Could Bethune-Cookman’s Crisis Cost Virginia Union a President?

The Root has published two parts of a three-part series covering the years-old saga of finance and management issues at Bethune-Cookman University.

The information, salaciousness, and tragedy of the story has been told and retold dozens of times throughout Daytona Beach and the international HBCU community, but former and current trustees are using the reach of The Root to introduce new audiences to the Wildcats’ epic and preventable failures.

Transparency, even of the expired and retread headline variety, is a good thing. No amount of fundraising and positive stories out of BCU will cure the primary question on everyone’s mind – how much trouble is this school truly facing and how can we exorcise from the campus those responsible for the trouble?

But there are unintended consequences. The story all but indicts, tries and sentences several former BCU officials at the center of the school’s financial downward spiral and resulting lawsuits — former president Edison Jackson, former vice president of finance and strategy Emmanuel Gonsalves, and former vice president of institutional advancement Hakim Lucas.

Dr. Lucas is now the president of Virginia Union University. He’s never spoken publicly on his involvement or knowledge of the financial crisis facing Bethune-Cookman, and until this week, had never been targeted in national media coverage as a conspirator.

But because of the Root’s penchant for sensational HBCU coverage, here he is; and so is the school that he leads. BCU’s known danger may now place Virginia Union in a lower tier of crisis as a result of this coverage.

VUU has had 13 presidents in its 120-year history. It is not at the mercy of a volatile board and is not commonly known for student rabblerousing beyond occasional issues with crime, food service, and housing issues. Alumni are not intrusive or lethargic but support quietly somewhere in between.

But Virginia Union is in the heart of Richmond. It sits in a media market which has historically been less than kind to the campus in print and broadcast press. It works within miles of growing campuses in Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond — constant threats to VUU’s enrollment and corporate outreach.

It is a school that has specialized in quiet stability in the face of overt and covert opposition. And now it faces the challenge of a president who has led for less than two years being dragged publicly in national media and perhaps through Florida’s judicial system in the months to come.

Dr. Lucas has not been charged with a crime. But an article sourced by BCU alumni and trustees with confidential corroborating documents may make the national and local interest in his ties to the case that much more appealing for coverage in an unfriendly market.

It may make his detractors more empowered to suggest that he is not a good fit to lead the institution. And it may force the Virginia Union board to act more quickly to avoid potential losses in enrollment and philanthropic support from his name being simultaneously attached to BCU’s foolishness and VUU’s strategic plans.

The Bethune-Cookman story needs to be told, and those who helped to author its chapters must be held accountable. Virginia Union is responsible for its fate with Dr. Lucas as a leader and whatever baggage he may have brought with him in his flight from Daytona Beach to Richmond.

But everyone involved in this story, and particularly those people working to make Dr. Lucas pay for his alleged crimes in the media should understand that the scramble to save BCU through his persecution also puts VUU in public and private jeopardy.

Every detail, every allegation and every resulting rumor in Florida fuels controversy and reaction in Richmond. If it was bound to happen in the course of due process, that’s one thing. Forcing the issue in the media may expedite changes and instability at a school that is less than comfortable with strategic dexterity.

Virginia Union will have to live with Dr. Lucas’ appointment and whatever consequences he may have to face from his time at Bethune-Cookman, and that time may cost BCU a price none of us are prepared to see it pay. But does VUU deserve to be thrown in front of the train barreling towards Daytona Beach, even if it turns out Dr. Lucas deserves to be tied to the tracks?

If he’s guilty, the answer is yes. But if he’s innocent, how does the school restore the pound of flesh to its brand taken from BCU soldiers’ efforts to gut the VUU president?

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