Petition for Removal of Tuskegee Trustees Has Been Years in the Making

A petition calling for the removal of four members of the Tuskegee University Board of Trustees has collected more than 1,950 signatures over the last month.

The group “TU Alumni Awakening” claims the board’s lack of transparency in executive management, fiscal affairs, and governance as the reasons to remove Chairperson Norma Clayton, former chair John Page, and alumni members Erick Harris and Chereece Warner.

From the petition:

Tuskegee University Board of Trustees Is Not Meeting Its Fiduciary Responsibilities:

  • Three (3) Presidents, four (4) Interim presidents within 10-years.

  • Three (3) Interim Provosts since 2018 impacting institutional effectiveness as a result of presidential instability.

  • No capital campaign has been successfully created to address over $100M+ of debt, with an additional $140M+ in deferred maintenance costs since President Payton’s tenure ended in 2010.

  • They have demonstrated an unwillingness to follow the Tuskegee University Governance Document.

  • Lack of transparency

Petitions for changes in leadership at HBCUs are normal in the era of Internet activism. But once old outrage yields to a new trending topic, the shifting attention usually drowns out reaction to an unfavorable decision or a personality.

But Tuskegee is different. Graduates at the school have been pressing for changes in leadership for the better part of five years now, and their appeals have been specific to two major issues: institutional debt and leadership stability.

Tuskegee remains academically strong and attracts competitive research grants in a number of industrial areas. It was among the first group of institutions to receive a transformational gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, receiving $20 million in unrestricted support last summer.

But a growing number of graduates have become increasingly public about concerns over TU’s financial health. At the center of the concern is money owed by the institution to the federal HBCU Capital Financing Program, from which the school has borrowed more than $159 million for renovation, construction, debt servicing, and other projects since 2002.

But those concerns may all be alleviated with the recent signing of the COVID-19 recovery bill, which includes more than $1.6 billion in federal loan forgiveness for 43 HBCUs participating in the HBCU Capital Financing program.

It is the other side of the equation that may prove more troubling in the months to come for the Tuskegee Machine; discontent with leadership changes. A school that has only had eight presidents in its 140-year history has hired three of them in the last decade. The last hire, current president Lily McNair, took two medical leaves of absence in 2020, the second one which began in October with a scheduled return date in April of this year.

Those changes, which have brought on interim leadership in offices surrounding the president’s suite, have diminished confidence in the university’s strategic direction and the ability of the board to address concerns about Tuskegee’s prospects of competing with cheaper predominantly white and historically Black college options in Alabama.

As Tuskegee’s board is self-appointing, today’s petition is likely to have the same impact as the letters, Facebook posts, and whispers that preceded it; very little if any. But it should give school leaders the sense that they can’t keep letting real or perceived issues go unaddressed, and that one more change in its leadership structure may create a public rift that even Tuskegee tradition or loyalty won’t be easily able to stitch back together.