Continued turmoil at Morehouse: faculty votes ‘no confidence’ in chair of trustees

By Maria Saporta

The splintering of leadership at Morehouse College, which is commemorating its 150th anniversary this year, has gotten worse – not better – in the past three months.

In January, the Morehouse Board of Trustees decided to part ways with President John S. Wilson upon the completion of his current contract in June.

A month ago, Board Chairman Robert Davidson sent out a notice saying William “Bill” Taggart, the chief operating officer of Morehouse, would be assuming the day-to-day operations of the college. But a couple of days later, Davidson back-pedaled that statement.

Then on Tuesday, March 21, a quorum of the Morehouse College faculty passed a vote of “no confidence” in Chairman Davidson.

“This action reflects escalating faculty concerns about governance practices and the governance culture at Morehouse,” a group of concerned faculty wrote in an open letter this week. “The faculty is concerned primarily with the Board’s lack of transparency and accountability and its unwillingness to work collaboratively with faculty and students.

John Wilson

Morehouse’s John Wilson vows to do his best during his last six months as president (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“We believe that the erratic behavior of the Board under the leadership of Chairman Davidson is threatening to imperil the long-term viability of the institution as well as the College’s ability to carry out its extraordinary mission and to serve her exceptional students. Our vote of no confidence in the Board Chairman, we wish to emphasize, is animated by a profound commitment to and reverence for Morehouse College.”

The intensifying dysfunctional relationship between the Board of Trustees and the faculty comes at a precarious time for the institution, which will hold its spring meeting on April 7 and April 8.

Board Chair Davidson did not respond to an email seeking his perspective.

Two separate reports from leadership consultants hired by the Board during the last three years point to problems of board governance.

AGB Consultants (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges) conducted a review of Morehouse in 2014.

Among its findings included:

  • Since our original work, it has become increasingly clear that fundamental governance weaknesses need immediate attention.
  • Executive Committee: The full board is clearly sensitive to an insider group of board leaders who are seemingly making the key decisions…
  • There is an overweighting of alumni trustees at Morehouse, and that’s an “issue worthy of reconsideration, especially when coupled with the duration of their service.”
  • The governance of a private institutions is made or broken based on the President-Board Chair relationship. “While Bob and John have had some candid discussions with the assistance of outside expertise and AGB consultants – it is abundantly clear that current leadership lack the essential elements of trust to make this work going forward. In the one relationship that needs to work well, their relationship is a recipe for failure.”
  • “Changing presidential leadership at this point is exactly the wrong recipe for Morehouse, therefore we encourage the board work with the Trustee and Governance Committee on an expedited board leadership succession process.”

Another independent review was done in October 2013 by Dr. Keith Eigel, who was hired by Chairman Davidson to address concerns by some members of the board regarding President Wilson’s leadership. At the time of his hire, Dr. Eigel was provided a strong narrative that Wilson was “autocratic, abrasive, and authoritarian.”

Robert Davidson John Wilson

Morehouse College Chairman Robert Davidson with College President John S. Wilson (Special: Morehouse College)

Dr. Eigel addressed the Morehouse faculty this week, and professor Jann Adams sent a summary of the March 28 session, which she emailed to the whole faculty and the board.

“Dr. Eigel reported that President Wilson was very responsive and willing to incorporate the feedback he received from Dr. Eigel,” Adams wrote. “Further, Dr. Eigel indicated that results of his evaluation did not support the description of Dr. Wilson provided to him by Board members.”

After conducting 360 evaluations with members of Morehouse leadership, including trustees, administrators and teachers, Dr. Eigel concluded:

“Results indicated that President Wilson functioned at a high level in both areas.  However, Dr. Eigel reported that the President can be passionate or possibly dogmatic at times (particularly when it came to issues of justice); Dr. Eigel reported that Dr. Wilson was open to the feedback, opening acknowledged this potential challenge, and committed to work to correct it. Dr. Eigel described the interaction between the President and Board members as an “incredibly toxic environment”, however, President Wilson made significant efforts to connect with the Board.”

Dr. Eigel said that when he tried to walk the president, board chair, and others through the process of understanding the ways in which their own behaviors undermined Board functioning and the relationship between the President and Board, the President was receptive, engaged the process, and acknowledged his challenges. Chairman Davidson would not participate in this process, according to Dr. Eigel’s comments.

“In June 2015 after completing ‘multiple hundreds of hours’ of work with the Board, and after providing preliminary feedback, Chair Davidson asked that Dr. Eigel no longer work with the Board. In September 2015 (in advance of October board meeting), Dr. Eigel was made aware that the executive committee had decided not to renew the contract of President Wilson. By that time, Dr. Eigel had concluded that most issues were Board of Trustee organizational and functional issues, not presidential leadership issues.”

In the letter from concerned faculty, other issues surfaced:

Morehouse College

Morehouse College (Special: Morehouse College website)

 

“To date, Chairman Davidson has not met with the faculty, and he has not given the faculty any explanation for why an administrative change is necessary at this critical moment in the history Morehouse College, i.e., during a year in which we apply for reaffirmation of accreditation and at a time when administrative stability is needed to attract investment in the institution.”

Also, just before the January 2017 Board of Trustees meeting – the one that resulted in the non-renewal of President Wilson’s contract, three student representatives to the Board filed a legal complaint against Chairman Davidson, alleging that the Chairman’s removal of student Trustees from the meeting would amount to usurpation of the students’ fiduciary responsibilities as members of the Board.

“Many members of the faculty are unable to conclude that the vote on President Wilson’s contract is legitimate,” the letter stated. “Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears described the dismissal of student Trustees as ‘an act of voter suppression.’ We would add that the dismissal of faculty Trustees only adds to the severity of the suppression. Students and teachers are the two most important constituencies of any educational institution. The faculty is deeply concerned that the Morehouse College Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Chairman Davidson, has suppressed the voices and opinions of these two essential constituencies.”

Since the faculty’s vote of no confidence in Board Chairman Davidson, national publications have been reporting on the issues dividing the Morehouse community.

The Washington Post’s higher education blog had an analysis by Marybeth Gasman with the headline: “At Morehouse: When college boards of trustees won’t let presidents do their jobs.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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