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Trouble at Saint Augustine's University

Saint Augustine’s University (SAU) President Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail has been fired from her position at the school’s helm, cutting her contract and term short. The move comes as the Southern Association of Colleges (SACSCOC) voted to strip the small Historically Black College and University of its accreditation.

The university has vowed to appeal the decision and will remain an accredited institution on probation during the appeal process. Dr. Leslie Rodriguez-McClellon, who was vice president of community relations and government affairs but was named Acting President on Tuesday by the school's board of trustees, has promised to push forward.

"The work has already begun to appeal SACSCOC's decision, and we will remain steadfast during this process," said Rodriguez-McClellon. "While we are disappointed by SACSCOC's decision, we are confident and unified in our commitment to fulfill and complete our mission."

It's unclear why McPhail was removed from her post and if the school's pending accreditation status played any role in her ouster. McPhail said that she heard rumors about a month ago that her termination was "pending" and that she would be fired in December but added that she did not know when or why.

Dr. Christine Johnson McPhailDr. Christine Johnson McPhailSaint Augustine's University

According to McPhail, tensions between her and the board came to a head at an Oct 5 board meeting, where the university's financial bookkeeping status was on the agenda. 

McPhail's contract as the school's 13th president would have lasted through February 2025. She said that was not given a specific reason for her termination, but she believes that the decision was “retaliation” for the internal complaint she filed on Oct. 9 for alleged hostile behavior from trustees during an Oct. 5 board meeting.

Tensions in October

McPhail alleges that, during the Oct. 5 meeting, trustees Rufus Montgomery and Hadley Evans, Jr. created a “hostile environment” for her and Gwen Kea, SAU’s vice president of finance and administration.

She said that the trustees were rude, disparaging and “yelled at us,” and “banged on the table when they were talking to us," McPhail said in interview with Diverse. The berating brought Kea to tears, prompting McPhail to ask for the meeting to be paused, she added. 

"None of the other board members spoke up to tell these other two members that they were out of line,” McPhail said of the predominantly male board. “They allowed this situation to go on until I asked the vice chair and the chair to stop the meeting."

During that break, McPhail said she approached Montgomery, a relatively new trustee who she said had been the “most hostile”, to address the matter, but said that she was met with more hostility and dismissiveness.

"This was Mr. Montgomery's first meeting, so I thought that I could approach him and just say this is not how we behave here. I said, 'Mr. Montgomery, is there a way that we could collaborate so when we go back into the rest of the meeting [and] Ms. Kea and I won't have to be subjected to the tone and behavior that we experienced earlier?” she said “And he became postal acting, just very outrageously loud. He referred to me as an employee and that I didn’t have the authority to talk to him.”

Four days after the meeting, McPhail said that she filed a complaint about the incident but was asked by board chairman James E. Perry to withdraw it. She said that she refused. Perry could not be reached for comment.  

"They didn't feel it was egregious enough to take any formal action,” McPhail said of the board. “One of the things I had requested in my complaint letter was that they ask Trustee Montgomery for his resignation. And they said they would not do that."

Montgomery previously served as chairman of the Florida A&M University's (FAMU) board of trustees but resigned from the board in 2015. A vocal critic of then-FAMU president Dr. Elmira Mangum, Montgomery had a “no-holds-barred, accountability-focused chairmanship style,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Shortly after McPhail filed her complaint, board members threatened her job, said her attorney David H. Tracey. 

“[In early November], our firm informed the university that we represent Dr. McPhail in claims of discrimination and retaliation. Days later, on Nov. 13, 2023, we understand that the board of trustees voted to terminate Dr. McPhail's employment,” Tracey told Diverse. “Ultimately, we understand that the board terminated Dr. McPhail's employment mere weeks after her internal complaint and days after notifying the university that she had retained counsel for her discrimination and retaliation claim."

In a statement released on Tuesday, the SAU board denied “the unfounded allegations Dr. McPhail has made” against the trustees, adding that the board is “prepared to defend itself and the institution.”

HBCU expert Dr. Marybeth Gasman, who holds the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education at Rutgers University said that McPhail’s firing will make SAU appear unstable even beyond its financial issues.

“Although I am not privy to all of the things happening at St. Aug, I do know that there has been sexism in the treatment of women presidents at the institution in the past as I served on the board of trustees and witnessed this behavior on several occasions,” she wrote in an email to Diverse. “The firing ‘without cause’ reminds me of many of the recent firings and ‘non-renewed’ contracts that have been happening across HBCUs."

Gasman, who also leads Rutgers' Center for Minority Serving Institutions and has researched issues relating to HBCU leadership for nearly three decades, said that she has seen leadership issues at HBCUs ebb and flow about every 10 years. 

"Given what Black women have experienced as presidents of HBCUs, I think it is important to listen to Dr. McPhail and hear her and all perspectives related to the termination,” Gasman added. 

McPhail took helm of Saint Augustine after her husband Dr. Iving Pressley McPhail passed away in 2020 after contracting COVID-19. He was only in the role for three months. The McPhails were a powerful couple, having served in a number of leadership positions across academe. In 2018, Diverse honored McPhail with its Diverse Champions award. 

Turmoil at the school

Experts say that the decision to fire McPhail from her post, amid the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) ruling to remove SAU's membership from their accrediting body, signals a lack of stability at the 156-year-old institution and an uncertainty about the school's future. 

The accrediting body had placed SAU on probation last year, due to financial challenges. McPhail attributed the issues to incomplete audits, a lack of record maintenance and documentation under a previous administration, and an unreliable former auditor.

SAU faced an earlier probation between 2016 and 2018.

"I have a real strong feeling that the faculty and staff at Saint Augustine's University are so committed to this university that they're going to work aggressively with heartfelt enthusiasm to give that appeal everything that they have in them to be successful," McPhail said.

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