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LeMoyne-Owen Trustees Resign for $2.5 Million Donation

LeMoyne-Owen Trustees Resign for $2.5 Million Donation
By Ibram Rogers

With its accreditation in jeopardy and its debt staggering at $6 million, LeMoyne-Owen College trustees last month agreed to an anonymous donor’s stipulation that they step aside in order to receive a $2.5 million gift, and thus keep the historically Black institution’s doors open.

Most of the college’s 30-plus trustees have submitted their letters of resignation, says board chairman Robert Lipscomb in an article in the Commercial Appeal. Those who resigned will remain on the board until their positions are filled. Trustees who hold alumni slots or those designated for churches were not asked to leave by the donor.

“We have the opportunity to renew ourselves,” Lipscomb says in the article. “Our progress isn’t going to happen overnight, but it will happen.”

The college’s president, Dr. James G.  Wingate, has already announced his resignation, effective Sept. 1, mainly because of the school’s fund-raising woes and the resulting $6 million debt. The school had until June 30 to raise a portion of the debt — $1 million — to cover its operating costs or face losing accreditation. If it had lost its accreditation, it would have also lost federal funding, which would have been disastrous in a school where 90 percent of the students receive financial aid.

Desperate to save the school, college trustee and Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton had even offered to box former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in a fund-raising challenge.

In the past two years, LeMoyne-Owen’s board of trustees has grappled with significant internal dissension, stymieing its effectiveness. The anonymous donor was apparently aware of the crisis, says Gayle S. Rose, who resigned from the board weeks before the donor’s request. 

“The anonymous donor understood that the current board was full of strife as that was quite public knowledge,” says Rose, who was chair of the board’s institutional advancement committee and vice chair of its finance committee. “Everybody recognized that we were pretty much in a stalemate and very ineffective as a board of trustees. We have an important legal responsibility that we were having a hard time meeting because of the fractiousness of the board.”

The board’s internal battles date back to the fall of 2004, when a consultant recommended trustees adopt a strategic plan that, among other things, called for a strengthening of the leadership at
the college.

“The consultants informed the board in no uncertain terms that we had a very short window of time to begin implementation of the plan,” says Rose. “And the plan would take a lot more strength in governance and strength in leadership on the college campus.”

Several board members were adamantly opposed to the suggested changes, and the resulting debate split the board down
the middle, says Rose, who supported the changes.

Over time, the board members in favor of the changes grew frustrated and began to leave. “So those of us that were left and felt [change] was necessary got to be very much in the minority,” Rose says.

 “I could see that my participation was perpetuating the conflict,” she says. “Sometimes you have to do what is best
for the school.”

Many of her former colleagues did the same, choosing to step aside so the college could begin to move on. But it took the prodding of a donor to force the change.

“I hope this will be a renaissance for LeMoyne because this community really needs this school,” Rose says. “I don’t think that there is a trustee on the board that doesn’t really want that. It’s just that we got mired down in disagreement with how to accomplish that.”

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