Bethune-Cookman University’s sixth president believes he’s moving the school in the right direction, despite questions from alumni and others.
BY JENISE GRIFFIN MORGAN
DAYTONA BEACH – A controversial $72 million residence hall project, the creation of a community development corporation without its board of trustees’ knowledge, and recent on- and off-campus shootings with injuries to students have sparked questions about transparency and operations at Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU), the only private historically Black institution of higher learning in Florida.
In an exclusive interview with the Florida Courier on Tuesday in his office, Dr. Edison Jackson, B-CU’s president, addressed a myriad of questions about fiscal matters, being open to stakeholders, security, the future for HBCUs, and public access to the B-CU campus.
With the guidance of its former vice president of fiscal affairs, Emmanuel Gonsalves, B-CU entered into a 40-year-leasing agreement with a real estate developer for construction of two dormitories financed by private investors.
The new dorms are expected to be completed by January 2016 and would provide 1,200 additional beds on campus. After 40 years of lease payments, B-CU will own the residence halls.
Jackson said projections show that B-CU will generate $250 million from the project, which could eventually help fund a student center, expand its science building and improve the gymnasium.
Why this agreement?
Why was the decision made instead of taking another route?
Jackson explained. “Some (potential) developers wanted us to use our bonding capacity to build the finance, the development of those residence halls. If we had used that instrument, then if there were any major catastrophes, we would not have any other capacity to go out in the marketplace because the university has some debt that has occurred over the years that they’re still paying off and we certainly didn’t want to go into our endowment, which is $50 million – because that’s like an insurance policy as well.’’
In the fall 2014, B-CU enrolled 4,045 students, an increase of 258 students over the previous year.
Jackson said most of the university’s dormitories are more than 50 years old and need upgrading or replacing. Last year, Meigs Hall was shut down because of mold and more than 170 students were moved to off-campus housing.
Before Meigs Hall was closed, B-CU had about 1,900 beds, Jackson said. He added that the university is paying the rent of 350 students who are living off campus.
“It’s like a zero return on investment. When students are living on campus, there’s a margin of profits.
Living off campus, it’s a drain,” he remarked.
He further noted that 200 to 300 potential new freshmen were lost last year because the university didn’t have on-campus housing for them.
However, board members and alumni are questioning if the project was financially the right move, especially in light of Gonsalves’ sudden departure from the school in January.
According to Jackson, Gonsalves left B-CU in January to “pursue his personal and professional ambitions.’’ Jackson brought Gonsalves to the university a few years ago. Gonsalves had worked for Jackson when he (Jackson) was president of Medgar Evers College in New York.
A decision by Gonsalves last year to establish a community development corporation (CDC) without the board’s knowledge raised eyebrows and led more than 250 alumni to sign a petition urging B-CU’s board of trustees to immediately conduct an independent forensics audit of the university’s finances.
They were supposed to present the petition Wednesday night at a B-CU board meeting – after the Florida Courier’s press time.
According to B-CU, the proposed CDC was part of an overall strategy to sustain business development and growth in Midtown, a predominantly Black community in Daytona Beach.
The plan was prepared by Gonsalves and included names of people who were not formally contacted by the university but were proposed by the Office of Fiscal Affairs for consideration by the administration and the board, the university stated last month.
In January, the board killed it before it got off the ground.
“The board did not know about it,” Jackson acknowledged Tuesday. “It was going to be presented to the board but we got entangled in so much that the decision was made just to disband it.’’
Jackson envisions a CDC in the future, adding that it’s not usual for universities to have them so it will be independent from the parent company. But, he assured, “We’ll go about forming it differently.’’
Answers for alumni
An online Change.org petition formed by alumni states, “We, the undersigned alumni of Bethune-Cookman, insist upon the timely and unimpeded execution of an independent forensic audit of our alma mater’s finances because (1) no one claims to know the purpose of the aforementioned Bethune-Cookman Community Development Corporation, (2) Gonsalves left a similar position at Medgar Evers College under mysterious circumstances and (3) he abruptly left his financial officer position at Bethune-Cookman. This last point in particular makes very clear the urgent need for the transparency and accountability that can be executed solely through an independent forensic audit.”
In response to the alumni’s petition, Jackson said three alums on the board represent B-CU’s National Alumni Association.
“They voted for this project,” he said, referring to the $72 million residence hall project. “What do you want to know…because the board made that decision.’’
He added that there are seven B-CU graduates on the board. “And so the question is, what do you want to see… and you have elected representatives on the board and they have not raised any questions at the board meetings.
“You can, I guess, throw stones at anything. This project is a good project.’’
On the issue of transparency, Jackson believes Bethune-Cookman is being open enough.
He mentioned that the university has an annual audit, a report on B-CU’s finances that shows “We’ve got a clean bill of health.’’
“It’s not like we aren’t open. Yes, we are. Every board member knows the fiscal health of the university.’’
Because B-CU is a private university, the board meetings are closed.
“The meetings are not public. It’s not up to me; it’s not my decision,” he stated.
When asked if he would favor them being open to the public or streamed online as public universities do, he replied, “It doesn’t matter to me. There’s nothing sinister about what we do there, but that’s a board decision.’’
Another campus proposal that soon could spark more controversy involves safety.
Jackson’s predecessor, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, had suggested closing off streets that provide direct access to the campus to provide a safer environment for students. Reed’s proposal was widely panned by local residents and was never approved by the Daytona Beach City Commission.
Jackson said he’s now ready to investigate and discuss that possibility.
During a Feb. 23 shooting that occurred on campus, three students were shot and suffered non life-threatening injuries. Ladelle Pleasure, 21, who was a B-CU student, was charged in the incident.
On April 3, four students were shot and received non life-threatening injuries at a house party held off-campus. Vincent “Wu’’ Smith, allegedly a 23-year-old former B-CU student, has been arrested. He is accused of firing several rounds inside the house.
All but one of the injured students are still matriculating on campus. One mom decided to take her son home to heal, but Jackson said B-CU is working with him to make sure he can complete his schoolwork.
“Thank God they are mending quite well,’’ Jackson said about the students who were shot. “It’s disturbing that some young people feel to settle a dispute is through violence, with a gun.”
Since the shootings, the university has increased its numbers of public service officers and cameras – including those that can record license numbers.
Jackson said B-CU would provide more recreational activities on campus. The university will begin hosting alcohol-free parties on campus and a 24-hour eatery is opening so students won’t have to leave campus to get a late-night meal.
“Students come here and parents bring their children here thinking they’re going to be safe and we have a responsibility to do that,” he added.
Part 2 of Jackson’s interview will be featured in the Florida Courier next week.