Morehouse leadership search goes on after interim president’s sudden death

Morehouse College’s effort to bring stability to its campus took a surprisingly sad turn Thursday when it announced its interim president, Bill Taggart, has died.

Taggart was named interim president in April after the board of trustees removed John Silvanus Wilson and its board leadership after constant rancor between them. Taggart, 55, died of an aneurysm, a spokesman for the college’s board of trustees said.

The provost, Michael Hodge, will be acting president.

Some leaders at Morehouse, which is in the midst of its search for a new president, had hoped Taggart could fill the void permanently. Instead, the college’s board president was working on a plan Thursday to find a leader to replace Taggart, and alumni hope that will happen soon to maintain stability at Morehouse, the nation’s only historically black college and university for men.

Morehouse alumni association president and trustee member Howard Willis said he was stunned to learn of Taggart’s death because he jogged daily and seemed to be in good health. Willis, a doctor, said he had hoped the college could talk to Taggart about taking the job permanently.

“He picked up the banner and not only carried it, he ran with it,” Willis said of Taggart. “He was instrumental in getting the faculty, staff and students all on the same page. I was hopeful we would look at him for sustained leadership.”

Taggart didn’t attend Morehouse, he graduated from Howard University, but he was widely praised by students, faculty and alumni for his quick work in uniting a campus in turmoil during what should have been a momentous period in its history. Morehouse turned 150 this past school year.

“I may not have been a Morehouse Man, but I’m one in spirit,” Taggart said in an interview shortly after taking the job.

The board released an official statement saying it was grateful to Taggart for his counsel and support, offering its prayers for his family. The campus, near downtown Atlanta, was quiet Thursday as some students attended summer classes.

Taggert’s calming influence on the college came after a tumultuous few months in which a long-simmering disagreement over direction and leadership came to the surface.

Morehouse hired Wilson in 2011 to bring change, but board trustees announced in January they would not extend his contract when it expired in June. A critical report by consultants the college hired pointed out a long-standing poor working relationship among Wilson and some board leaders, particularly then-chairman Robert C. Davidson.

Wilson’s effective firing led to protests by Morehouse students, faculty and alumni around the country who felt the board wasn’t being transparent in its decision-making and violated board by-laws. The faculty voted no confidence in the board, and a groundswell of criticism included a letter of concern from some prominent Morehouse graduates such as actor Samuel L. Jackson, director Spike Lee and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. The faculty vote caused the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits the university, to send a visiting committee.

The actions prompted the board to end Wilson’s tenure even sooner, remove the board chairman and shuffle board leadership, and to elevate Taggart as interim president.

Morehouse hired the Isaacson Miller firm, which has offices in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to assist in the search for its next permanent president. Morehouse's website has a page with information about the search, asking for suggestions or possible candidates. The web page says this is a time of “notable change” for the college, while insisting that the next president will have the support of the entire Morehouse community.

“The work that lies ahead for the next president will be ambitious, complex and filled with opportunity,” the web page says.

Taggart, an Atlanta native, was influential in the city’s business community. He was a former CEO of Atlanta Life Financial Group and a member of 100 Black Men of Atlanta. Taggart was hired in July 2015 as the college’s chief operating officer.

Condolences from Morehouse graduates, business leaders, politicians and others flooded social media Thursday. They included prominent local Morehouse graduates such as Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves and Atlanta school board president Courtney English. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the City Council also paid tribute to Taggart.

Several Morehouse alumni said Thursday’s news requires them to rally around the college as it seeks to raise money and prepare for the next semester.

“Hopefully they can identify a qualified individual who can provide capable leadership in the short term while an exhaustive search takes place for the right person to lead Morehouse,” said Joel Alvarado, who graduated in 1995 and is the director of community outreach and engagement at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. “With all that is transpiring with HBCUs, we need our hallmark institutions to be operating at a high level while being led by innovative, bold leaders.”

Chuck Hobbs, a Florida-based trial attorney who graduated from Morehouse in 1994, echoed those thoughts.

“My sincere hope is that the Board of Trustees will be able to quickly tap a highly qualified individual to take the baton now that president Taggart has passed,” he said. “It furthers the appearance of instability during a period in which many potential students and donors worry about Morehouse’s future and may be reticent to enroll or donate. That is why it is critical that an equally qualified replacement for Interim President Taggart is tapped post-haste.”

Here’s a timeline of some of the leadership changes at Morehouse College during the past six months:

Jan. 15 - The college announces president John S. Wilson’s contract will not be renewed when it expires in June.

Feb. 13 - A Fulton County Superior Court judge rules Morehouse’s by-laws allowed board chairman Robert C. Davidson to exclude student and faculty trustees from voting on Wilson’s contract.

March 7 - The college denies a report that Wilson was fired and Bill Taggart would take over the college’s day-to-day operations.

April 7 - Morehouse announces Taggart has replaced Wilson and its board of trustees has a new slate of officers.

April 13 - Taggart meets with students.

June 8 - Morehouse announces Taggart has died of an aneurysm.

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