If you didn’t know better, you might conclude that the members of the Board of Regents of Morgan State University decided to seek national attention by following the example of the Board of Overseers at the University of Virginia.
Last year’s botched attempt by the UVa board to fire the president made national headlines, embarrassed the entire university and raised serious questions about the governance process at one of the leading institutions of higher education in the country. The Morgan regents seem determined to look even more foolish.
Rather than learning any lessons from the Virginia experience, the Morgan board — especially longtime Chairman Dallas Evans — has undermined its own credibility, put the university in an unflattering public light and provoked inquiries in the Maryland General Assembly about the statute that defines their terms of office.
The fiasco started to unfold when the board, by an 8-7 vote, decided not to renew President David Wilson’s contract beyond this coming June. The decision was a sudden one, with no public warnings of unhappiness with Wilson prior to the vote. More significantly, however, no explanation was given at the time for Wilson’s termination.
In response, Wilson’s backers rallied to his support and urged the board to reconsider its decision. At a subsequent meeting, the regents decided to give Wilson one additional year, an approach that apparently had been favored by a large majority of the board even before the original 8-7 vote. The only dissenter for the one-year renewal was Evans, who wrote a memo to his fellow board members outlining his grievances against Wilson. That memo was either leaked or was part of a strategy to discredit Wilson.
Evans’ list of complaints included a lack of enthusiasm and support on Wilson’s part for the lawsuit against the state on behalf of historically black colleges and universities, as well as not providing “inspiring and insightful leadership” for Morgan, bad management of the campus and orchestrating the protests against the initial board decision.
Evans’ letter was followed in short order by another written attack against Wilson by David Burton, head of the coalition bringing the lawsuit against the state. Burton criticized Wilson for “minimal interest and involvement in the lawsuit” as well as for protesting the board’s decision to let him go.
When you talk to people familiar with the situation at Morgan now, a word that often comes up without any prompting is “dysfunctional.” It’s hard to sort out all the issues involved since so little has been revealed publicly, but at the very least, the question of whether to retain or fire President Wilson has been handled ineptly.
A few points are clear, and others require speculation. For one, the board is badly split. Wilson has both detractors and supporters, and they have been unable to come to a common understanding about what is best for Morgan’s future.
Secondly, Dallas Evans has lost effective leadership of the board. His public letter, justifying his solitary vote against an additional year for Wilson, shows someone more focused on his personal dislike for David Wilson than on working with the other regents to find a solution to a contentious personnel issue.
While the public complaints mention a number of items, the one that stands out involves Wilson’s stance with respect to the lawsuit. This may well represent the core of David Wilson’s problem with Evans and some members of the Morgan Board of Regents.
Ever since a major reorganization of higher education in the state in 1988, Morgan has been arguing, with some success, that it deserves extra resources to compensate for the years of state-approved segregation in Maryland. A federal court, in the Fordice decision, saw merit in that argument. The ongoing legal, as well as public policy, debate has centered on how much extra assistance is warranted and when is that obligation fulfilled. Under Morgan’s longtime previous president, Earl Richardson, that argument dominated Morgan’s posture toward the state.
To better understand the current debate, you need to look at three apparently disparate facts. David Wilson, shortly before the board decided to fire him, announced ambitious plans to enhance Morgan’s stature as an educational and research institution. In other words, he seems less wedded to the past and more focused on where Morgan should be going.
At the same time, Dallas Evans, who has been chair of the Morgan board since 1991, seems committed, above all else, to the continuing fight to remedy past injustices. Seen from this perspective, his fight against Wilson reflects a fundamental clash of cultures at Morgan. Finally, and hard to prove but difficult to ignore, Earl Richardson, the long-term president who worked for more than two decades with Evans and many other members of the board, still has an office on the Morgan campus and is described by some as a backstage presence in the current turmoil.
What’s next? Wilson has a contract through June 2014, but it’s hard to imagine him lasting beyond that. Some of the board concerns about his leadership and how he interacts with the board may well have substance behind them, even though they have been publicly mishandled.
Dallas Evans, through his public airing of the dispute, has probably ensured that term limits will be established by the General Assembly for Morgan’s regents. That would be a positive step for the university.
And Earl Richardson will still have an office on campus.
Laslo Boyd does consulting in higher education, public policy and politics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.