HBCU needs new board leadership

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It’s time to remove Bethune-Cookman University’s incompetent Board of Trustees, beginning with Chairman Belvin Perry, once and for all time – and by any means necessary.

Belvin Perry’s “leadership’’ and influence on the Bethune-Cookman University’s Board of Trustees is the thread that links the damaging actions taken by the board over three successive B-CU presidencies.

For the past two weeks, Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) alum and supporters have been proudly putting together a public celebration in recognition of what President E. LaBrent Chrite had done to move the 117-year-old institution into a bright future.

But what a difference a single day makes.

On Tuesday March 16, there was shock, pain, consternation, anger and frustration among B-CU stakeholders nationwide when word spread rapidly about Chrite’s sudden resignation.

At lowest ebb

Chrite appeared on the Daytona Beach campus in June 2019 after a national search. Lest we forget, B-CU was on the razor’s edge of permanent closure due to an “imperfect” storm involving deficit spending, loss of its academic accreditation, debt defaults, multimillion -dollar lawsuits, foreclosures, and allegations of insider payoffs, forgery and fraud at the highest levels of leadership.

Chrite – in what in retrospect now seems to be a combination of unfamiliarity with dysfunctional Historically Black College/University (HBCU) organizational culture and tragic naïveté – came to the campus in good faith, without flash, then earnestly and humbly went to work, largely with a team of insiders and hangers-on from the previous serially inept, conflict-ridden interim administration of Hubert Grimes.

Make no mistake

It was Chrite’s hard-won credibility, his trustworthiness, his cultural competency outside B-CU’s la-la-land leadership ecosystem, and his global, world-class business experience that convinced ANYONE to take a chance at not letting B-CU die by the hand of its own suicidal leadership. For his entire short but eventful tenure, Chrite was the best “face” the university could have.

As the honest personification of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s quiet but effective leadership style and as the university’s confidently hopeful visionary, Chrite was the reason anyone – alums, major donors, the Florida Legislature, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SAC-SCOC) academic accreditation agency – would invest time, energy, or hard dollars to rescue the institution.

Chrite was a likeable, effective but soft-spoken evangelist for B-CU, selling a vision to take the institution in a global direction that had never been articulated by any previous president. And he had done the same thing before at other institutions.

Earned the right

Having done the critically essential work – putting B-CU’s finances “in the black” for the first time in years; reinstating accreditation; upgrading the school’s credit rating; successfully competing for millions of dollars in grants; settling lawsuits; and most importantly, leading an all-out, non-partisan effort with all hands on deck to get millions of state dollars in recurring funding – it seemed that Chrite had earned the right to imprint his global vision on the institution.

He had proven he could rescue, restore and operate one of Volusia County’s largest business entities, with hundreds of employees and a $251 million yearly economic impact in the area.

But what a difference a single day makes.

Why did he quit?

Chrite finally had his fill of the continual professional distrust and contemptuous micro-management of Chairman Belvin Perry and Vice Chair Joyours “Pete” Gamble that occurred with the active or benign approval of a hand-picked, weak-kneed board of Perry’s submissive minions.

Here’s the entire current Board of Trustees, responsible for the recent unnecessary drama: Perry, Gamble, Jennifer Adams, Wayne A. Davis, Jeffrey E. Branch, David Brewer, Lorenzo Brown, John Crossman, Gregorio “Greg” Francis, Deveron Gibbons and Courtney Rhodes.

Since Perry moved into board leadership in the dying days of the Edison Jackson administration, B-CU has been on a slippery slope to self-destruction. The downward trajectory was interrupted only by Chrite’s tenure.

Through two deeply troubled and one aborted B-CU presidential administrations, Perry’s egomaniacal board leadership and influence has been the common denominator.

Saw it coming

Some saw this fiasco coming even before Chrite set foot on the B-CU campus in 2019. Here’s what current B-CU National Alumni Association President Johnny McCray, a former B-CU board member, wrote in the Florida Courier on Jan. 17, 2019, prior to Chrite’s selection:

…(B-CU) has been victimized enough by greed, self-interest, incompetence, and cronyism…Belvin Perry, a member of the B-CU Board of Trustees (BOT) co-hosted a press conference with his longtime friend, colleague, and confidante, Interim President Hubert Grimes. It is painfully apparent that Perry and Grimes, both retired circuit court judges are working in lock-step to avert the hiring of a new president.

Perry is calling for a halt to the current search for a president to replace Grimes. The search is being conducted by a committee convened by the BOT, which engaged AGB Search, a nationally reputed firm specializing in executive searches exclusively for higher education institutions.

What’s most troubling about Perry’s press conference is the “cloak of darkness” draped over his self-righteous public revelations. Perry failed to disclose that he, without resigning from the BOT, injected himself into the search process as a candidate to become B-CU president, but his candidacy was summarily rejected by the search committee. Perry failed to make the first cut and was never granted an interview.

Does Perry now have an ax to grind, since the search committee aborted his efforts to lead B-CU? Is Perry’s decision-making self-serving, or can he be trusted to make objective decisions in the best interests of B-CU after his failed and surreptitious bid to become its next president?

The answer to McCray’s probing question brings up another question.

Where can you secretly apply for a top job, be so unqualified that you aren’t even granted an interview, then become the boss of the person who gets hired? Only in the crazy world of HBCU board “leadership’’ in which there’s no such thing as a conflict of interest or an appearance of impropriety.

With Perry as the Board of Trustees chairman, Chrite was essentially “nourishing a viper in one’s bosom,” in the words of philosopher Aesop’s most famous fable. Perry cannot be trusted to make “objective decisions” in the best interest of B-CU. And neither can his boot-licking board.

McCray ended his 2019 commentary with this conclusion:

For B-CU to have any hope of survival, the presidential search must continue and the BOT must be reconstituted. Let us exercise diligence and prudence in selecting qualified stewards who can restore the values upon which B-CU was founded. To do so, we must start afresh.

Who’s next?

The problem with “starting afresh” is that no good current or former president with the experience to build on Chrite’s crisis-borne achievements would dare to work for this board as it is currently constructed.

And Chrite’s sudden departure leaves the foulest taste in the mouths of large donors he was personally courting locally, as well as with his wide-ranging worldwide personal network of relationships built during his decades of work. B-CU can kiss those affiliations and donations goodbye.

Thus, B-CU finds itself perhaps in worse shape than it was before Chrite arrived.

Credibility shot. Bridges burned. Connections severed. Hope and vision crushed.

And for what?

What’s next?

Because board members can continue to keep themselves and their hand-picked cronies in power indefinitely, here are some recommendations (in random order) on how to force current Board of Trustees members to walk away:

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Legislature, or both, should make complete board eradication, restructuring and replacement a condition of receiving the yearly $17 million in recurring state funds. If the current B-CU board refuses to quit, the state should demand its $17 million back for fiscal year 2021-22 and end future recurrent funding. Doesn’t matter how it’s done – executive order, amended legislation, etc. This current Board of Trustees can’t be trusted to abide by their legal fiduciary responsibility to put the institution’s welfare above their own egos and chummy interpersonal relationships. Why should the state of Florida and its millions of taxpayers trust this current board with a single dollar, particularly when the state is in a pandemicinduced deficit?
  • SACSCOC should put B-CU back on probation for violations of the same “core requirements” of integrity and governing board characteristics that caused the university to be originally placed on probation in 2018. Nothing has changed with regard to board mismanagement and interference in daily operations. The Chrite resignation speaks for itself.
  • Major donors, large and small, should close their check-books until the current board is eradicated, legally restructured and replaced. Not one dime.
  • B-CU should select a reputable search firm ASAP, get on with the task of selecting a new permanent president and allow Chrite to serve until his May 31 deadline.
  • If an interim president is necessary, any present or former administrator, staff, faculty, trustee or B-CU student is disqualified from serving in that position. It’s time to gut B-CU’s ingrown, incestuous leadership network, and it starts by bringing in a complete outsider. The interim president shall sign a binding agreement that he or she will not be considered for the permanent position.

I’ve said it before

In a column I wrote urging Perry, Interim President Hubert Grimes, and the board to resign back in 2018, I wrote this: “In Japan, they (B-CU board members) would have been forced to commit ritual suicide under the samurai code as restitution for disgraceful conduct.”

Upon further review, there’s no reason for board members to kill themselves.

Instead, they should just walk away from B-CU. Forever. And count their blessings.

If they don’t, we’ll all know that they are willing to sacrifice “Mary’s Baby” on the altar of their own egos and personal ambitions. 

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