus executive calls the campus leadership climate as ‘tenuous’ under Wilson and the board.

“It appears that we have continuous leadership problems at the institution, and the Board, which effectively managed the campus for years before Wilson’s arrival, seems unable to contain the impact on the institution.

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