Outgoing B-CU President Dr. Edison Jackson will cut his own deal for ‘early retirement,’ despite saddling the university with more than $300 million in debt under questionable circumstances.
BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF
DAYTONA BEACH – On Tuesday, Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) announced that its current president Dr. Edison O. Jackson will retire and not serve out his employment at the university, which was scheduled to end in 2018.
On-campus sources told the Florida Courier that Hubert L. Grimes was appointed interim president by B-CU’s trustees, and is scheduled to assume leadership on Thursday, July 13 – after the Florida Courier’s Wednesday night press time.
A graduate of Kentucky State University, the University of Georgia Law School, and International Seminary, Grimes was Volusia County’s first African-American county judge (1988) and circuit judge (1999) in the four-county Seventh Judicial Circuit.
He teaches law at Florida A&M University Law School and is a practicing attorney who is currently defending B-CU against multiple lawsuits.
Grimes follows Jackson, who became B-CU’s interim president on May 14, 2012. He replaced Trudie Reed, who retired after seven years with the institution.
Jackson’s ascendance followed Reed’s early retirement after a tumultuous 2011, as indicated in a nine-part investigative series published in the Florida Courier detailing how B-CU was slapped with 13 state and federal lawsuits and administrative complaints from staff, instructors and students.
After less than a year on the job, Jackson was appointed permanent president for a three-year term in March 2013 to near-universal praise from alumni, family members of university founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and local civil rights activists.
Things soon turned sour.
Years of questions
It is unclear whether Jackson’s departure is truly voluntary. It comes in the wake of years of news reports in the Florida Courier and recent investigative journalism by the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Daytona Beach’s daily newspaper, as well as long-term alumni dissatisfaction with lack of operational and financial transparency.
Jackson was also criticized for what many alumni considered to be a heavy-handed, clumsy political outreach to powerful Republican politicians – Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – who had no history of supporting HBCUs, but were bestowed the university’s highest honors.
Grassroots efforts have been ongoing for a least a year to persuade B-CU’s trustees to fire Jackson because of his refusal to address questions and concerns plaguing a dormitory-building project that was originally set to cost $72 million, was built for $85 million and is now estimated to cost the university more than $300 million over 40 years – the time it will take for B-CU to own the buildings.
Concerns in 2015
The dorm project began in earnest in 2013, but public questions were first raised in 2015. Press reports questioned the hiring and sudden resignation of then-Chief Financial Officer Emmanuel Gonsalves, who left his last two jobs under professional clouds.
Florida Courier reporting continued, highlighted by an October 2015 front-page story detailing one trustee’s ultimatum demanding that the board bring in forensic auditors to probe the school’s finances for fraud and fiscal mismanagement – or he would file lawsuits against individual board members and request a state and federal criminal investigation.
This year, the Florida Courier provided front-page coverage of court actions filed against the university.
One lawsuit was filed in February by Robert Delancy, chosen by the Bethune-Cookman University National Alumni Association (NAA) as its appointee to the board.
B-CU’s trustees refused to accept Delancy, a retired Internal Revenue Service special agent, allegedly in retaliation for his aggressive questions about the school’s finances. Last month during its national convention in Miami, the NAA voted overwhelmingly to join Delancy’s lawsuit.
In a second lawsuit filed in March, former B-CU trustee A. Ray Brinson claimed he was terminated from the board in October 2016 without notice or warning, and in violation of B-CU’s bylaws that provide a formal process for removal of trustees.
Brinson is a retired insurance executive and a B-CU alumnus who has served as a trustee and NAA president. Like Delancy, Brinson accuses the university of retaliating against him for asking questions about the dorm deal.
Over the last two weeks, the News-Journal published a deep dive into B-CU’s financial condition and the dorm deal:
•“…B-CU’s monthly payments on (the dorms) will increase by 1.5 percent annually over the life of the lease from a low of $470,000 a month to a high of about $840,000 – or about $10 million a year.” The newspaper reports that B-CU couldn’t make its first monthly payment on time.
•The company that built the dorms was only six months old at the time it was awarded a no-bid contract, “and that the company’s managing partner was sued twice for fraud.” Qualified Black contractors in Florida were never considered.
•A forensic document examiner concluded that Jackson probably did not sign the construction contract, but B-CU’s trustees approved it anyway.
•B-CU lost $18 million last year, with salaries jumping by $8 million in one year. The school has negative cash flow of $7.8 million.
•Jackson’s salary is currently $410,000.
•“B-CU borrowed $7 million from its endowment, dropping it from $54.8 million to $47.8 million.”
•In June, “Jackson thanked the board for its approval of a $10 million withdrawal from the earnings on its endowment fund.”
Immediately after the board of trustees’ meeting, Board Chairman Joe Petrock held a 90-minute open meeting with interested alumni in the school’s Performing Arts Center. One B-CU graduate, upon condition of anonymity, told the Florida Courier what happened.
“There were people who came from West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and other places around the state,” the graduate said. “It was a waste of time, a whitewash.
“Petrock talked about refinancing the (dorm deal) debt, the need for more oversight, and checks and balances. He refused to commit to conducting a forensic audit.
“He also said, ‘The board was negotiating early retirement’ with President Jackson. To me, that means a golden parachute, a payoff, is coming. Jackson…should have been escorted off the campus by security.
“We came to hear that Jackson’s situation was resolved, current board members had submitted their resignations, the board would be revamped, and a new search committee would be formed.
“Petrock had the opportunity to come clean. The words ‘financial mismanagement’ were never mentioned. The NAA and alumni are still going forward in ‘resistance mode.’”