Morehouse College releases president, removes board members

Actions follow criticism, discord

Morehouse College’s Board of Trustees announced Friday it has removed its president, embattled board chairman and board leadership, effective immediately, after months of public friction, in an attempt “to put aside our differences and put Morehouse and our mission first.”

The board initially voted in January not to extend John S. Wilson’s contract when it expires in June, a decision board leaders never fully explained, citing confidentiality concerns. The trustees decided Friday to make the change sooner, moving Morehouse’s chief operating officer, William Taggart, into the president’s office on an interim basis. The new board chairman is Willie Woods, co-founder of ICV Partners, a New York-based finance company.

The new leadership team declined to say if Wilson was given a severance package. Neither Wilson nor Robert Davidson, the former board chairman, were available for comment.

Many students, faculty and alumni — including prominent graduates such as former Obama administration cabinet officer Jeh Johnson, actor Samuel L. Jackson and filmmaker Spike Lee — have criticized the board’s recent actions and what they say has been its lack of transparency. More than 30 Morehouse graduates signed a letter Thursday asking the board to keep Wilson.

The board said in a statement 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 our differences and put Morehouse and our mission first.”

Taggart, Woods and student trustee Johnathan Hill echoed the themes in the statement in a group interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday evening, saying the changes needed to be made now.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the 2,100 students at the school,” said Woods. “We couldn’t sit back and do nothing.”

The acrimony came at what should have been a prime opportunity for fundraising and recruitment. Morehouse is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The new leadership team said it’s too early to tell the impact on enrollment and fundraising. The leaders said one of their first steps will be to restore relationships with students, faculty and alumni. The trustees met Friday afternoon with faculty.

“We are re-engaging parents and potential students in the same way we are engaging prospects and our existing donor base to make them confident and assure them that we have a good, stable leadership team in place,” Taggart said.

Morehouse, near downtown Atlanta, is the nation’s only exclusively-male historically black college and university (HBCU). The controversy over Wilson drew extensive national news coverage and robust debate on social media.

Wilson, who graduated from Morehouse in 1979, returned to his alma mater to lead the school in 2013. Shortly after his arrival, Wilson cut operating expenses by about $2.5 million and eliminated or downgraded 75 positions, a move that received mixed reviews. A year later, a consultant’s report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said board leaders and Wilson needed to improve its relationship.

Wilson supporters say he’s increased fundraising and student enrollment is up. His detractors criticized decisions such as requiring freshmen to live on campus for three years, which many students and parents said was a financial burden.

Faculty members last month took the unusual step of a no-confidence vote in Davidson, who graduated from Morehouse in 1967. Davidson defended the board against the criticism and in one statement, the board accused some faculty members of sharing misinformation about the situation. Davidson will also voluntarily resign from the board in June, officials said.

Morehouse has nearly 40 board members, most of whom do not live in Georgia and are not alumni.

Marlon Millner, a 1995 Morehouse graduate, called Friday’s developments a good start in a Twitter post, but said via email more changes need to be made on the board.

“The board needs to shrink and several toxic board members need to go. The board needs to vote to reduce its size and to do so by June 30,” said Millner.

Woods said the board is considering reducing its size. He also said the board has adopted several recommendations from student leaders to give students and faculty a stronger voice in major decisions.

Hill, who said he’s had a long track record of working with Taggart, said he feels comfortable working with him and Woods. All three men asked those who supported Wilson and have been skeptical of the board to begin to “turn the page.”

“This is a new moment…that we all stood together to put Morehouse back at the forefront of the conversation,” Hill said.

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