Tuskegee University Poised To Pick New President Despite Growing Dissension

May 3, 2018 Off By Michael

Booker T. Washington overlooking the legacy of Lewis Adams as Tuskegee grapples with finding its eighth president since Washington died in 1915.

Tuskegee University is poised to announced the selection of the university’s eighth president this weekend. However, a growing number of alumni are calling on the university to slow down and start the search process over.

Last week, the university announced it would soon select one of two candidates to emerge from the search process. The two candidates are Dr. Lily McNair and Dr. Jack Thomas.

According to a press release from the university, “Dr. Lily McNair,… currently serves as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Wagner College — a private liberal arts school of 2,200 students located on New York City’s Staten Island. A clinical psychologist by training, Dr. McNair’s higher education career includes other academic and executive appointments at Spelman College, University of Georgia, the State University of New York at New Paltz, and Vassar College.”

That same press release announces Dr. Thomas as follows:

“Dr. Jack Thomas,… currently serves as president of Western Illinois University — a public university of about 10,000 students based in Macomb, Illinois, with an additional metropolitan campus in the Quad Cities/Moline area. With an academic background that began with teaching English, his rise through the academic and executive higher education ranks includes more recent appointments at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Middle Tennessee State University, in addition to WIU.”

Dr. Thomas is currently seeking the presidency of a liberal arts university in the Midwest. He is one of five candidates being considered for that post.

“Some people are going to complain no matter who they pick,” said Simon Newbold, a Tuskegee alum with university administrative experience.

But Dr. Zelma Payne is not just any old alum. Payne is a member of the Tuskegee class of 1953. She has been lobbying younger alumni to resist efforts by the university to name either of the two finalists.

In an epistle circulated to younger alumni, Dr. Payne writes:

“My recommendation is to campaign for Dr. Morris to stay at least two years so we can take time to find a person with potential who can help Tuskegee University meet the critical problems we face.”

Since June of 2017, Dr. Charlotte Morris has served as the university’s Interim President. This is Dr. Morris’ second stint as Interim President of one of the nation’s oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Following the retirement of Dr. Benjamin Payton in 2011, Morris served as Interim President until Dr. Gilbert Rochon was hired in 2012. Rochon abruptly resigned following the board’s annual fall meeting on campus a few years later.

Last year the Tuskegee University Board of Trustees failed to renew the contract of Dr. Brian Johnson after it learned that Johnson had applied to become the Chancellor of North Carolina Central University, a position Johnson did not receive. Morris was brought back out of retirement and has served as Interim President while the Board searched for a replacement for Dr. Johnson.

“We don’t need to get into a situation as the past two Presidents who had no knowledge of how to run a university such as Tuskegee,” Dr. Payne explained.

The school was founded in 1881 by Louis Adams, a mulatto shopkeeper and political operative during the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War. At that time the school’s mission was to provide educational opportunities for the children of Tuskegee who were first generation post enslavement.

The original mission has long since expanded to include educating students from around the globe in science, technology, and the arts. Tuskegee, as other HBCUs is in a daily struggle for the resources it needs to continue providing a superior education to its students.

“Neither Thomas or McNair have a record of raising money while motivating faculty to advance their programs,” Payne pointed out.

“Bottom line,” Payne said, “we need more time to search for a leader with stature and aggressiveness to make contacts with corporations, foundations, etc.”

“I wish I was young like some of these young people, I would get in my car and be down there every day resisting the final decision on these two. This selection needs to be stopped pronto,” Payne said.

Unfortunately, for Dr. Payne, younger alumni are reluctant to get involved in the nitty-gritty politics that is necessary to get the attention of the Tuskegee Board of Trustees.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com