Morehouse College Overhauls Leadership - Higher Education
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Morehouse College Overhauls Leadership

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by Catherine Morris

Morehouse College replaced its president and the chairman of its board of trustees late on Friday afternoon, after several months of turmoil at the historically Black institution. William Taggart, the college’s chief operating officer since 2015, is now the interim president.

Dr. John S. Wilson Jr. has been replaced as president of Morehouse College.

Robert C. Davidson Jr., who served on the board since 1997, stepped down from his post as chairman on Friday, but will remain on the board through June. His replacement, Willie Woods, first joined the board in 2016.

In a letter sent out to the Morehouse community on Friday afternoon the board wrote, “With today’s action, the Board acknowledges that it has heard the voices of students, faculty, alumni, and many other key members of the Morehouse family, who have called upon all of those who love this historic institution to put aside out differences and put Morehouse and our mission first.”

The board encountered increasing criticism from faculty, students, and alumni after the board voted to not renew President John S. Wilson Jr.’s contract in January, leading the faculty to take a vote of no confidence in the board chairman in late March. Many said that the board never fully explained its decision and excluded students and faculty from the decision-making process.

Student trustees, who were not allowed to attend the January meeting where the vote to not renew Wilson’s contract took place, sued to be able to participate. A judge ruled in favor of the board, finding that the board’s bylaws permitted the board to exclude student and faculty trustees from meetings, but in his decision, the judge also praised the student trustees for their efforts to have their voices heard.

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The judge concluded the decision with a quote from Frederick Douglass admonishing the board, which read in part, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground.”

On April 2, some of Morehouse’s most prominent alumni signed a letter asking the board to do some self-reflection.

“Morehouse College is at present drowning in acrimony,” the letter read. “Student leaders feel they have no voice, and are compelled to take you to court. The faculty has voted no confidence in your Board Chair. Your decision to not renew President Wilson’s contract is inexplicable, and you must now search for the school’s third president in 10 years.”

Filmmaker Spike Lee, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and actor Samuel Jackson signed the letter.

“When things get this bad, it’s time to self-assess,” the letter continued. “Has the Board of Trustees, in its current composition, been part of the solution or part of the problem?”

In its Friday statement to the Morehouse community, the board said that they were already working to reorganize their governance structure, but that recent events pushed them to accelerate the timeline.

“Over the past two years, our Board has worked to improve our governance,” the letter continued. “Recent feedback has supported this effort; therefore, we have decided to move faster than originally planned with the implementation of several key changes and reforms for the Board. The objective of the various actions taken today is to help us all move forward as a collective community with the singular goal of uniting behind Morehouse.”

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Wilson was set to leave Morehouse when his contract expired on June 30. Representatives of the college said that his early departure is intended to put Morehouse on a new path. Cathy C. Tyler, executive director of Morehouse’s Office of Strategic Communications, said on Saturday, “We just need to go back to the mission of Morehouse.”

The board announced that it would transition out several key leadership roles on Friday, in addition to the chairman. John Thorton was named vice chair, Richard Thaler was named Treasurer, Harold Martin named secretary, and Dr. Dorothy Yancy named assistant secretary.

In the midst of all the media attention, Morehouse’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) said last week that it would open an investigation into the college. SACS president, Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, said in an email, “Anytime information about an institution hits the media, we make a determination as to whether or not the allegations might put an institution out of compliance with any of our accreditation standards.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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