Who Runs Tuskegee?

March 24, 2015 Off By Michael
Dr. Benjamin Payton the fifth president of Tuskegee University speaking at the Thompkins Hall ribbon cutting ceremony . Photo by Frank H. Lee

Retired Major General Charles Williams University speaking at the Thompkins Hall ribbon cutting ceremony . Photo by Frank H. Lee

Who runs Tuskegee University?

In 1880 Tuskegee was established as a teacher’s college with a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees. They elected their successors and are responsible to no one.

The initial Trustees were Lewis Adams, the Negro Shopkeeper who actually founded the school; George Campbell, a white banker befriended by Adams and a representative; appointed by the State of Alabama in exchange for an annual appropriation of $2,000 for teachers’ salaries.

When Booker T. Washington came aboard he learned from Adams, that partnership with white businessmen was an excellent way to generate the capital necessary to sustain the school. Washington wasted little time in establishing relationships with several robber barons turned philanthropists in the late 1800s.

He brought onto the board men like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew W. Mellon, Collin P. Huntington and John D. Rockefeller. Each April these men would journey by train to Tuskegee to bask in the glory of what their money had wrought.Washington used his influence with Huntington to extend the railroad tracks from the station at Chehaw to run through the campus. The school continued to maintain its line item in the Alabama State budget, but it remained largely independent of the long-arm of the state due to the benevolence of it benefactors.

Tuskegee community leaders turned out for Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Thompkins Hall October 2012. Photo Credit: Frank H. Lee

Tuskegee community leaders turned out for Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Thompkins Hall October 2012. Photo Credit: Frank H. Lee

In the early 1970s, Tuskegee’s fourth president, Dr. Luther H. Foster, described Tuskegee as a quasi-private, quasi-public institution. Its board was stilled comprised of white philanthropists, but their numbers were beginning to drop after a student revolt in 1968 locked the Board up in Dorothy Hall (the campus hotel), ate their dinner and demanded the end of mandatory ROTC classes, an end to mandatory chapel attendance, and the establishment of an Afro-American Studies program. The chaos of ’68 had been prophesied by Ralph Ellison fifteen years before, in his novel Invisible Man. (See the scene where the protagonist takes the Trustee Mr. Norton down to the “Golden Day” and the accompanying chaos).

As the philanthropists dropped off the board, the university lobbied harder for more funding from the State of Alabama. With each increase in the state budget, the university had to give up more seats on the board to members representing the interest of the State of Alabama.

For much of the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, Tuskegee’s Board of Trustees was chaired by Andrew Brimmer. During most of this time, Brimmer served double duty as Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

When Brimmer retired in October 2010, Charles E. Williams was appointed to replace him. Today there can be no dispute that Williams is the straw that stirs the drink at Tuskegee.

Williams is called “Chuck” by his friends, but everyone else is expected to call him General. He is a retired Major General in the Army Corps of Engineers. He grew up in Alabama. His father Roosevelt Williams was in the construction business. He and his wife Mattie sent Williams to Tuskegee Institute where he majored in Biology and they sent his brother Luther Williams to Miles College where he majored in Biology. After college Williams joined the army and served as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam and lagged over 2,000 combat flight hours during his service.


Thompkins Hall Ribbon Cutting Ceremony October 2012. Photo Credits Frank H. Lee

Thompkins Hall Ribbon Cutting Ceremony October 2012. Photo Credits Frank H. Lee

According to an article in the August 17, 2007 edition of the Washington Post, in 1989, Williams served as the “head of the $4 billion New York City School Construction Authority.” This article goes on to say that Williams “left the New York job after an audit found that he had given misleading information on the progress of projects he was overseeing.” He had a year remaining on his three-year contract.

In 1992, Williams became the Chief Operating Officer for the $145 million Dulles Greenway project in Loudoun County, Virginia. In 1993 they broke ground on this project that was projected to be completed in two years. In 1995 Williams boasted that the project had come in on time and within the budget.

A year later an Arbitrator ordered the owners of the Dulles Greenway to pay $5 million to their contractors and subcontractors for change orders that had been submitted but hidden from the project budget. This little maneuver made it appear as if Williams had successfully managed the project when in fact certain cost overruns were kept out of the final report he presented on the project.

After the Dulles Greenway project, Williams rode into the District of Columbia to become the Chief Operating Officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools. According to the Washington Post, Williams “quit under fire… in 1998 when a botched roof repair project delayed the opening of District schools by three weeks.”

The problems came to light “after an audit said he{Williams} authorized shoddy contracting procedures and left the school system vulnerable to waste and fraud,” the Washington Post article stated.

In 2000, Williams was appointed by President George W. Bush on the recommendation of his old army buddy, Secretary of State Colin Powell to serve as the Chief Operating Officer for the Overseas Building Operations.

When he left office following the Bush Presidency, “U. S. diplomats complained of building delays and shoddy workmanship, underscoring problems with the State’s one-size-fits-all approach to building that results in the same air-conditioning system being shipped to embassies in Africa and in Europe,” the Washington Post reported. A State Department spokesman said the construction problems are a direct result of the “mercurial management style” of Williams.

Former Tuskegee President Dr. Gilbert Rochon's last public appearance before resigning the following day. Photo Credits: Frank H. Lee

Former President Dr. Gilbert Rochon at the Thompkins Hall Ribbon Cutting ceremony. He threw his hands up and resigned the following day. Photo Credits: Frank H. Lee

In October 2010, Williams begins managing the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee. His brother Luther Williams was the university’s Provost. That same year, Tuskegee University reclaimed possession of Thompkins Hall from the National Park Service. It had deeded Thompkins Hall over to the Park Service in 1975 as one of three designated historical landmarks on the Tuskegee campus.

The justification for transferring Thompkins Hall to the National Park Service was to free Tuskegee from the maintenance and upkeep on the building.

Low and behold, in 2011, the roof of Thompkins Hall caved in. After a review of the structural integrity of the building it was determined that the entire building had to be gutted and renovated. Williams as Chair of the Trustee Board oversaw the renovation of Thompkins Hall. As with other construction projects that Williams has managed, the Thompkins Hall project was plagued with change orders, cost overruns, complaints of shoddy workmanship and was only 75 percent completed.

The day after the ribbon-cutting ceremony reopening Thompkins Hall, Dr. Gilbert Rochon, the sixth President of Tuskegee, walked away from his contract. And the beat goes on…


Harold Michael Harvey, is the author of the legal thriller “Paper Puzzle,” and “Justice in the Round: Essays on the American Jury System,” available at Amazon and at haroldmichaelharvey.com. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com