Presidential Departure Shows its Time to Follow the Money at Tuskegee

President Lily D. McNair

A month ago, Tuskegee University President Lily McNair shared her excitement with the campus community about the prospects of returning from her second medical leave of absence since her appointment in 2018.

Today, the university’s board of trustees announced that McNair would not be returning from that leave with a straight-shot announcement.

“Words cannot express our sincere appreciation for her service as the eighth president of Tuskegee University,” said Norma Clayton, Chair of the Board of Trustees. “The university will begin a national search for a new president who will build on Tuskegee’s legacy in the years to come.” Dr. Charlotte Morris will continue to serve as interim president until further notice.

It seems unlikely that health concerns for McNair would have drawn such a terse executive split. Neither she nor the school has ever publicly disclosed the nature of any illness or how it impacts her job, and it would seem that a school as distinguished as Tuskegee would have at least offered a joint statement from the board and the president if physical disability caused the two sides to mutually part ways.

But this statement, McNair’s silence, and the jumpstart of a fourth presidential search in the last 10 years suggest that something is very wrong at Tuskegee. In our sector, it is the kind of wrong that is tied to some serious money problems that a president and board can’t fix or cannot agree on how to fix it.

Former Jackson State University President Carolyn Meyers left the institution in 2016 under similar circumstances, with the depletion of the university’s cash reserves over a four-year period as a point of speculation for her departure. In the months leading up to Meyers leaving and despite many successes at Mississippi’s flagship HBCU, there were a number of high profile firings and defections among JSU’s administrative and teaching ranks, all suggesting that people throughout the organization were becoming disenchanted with leadership, or enchanted with the idea of not getting caught up in what was to come.

It looks and feels the same at Tuskegee, except McNair appears to be a casualty of confusion stemming from the board level. Alumni are petitioning for the removal of four of the school’s trustees, including its current and immediate past board chair, and two of the board’s younger alumni members.

Unsupported rumors of financial misdeeds and federal investigations at the university make the rounds in emails, text messages, and DMs of Tuskegee alumni and supporters. All of it slow burns and boils the gossip tea without any evidence, context, or documentation from any municipal, state, or federal law enforcement agency or within the U.S. Department of Education’s public information archives.

But what we do know is that enrollment, which hit a 10-year peak in 2017 of 3,289 students, slid to 2,876 in 2019. The institution needs hundreds of millions of dollars to reverse course on decades of deferred maintenance and was removed from accreditation warning by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges in 2017 after a two-year period under sanction for financial concerns.

And we know that a school that has only hired five leaders in its first 130 years, is now looking for its fourth president in the last decade. It doesn’t add up, and given the value of the Tuskegee Machine to our sector, we all deserve to know why.