Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is perhaps turning in his grave.
On the very week that the world paused to remember the 49th anniversary of the assassination of the slain civil rights leader, the board of trustees at his beloved Morehouse College — where he was admitted at the age of 15 — made an abrupt decision to strip its current president — Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr. — and the chair of the board of trustees, Robert Davidson from their respective positions.
The board — which had already made the decision in January not to renew Wilson’s contract when it expired in June — has now made a tumultuous situation even worse. It is yet another glaring example of how boards of trustees at institutions of higher learning, often make rash decisions based on emotion rather than logic.
By most accounts, students, faculty and staff had voiced concerns over the decision by the trustees not to renew Wilson’s contract.
Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and filmmaker Spike Lee —who both graduated with Wilson from Morehouse in 1979 — joined actor Samuel L. Jackson, also an alumnus, in issuing a stinging criticism of the board of trustees most recent actions.
“Morehouse College is at present drowning in acrimony,” Johnson, Lee and Jackson wrote in a letter that was released a few days before the administrative shake-up. “Your decision to not renew President Wilson’s contract is inexplicable, and you must now search for the school’s third president in 10 years. All of us in the Morehouse family—students, faculty and alumni — hold you, the Trustees, responsible for this dismal state of affairs.”
The critique was a public setback for the nation’s only historically Black college for African American men founded in 1867. For decades, the college had a successful track record of producing some of our nation’s most brilliant thinkers and public servants, from theologian Dr. Howard Thurman, to Maynard Jackson, the first African-American mayor of Atlanta.
While the tradition of educating Black men to become the next generation of leaders will almost certainly continue, Morehouse College will inevitably lose its national stature, if the board of trustees continues to micromanage the day-to-day function of the college and refuse to allow their presidents to lead.
In this regard, Morehouse is not an anomaly. In the last year, we have witnessed the derailment of several college presidencies, including Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd at Alabama State University and Dr. Elmira Mangum at Florida A&M University. Trustees at those institutions forced their ouster despite public support from faculty, students, staff and alumni stakeholders.
“Boards have to know their main job is to be promoting the institution, bringing in funding and setting larger policy agendas along with the input of the president,” Dr. Marybeth Gasman, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions recently told Diverse in an interview. “They absolutely have to know that their job is not to micromanage day-to-day operations.”
In 2014, I traveled to Atlanta to interview Wilson. I had followed his career as director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and was familiar with his administrative background that included stints at George Washington University and MIT.
During that interview in his office, Wilson, who grew up in Philadelphia, recounted that he first learned about the small liberal arts college from his church pastor, the Reverend Robert Johnson Smith, who was a devoted Morehouse man, as were his two son.
“I think he talked about Morehouse at least as much as he talked about Jesus,” Wilson recounted with a laugh. “As a result, our church became a pipeline for Morehouse, because he used to talk about this place that was especially made for us.”
After Wilson enrolled in the college in 1975, he had a chance encounter during his sophomore year with Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the towering Black preacher, educator and social activist who presided over Morehouse for 27 years, before he retired in 1967. That meeting changed Wilson’s career trajectory.
“He asked me, “How’s it going? Do you like it here at Morehouse,” Wilson later remembered. “And I said, ‘Actually Dr. Mays, I love it, but I don’t always like it.”
Mays listened carefully, and when Wilson finished talking, he looked the youngster in the eye and offered him a clear directive that did not seem negotiable.
“He said, ‘I hear you. I want you to finish Morehouse. I want you to get some more education and experience and I want you to come back and make a difference,” Wilson recalled.
And that’s precisely what Wilson did.
It’s too bad that he wasn’t given the chance to take an already world-class institution to higher heights, for generations of young Black men yet unborn.
Jamal Eric Watson is the executive editor of Diverse. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson