Tuskegee University, in the words of the poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, “is the Pride of the Swift Growing South.” This representation has been tarnished of late with several missteps following the 2010 retirement of Andrew Felton Brimmer, its long time Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Brimmer, an economist and the first African American to serve as a governor on the Federal Reserve Board, ended forty years of service on the Tuskegee Board at the same time that the university’s fifth president, Benjamin Payton was retiring.
It was thought that Payton had left the university in good financial standing, but, according to a team of researchers, led by Attorney Oliver Hunter, of the Atlanta Tuskegee Alumni Club, documents on file with the federal government indicate that Payton raised money by taking out bank loans which are now coming due. These loans have created a financial burden on the university.
Brimmer hand picked as his successor Board Chair, Retired Major General Charles E. Williams. Williams, a Tuskegee grad, developed a representation for managing shoddy construction projects around the globe on behalf of the United States government, according to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Critics say Williams’ construction projects used substandard materials, thereby increasing profits for the contractors he employed, but leaving the U. S. with buildings that were not functional over the long haul.
“I think the key to us turning things around at Tuskegee has to do with the fact that we were able to get rid of Charles Williams,” a trustee board member said in a recent telephone interview.
The board member went on to say, “Williams meddled too much in the day to day operations of the school. This is one of the things that SAC had a problem with us.”
This board member was alluding to a recent SAC warning notice the university received last year. It was the first time in the 135 year history of the prestigious school that it had received a warning notice from its accreditation agency. The university’s response to the SAC warning notice is due next month.
“I think we are in good shape in the response that we will file with SAC. We have implemented some changes with governance that had caused some concerns. We have amended our bylaws to reflect some of these changes. It is hard to believe, but we found that we have some processes in place that were instituted by Booker T. Washington. So we amended our rules and brought them into the 21st century, the board member said. Now as a matter of policy all senior level university firings and hiring must be vetted by the Board.”
One noticeable change occurred this month following a February board meeting on campus, the Board for the first time in its history released a report of its meeting with a detailed list of items discussed. The lack of transparency had been a bone of contention with many alumni groups throughout the country and last month led to the Atlanta Tuskegee Alumni Club issuing a vote of no confidence on both the university President, Brian Johnson and the entire Board of Trustees.
According to this board member, “We finally got President Johnson under control. He is cooperating with the Board. We are pleased with all of the concerns expressed by alumni throughout the country because it has helped us to get to the good place where we are today.”
Tuskegee, still striving to be the “Pride of the Swift Growing South.”
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.