Tuskegee University — the private Alabama institution founded by Booker T. Washington — has fired its current president.
The Board of Trustees has decided not to renew Dr. Brian L. Johnson’s annual contract, effective July 1, 2017. It’s unclear exactly why the trustees decided to let Johnson go, but a source familiar with the situation said that several trustees were angry to learn that Johnson has interviewed for the top post at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), which is located in his hometown of Durham, N.C.
He is reportedly a finalist for the job.
NCCU has been without a permanent leader since its former chancellor, Dr. Debra Saunders-White, died last November from cancer.
A W.E.B. Du Bois scholar and expert in 17th to 19th century American literature, Johnson took the helm as president in 2014 at the age of 40. He previously held teaching and administrative positions at Gordon College, Claflin University and Johnson C. Smith University.
Contacted over the weekend, Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story.
Raised by a single mother in Durham, Johnson earned an undergraduate degree from Johnson C. Smith, a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of South Carolina in 2003.
Observers had high hopes for Johnson, who was praised for his visibility on campus, his engagement on social media and helping the university secure philanthropic partnerships with outside foundations. In an effort to encourage alumni to give to the university, he personally pledged $100,000 over a five year period and was intent on increasing the school’s enrollment from about 3,100 students to 10,000.
But there were some who wondered if the selection of Johnson, with his humanities background, was a good fit, particularly for an institution that is so focused on STEM.
Despite its name recognition, Tuskegee has struggled with its finances. Among HBCUs, the university’s loan debt is considered high, according to the Capital Financing Program of the U.S. Department of Education. Tuskegee is ranked number three, having borrowed $132 million between 2002 and 2010.
A source said the trustees have not done enough to address the institution’s long-term debts.
Johnson’s departure means that Tuskegee will join several other HBCUs, including Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., that will be looking for permanent leaders.
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, the director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions and the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Endowed Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said she is worried about the vacancies.
“I’m concerned about presidents of HBCUs being given the chance to lead,” said Gasman. “However, I’m most concerned about few people wanting to be presidents of HBCUs given the current atmosphere for leadership.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson