Morehouse College is looking for a new president after the board declined to renew John S. Wilson’s contract.
The board of trustees for the all-male, historically-black college near downtown Atlanta, apparently voted Friday not to renew the contract when it expires in June. The board met, but did not allow the three student members of the board to attend, drawing some students to protest.
The announcement was made in a statement Sunday, the birthday of the school’s most famous graduate, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The board did not explain the decision, and a Morehouse spokeswoman said Monday afternoon she couldn’t comment.
Wilson, who graduated from Morehouse in 1979 and was named its 11th president in November 2012, was unavailable for comment Monday. He said in a statement he’s proud of the work he’s done, such as boosting fundraising among alumni.
He had drawn some resistance from alumni in October. Several started a petition to fire Wilson, saying he's cut health professions programming, reduced transparency and raising revenues "on the backs of parents and students." Tuition has also increased, by more than $10,000 a year for some students. Morehouse also recently required its students to live on campus for at least three years, which guarantees the school collection about $13,000 in mandatory room and board fees from those students.
In 2013, Wilson announced that a financial crisis was forcing Morehouse to cut the college's operating budget by $2.5 million and to eliminate or downgrade 75 jobs. Enrollment declined from 2,900 in 2007 to 2,200 by 2012. Declining enrollment is a problem many HBCU's are experiencing. Morehouse's endowment was about $130 million. Wilson said it should have been at about $1 billion. Wilson also wanted to increase faculty pay, increase student aid and and strengthen advising, particularly in math and science, to help struggling students.
He recently drew a $1 million grant, which will go to strengthening the schools science, technology, engineering and math programs.
On Friday, student trustees frustrated with some of Wilson's policies threatened to sue the college because they say they weren't permitted to attend a board meeting where Wilson's future with Morehouse was discussed. Wilson briefly addressed the students before entering the meeting, recognizing the "considerable angst" they had about the process, according to a video posted The Maroon Tiger, the campus student newspaper.
Moses Washington, a Morehouse sophomore who is junior board trustee, said he was disappointed students didn’t have a say in the board’s decision. He declined comment on the board’s decision, saying the decision had been made. He hopes school leaders will give students input in the next selection process.
“We must make sure we have a voice in the process,” said Washington, 19.
Wilson’s tenure showed promise when President Barack Obama made the commencement speech in 2013. In recent years, there’s been campus criticism of Wilson and rumors of his impending ouster. Trustee leaders publicly stood by Wilson.
In the college’s statement, trustee leaders credited Wilson for improving student achievement, particularly in science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.
“He has helped to ensure that Morehouse College continues to serve as the premier educational institution to develop men for lives of leadership and service,” said former U.S. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
Washington said the next Morehouse president must include student leaders in decision-making and improve the college’s finances.
“I just hope he or she comes in and builds off what President Wilson did and help Morehouse,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to see Morehouse thrive.”
Major moments in John Wilson’s relationship with Morehouse College:
May 1979 - Wilson graduated from Morehouse
November 2012 - Wilson named the school's 11th president
May 2013 - President Barack Obama gives the school's commencement address
November 2015 - Vice President Joe Biden visits Morehouse
January 2017 - Board of Trustees votes not to renew Wilson's contract
Eric Stirgus joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2001. He currently writes about higher education and has assisted in the newsroom’s COVID-19 vaccine coverage. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Eric is active in the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists and the Education Writers Association and enjoys mentoring aspiring journalists.