Morgan's big mistake

Colleges and UniversitiesScienceFitnessMorgan State UniversityUniversity System of Maryland

Reports that Morgan State University's board of regents had declined to renew President David Wilson's contract when it expires next June undoubtedly came as a great disappointment to those who hoped the school could thrive under his leadership. His departure after less than three years leaves the school facing an uncertain future at a critical moment in its history, along with the prospect that the precipitous manner of his dismissal may make finding a strong replacement much more difficult.

Mr. Wilson arrived at Morgan in 2010 amid high expectations he could build on Morgan's status as the most celebrated of the state's four historically black colleges and universities to make it a major urban research institution. Morgan's board of regents, which operates independently of the University System of Maryland, unanimously endorsed Mr. Wilson as the right man to take the school to the next level.

Mr. Wilson was viewed as smart, energetic and dedicated to Morgan's advancement. Perhaps just as important, he came with a reputation as someone who wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers in order to move the institution forward. Over the last two years, he devoted much of his time and energy to beefing up undergraduate instruction, particularly by expanding undergraduate offerings in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, math and engineering. He also focused on increasing the school's sagging graduation and retention rates and put greater emphasis on remedial programs designed to bring academically less-prepared students up to speed.

That's a fairly ambitious agenda for any university president's first two years. But at a school that takes great pride in its history and traditions, it would be surprising if there weren't any number of areas that needed shaking up — as well as the inevitable resistance to change. By some accounts, the grumbling had been growing louder over the past year. Anyone stepping into such a situation ought to expect to have to work hard at building strong relationships with faculty, staff and students as well as with the board. And he should probably watch his back, too.

It may well be that, by temperament or skill set, David Wilson wasn't the right person for that. Morgan's board has offered no public explanation of why it chose not to renew the president's contract, so it's impossible to know whether his leadership was genuinely lacking in some way or whether he is the victim of treacherous campus politics and the petty jealousies, rivalries and intrigues among those around him. The Morgan community has suffered recently from some high-profile crimes, but it is unclear what role, if any, they played — or should have played — in the board's decision.

Whatever the reason, the board's lack of confidence in his ability to lead was apparently as much a surprise to the rest of the university community as it was to Mr. Wilson, who claims he had no inkling the regents were dissatisfied with the job he was doing.

Mr. Wilson's contract offered the board a window to dismiss him without cause, and it chose to exercise that right rather than attempt to work out whatever difficulties it was having with the new president. That's a big mistake, because the uncertainty surrounding Mr. Wilson's departure almost certainly will make it harder to recruit a new president of the stature Morgan deserves. Over the long run, that could seriously damage the school's ability to move forward.

Morgan needs a dynamic leader who can honor the university's past while establishing a vision for where it fits into Maryland's higher education system today and in the future, now that it is no longer automatically the first choice of Maryland's best African-American students. How many top-flight individuals with the kind of skills and experience Morgan needs will be willing to apply for the job now, knowing that the person who had it before was unceremoniously kicked out for no obvious reason? Morgan's board needs to provide a public explanation for its decision, and it had better be a good one. Otherwise, those charged with protecting a vital state institution will have served only to damage it instead.

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