WHO’S DOING THE HOMEWORK?

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Leadership searches by Bethune-Cookman University’s Board of Trustees revealed questions about applicants that a simple Google search would have answered. Will that trend continue?

Bethune-Cookman University
As Bethune-Cookman University now embarks on its fourth presidential search in less than seven years, questions are being raised about the selection process.

BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF
Note: This story is updated from the same story that appeared in print. 

DAYTONA BEACH – As 107-year-old Bethune-Cookman University moves forward in the wake of the sudden resignation of its seventh president, Dr. E. LaBrent Chrite, a review of how previous university leadership handled presidential vacancies is in order.

Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed

August 2004-May 2012

Reed is one of a handful of people who have ever served as the president of two Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs) in America. Her eight year tenure at B-CU could almost considered to be accidental.

In 2004, B-CU had selected Gloria Bromell-Tinubu, a Spelman College economics professor and former Atlanta City Council member, to succeed Dr. Oswald P. Brunson after his 29-year tenure. B-CU decided to renew its search to after the school could not agree to contractual terms with Bromell-Tinubu.

At the time, Reed was president of Philander Smith College, an HBCU located in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was well-known to the United Methodist Church, with which B-CU is affiliated. The B-CU Board of Trustees convinced her to fill the presidential vacancy without reopening an outside national search.

In her 2004 presidential welcome on the website, Reed summarized one of her main accomplishments at Philander Smith as fundraising – something for which she achieved praise for doing well during her B-CU tenure.

However, there was at least one other constant in Reed’s career of academic and organizational leadership at Philander Smith and B-CU. It was ongoing conflict between her and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a 106-year-old non-profit group that represents the interests of college and university instructors around America.

Nothing new

Reed’s first tangle with the AAUP was in 2002 when, according to an AAUP report written in 2004, she fired a professor for insubordination through non-compliance with a presidential directive prohibiting Philander Smith personnel from speaking to local media. She also fired four other full-time faculty members, citing the need to reduce the size of the college’s faculty and staff to save money.

That pattern continued during Reed’s stay at B-CU. In 2011, the Florida Courier published a nine-part investigative series revealing that B-CU had been slapped with 13 state and federal lawsuits and administrative complaints, including legal actions filed by longtime professors, the former men’s basketball head coach and the former football head coach, and a former student who said she was raped by a group of basketball players and that the university tried to cover it up.

The series revealed that B-CU was also AAUP’s list of “censured administrations,” which meant that conditions for academic freedom and tenure are unsatisfactory at a college or university. B-CU was one of only 49 institutions nationwide on the censure list at the time.

AAUP’s conclusions about B-CU were strikingly similar to the conclusions reached about Reed’s leadership at Philander Smith some five years earlier, indicating that four professors were denied “virtually all aspects of academic due process” in fighting the sexual harassment charges lodged by B-CU.

Reed’s resignation followed soon thereafter.

Dr. Edison Jackson

May 2012-March 2013  (interim) March 2013-July 2017 (permanent)

Dr. Edison Jackson

Jackson replaced Reed and became B-CU’s interim president in 2012. B-CU was Jackson’s third college or university presidency. He previously served as president of Compton Community College in Compton, California and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

Jackson, like Reed, was selected without the B-CU board launching a national search. He was a member of a group of former HBCU presidents who made themselves available for interim presidencies to allow the institutions to deliberately conduct presidential searches with an experienced former president as the helm temporarily. As a condition of being appointed, the group’s members agreed not to submit their names in to be considered as the permanent president. 

Jackson evidently changed his mind after arriving Daytona, telling the Daytona Times, the Florida Courier’s sister newspaper, “if asked I will serve.”   After less than a year on the job, he 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.

What most didn’t know what that the Board of Trustees paid a $50,000 fee, evidently to the HBCU presidents group, to get Jackson safely out of his agreement to serve only as interim president. Just like Reed, Jackson took the top B-CU job primarily at the Board of Trustees’ request without going through a vetting and professional investigation process that is typical when a presidential search is initiated and completed.

Things soon turned sour when B-CU trustees began to raise questions with what they saw as the lack of transparency and accountability from the office of B-CU’s Chief Financial Officer Emmanuel Gonsalves, who B-CU hired at Jackson’s request. Gonsalves worked for Jackson at Medgar Evers College and had been allegedly forced to resign amidst financial scandal at two previous institutions.

Thereafter, grassroots efforts began 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.

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.

Jackson’s eventual 2017 retirement came in the wake of years of news reports and 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.

As a result, the NAACP Florida State Conference of Branches called on Jackson to resign.

Retired Judge Hubert Grimes

July 2017-July 2019 (interim)

Hubert Grimes

Grimes, Bethune-Cookman University’s legal counsel and a former Volusia County judge, was named interim president by the institution’s Board of Trustees. Again, no outside search was done prior to his appointment, and Grimes had no college or university-level educational administrative training or experience.

B-CU financial audits at the time show that though Grimes cut instruction, institutional and academic support and maintenance expenses, student services and activities expenses shot up during his watch.

His bottom line: B-CU lost $9.8 million during Grimes’s full fiscal year, which was $1.1 million more that Jackson did during his last full fiscal year. Thus, B-CU lost more than $18.7 million over the two years of his interim leadership.

Approximately half of that amount – more than $9 million – was used to make repayments to lenders and long-term creditors as a consequence of the dormitory-building project fiasco that resulted in lawsuits, foreclosures, and bond defaults that almost destroyed the university financially.

Dr. E. LaBrent Chrite

July 2019- March 2021 (permanent)

E. LaBrent ChriteChrite was finally chosen from 60 candidates submitted to the B-CU Board of Trustees by AGB Search, a Washington, D.C.-based firm hired by the institution to perform a national search.

At the time of the search that shortlisted Chrite and two other candidates, Board of Trustees Chairman Belvin Perry criticized the national search process and called for it to be halted.

It was later revealed that Perry allegedly failed to tell fellow Board of Trustees members that he submitted his name for the presidency. His application was rejected by the search committee. Perry failed to make the first cut and was never granted an interview.

So far, there has been no indication of whether a search committee has been formed to fill the latest presidential vacancy at B-CU. 

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