Morgan State President Spent $218K in State, Scholarship Funds on Travel

The following is Part Three of a three-part series chronicling leadership struggles at Morgan State University, Maryland’s largest historically Black university. Read part one and part two.
Shortly after a 2012 vote by the Morgan State University Board of Regents against a renewal of President David Wilson’s initial contract, University of Pennsylvania Professor and author of “Fundraising at HBCUs: An All Campus Approach” Marybeth Gasman penned a Washington Post editorial on the decision, Why Morgan State Needs David Wilson.’

Wilson is an exceptional leader. When I look across the landscape of university presidents for an example of an individual who is ethical, personable, forward-thinking, brave, data driven, charismatic, scholarly and committed to student-centered education, I think of Wilson. My perspective comes from many years of research in higher education: I have written extensively about historically black college and university presidents since 1997. I have penned long, peer-reviewed historical articles; written books on black leadership; and, most recently, authored several opinion pieces on the topic. I think I have a fairly good grasp on what constitutes excellent presidential leadership overall and especially within the HBCU context.

In the years since that vote and resulting reversal, Wilson has overseen a campus with declining enrollment, struggles in retaining its largest research contract, unfulfilled community service initiatives and high-profile incidents of campus crime.
Simultaneously, the Morgan State board has confronted blurred ethics and dissension among its ranks, and has wrestled with Wilson’s attempt at program development with a nearby predominantly white Towson University while Morgan State alumni and students continue mediation stemming from a successful federal lawsuit against the state for maintaining an illegal, racially segregated system of higher education for African-Americans and white students.
But internal university documents reveal another negative trend of the Wilson administration. A Maryland Public Information Act filed by the HBCU Digest for presidential travel records and expenditures reveals that Wilson spent a total of $218,426.65 on travel, meals, and other personal expenditures between 2010 and 2014; purchases funded by Maryland taxpayers and donors to the Morgan State University Foundation.
State Funded Travel
The request, which was forwarded by Wilson’s office more than one month after the legal 30-day response period and only after two formal complaints to Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, shows fund reimbursement requests for attendance at several dozen out-of-state conferences and meetings with various national boards and associations throughout his four years as Morgan State president.
Presidential travel has been a familiar topic in higher education over the last decade, and has been particularly controversial for HBCU presidents. In 2012, Allen Sessoms was fired as president of the University of the District of Columbia following questions over expenditures for international and domestic flights and hotels that totaled more than $20,000 in 2011. Prior to becoming president of Norfolk State University, a position from which he was fired last August, travel records for Tony Atwater totaled more than $135,000 between 2004 and 2009 while he was president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
In total, Wilson spent $159,045.59 in state funds on conference attendance alone; an average of $39,761.61 per year. While some travel was classified as alumni outreach, or obligations for his role as a member of President Barack Obama’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, most documents provided by Wilson indicate travel to a variety of domestic receptions, meetings and training conferences.
In 2012, the Dayton Daily News reported on the expenses of then-Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, who tallied more than $7.7 million in expenses for travel, gifts for donors, parties and receptions in addition to earning nearly $8.6 million in salary between 2007 and 2012. In response, OSU board members and outside higher ed experts cited Gee’s exemplary fundraising record while at Ohio State – nearly $1.6 billion in five years.

Dan Hurley, spokesman for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said university presidents like Gee have to spend more time and energy fundraising to compensate for the decline in government support for higher education. “Given the size, stature and reputation of Ohio State University, the glad handing that comes with being the university chief executive officer is a requirement of the job,” Hurley said. “And it does pay quantitatively. Dollar for dollar, it pays huge dividends.”

But for Wilson and Morgan State, the dividends of his travel are not always clear.
Foundation Spending
Since 2011, Morgan State’s alumni giving rate has increased to more than 19 percent, a figure which puts the university in elite company with schools aspiring to catch Spelman College and Claflin University as the standard in HBCU philanthropy, with both schools boasting more than 40 percent in alumni giving participation.
In charitable gifts and donations, the MSU foundation topped $5 million twice in the last four years; $5 million in 2010, $4.2 million in 2011, $4.9 million in 2012, and $5.2 million in 2013.
When asked if the MSU Foundation ever paid for presidential travel, Cheryl Hitchcock, Morgan State’s Vice-President for Institutional Advancement and Executive Director of the MSU Foundation, said that the Foundation did not finance such trips. Hitchcock declined directly attributing any major gift to Wilson’s interaction with donors or organizations, but called him an asset in the university’s fundraising.

Upon arrival at the University, President David Wilson made a strategic decision to invest in the development, or fundraising, division of the University by creating four additional front-line fundraisers, where there had been only one. As a result, the University has raised, from private sources, between $4 million and $5 million each fiscal year since FY11. The value of its endowment has grown from $15 million to over $23 million during this time. These funds are the result of donations from alumni, friends, corporations, foundations and organizations. Private contributions are usually dependent upon the donor’s belief in the mission and leadership of the institution. Dr. Wilson has been an integral part of cultivating and maintaining donor confidence. He makes personal calls and visits to prospective donors, advocates to business and community, and is intimately involved with alumni activities. During his tenure, the percent of our alumni who support the University financially has increased by 155%. Dr. Wilson also made a personal commitment of $100,000 to launch the $5 Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance and opportunities for students to study abroad. This fund now exceeds $1 million.

Despite this reported success and Hitchcock’s statements to the contrary, internal receipts from the Foundation reveal more than $24,000 in travel and personal expenses made by Wilson between 2010 and 2014. Wilson, who accesses a discretionary spending account with the Foundation through two credit cards, spent $10,686.11 on hotels, $5,835.34 on food, and $4,304.76 on train and airfare, and parking fees. Among the more noticeable purchases made with foundation funds:

  • $786.65 for flowers from Flowers by Gina D
  • $604.20 for international travel immunizations
  • More than 25 visits to Atwater’s Restaurant
  • More than 15 charges for hotel room service dining or bar service
  • $14.93 for satellite radio

Records also reveal that for several trips, Wilson, who earns more than $409,000 in annual pay, submitted receipts for travel reimbursement through the state while having used the foundation credit card for food purchases during the same trip; costs that are generally reimbursable by the state, but are limited to per diem guidelines.
According to the university’s policy governing affiliated foundations, such purchases are a violation of partnership.

Morgan State University will not use foundation funds for the purpose of circumventing State policies or rules and regulations by engaging in activities or making expenditures which have been denied the institution for other than purely financial reasons.

Shortly after the board voted against renewal of his contract, Wilson wrote a letter to campus constituents proclaiming his loyalty to Morgan State. He specifically pointed out his commitment to students with gaps in funding for their education.

I have worked with many of my colleagues at Morgan, from sun-up to midnight, to secure adequate resources to enable our students to enjoy a world-class college experience and to support faculty members who are so committed to the educational transformation of our students. I have sat in my office at my computer numerous times late at night, sometimes wiping a tear or two away from my eyes as I read heart wrenching emails from students who were working for a better life but saw their dreams die on the vine because they simply did not have the $500 or $1,000 they needed to stay enrolled in school. That is why I contributed $100,000 of my own salary at Morgan to start a scholarship program to enable these students to taste the magic of education just as someone had contributed to my undergraduate education to enable me to enjoy that transformation as well.

In perspective, Wilson’s spending of foundation funds on travel and other personal expenses equates to roughly one and-a-half years of full tuition, fees, room and board, and meals for a Maryland resident attending Morgan State full time. It is more than 22 percent of Wilson’s $100,000 pledge to the foundation’s $5 Scholarship Fund he launched in 2010, and when combined with his state-funded travel totals, doubles the amount of his commitment to the university.
Wilson refused to answer questions for this story.

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