Students, faculty and alumni rallied for Morgan State University's embattled president Thursday, protesting the board of regents' abrupt decision to not renew David J. Wilson's contract weeks after he received a positive performance evaluation.
Also Thursday, the University Council, a leadership group made up of faculty, administrators and students, called for a reversal of the board's decision, saying that it violated its own bylaws by not announcing the meeting's purpose in advance and by making a binding decision behind closed doors.
More than 200 people, wrapped in jackets and scarves in Morgan's signature blue and orange, gathered to show support for Wilson on a campus that had emptied for winter break. Many cheered as he spoke and wiped away tears as the crowd broke into the university's anthem.
"It would be hard for me to love any entity more than I love Morgan State University," Wilson said. "If circumstances allow me to remain as your president … I will continue to lead this institution with transparency, with dignity and with respect."
Board chair Dallas R. Evans declined to comment Thursday about the rationale for the board's decision to not renew Wilson's contract when it expires in June, saying it was a human resources issue and protected by privacy laws.
"I don't have the ability to comment on that," said Evans, who declined to discuss the matter in greater detail.
He said that the board followed the instructions of an assistant attorney general at the meeting, a special session that was called last week. The board's 8-7 decision was made public Monday.
"I can't comment on any of that at this moment, unfortunately," said Evans, managing director of a Virginia-based homebuilder, Landmark Atlantic Holdings LLC. "Every step through this process we had advice of counsel."
Students, faculty members and community leaders expressed frustration that Evans has not explained why Wilson's contract was not renewed.
In the 21/2 years he has led Morgan, Wilson, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, drove the creation of a strategic plan for the university, pushed for a greater emphasis on research and led efforts to revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding campus.
"The first question you ask is 'Why?' " said professor Gabrielle McLemore, chair of the University Council. McLemore, who helped to organize the rally, said she had received more than 100 signatures from faculty and staff on a petition demanding answers from the regents.
"Students and faculty deserve an opportunity for the facts to be stated in public," said Shaquayah McKenzie, the Student Government Association president. "He is a student-centered and transparent leader. This is shocking. It's confusing."
McKenzie said Evans pledged to meet with her and other student leaders Friday morning to explain the decision.
One regent, the Rev. Frances "Toni" Murphy Draper, called Thursday for the board to revisit the matter before the end of the month and to invite Wilson to address the board.
Draper, the pastor of Freedom Temple AME Zion Church in Brooklyn Park and the granddaughter of a founding member of the board of regents, wrote in an email that the board was not presented with any "documented facts" when asked to vote on Wilson's contract.
The Dec. 4 meeting "was the first time the chair openly shared his list of concerns about Dr. Wilson's leadership style with the full board," Draper wrote.
Several regents confirmed that just a month before, the board unanimously approved a positive performance evaluation of Wilson. Draper said that the board had not previously criticized Wilson's work.
"Morgan, under Dr. Wilson's leadership, is going in the right direction," Draper wrote. "If a presidential search takes place at this time, the university loses valuable momentum in key areas such as the capital campaign, new programs and partnerships, student recruitment and retention, alumni giving, federal grants, parental, faculty, student and community confidence."
Draper did not explain the rationale for the board's decision, but did say it was not tied to recent violence on campus. A teenage cousin of a student was shot in September, and a football player was shot two weeks ago. The suspects in both cases are not affiliated with Morgan. And earlier this year, a Morgan student who allegedly acted violently and erratically on campus was charged with killing a family friend and eating his heart and part of his brain.
"For the record, these tragic and unfortunate incidents were not a part of the president's contract renewal deliberations," Draper wrote. She declined to comment further.
Students who attended the rally said they were flummoxed by the decision, which many learned about through social media posts and text messages, since classes had ended for the semester.
"He loves Morgan. I can see it," said senior Janelle Stewart, 22.
Construction of new buildings picked up under Wilson, she said, and he made decisions popular with students, such as extending hours at the library and cafeterias.
"I think he should have had at least a decade," said Stewart, a sociology major.
Her friend, Corey Ashmore, a 24-year-old senior scheduled to graduate next fall, questioned how a new president, or an interim president, would affect his final semester.
"I don't want anything to change in the transition," he said.
Wilson's ouster marks the third shake-up in recent months in the city's public higher-education institutions. Reginald S. Avery, the president of Coppin State University, announced in October that he would be stepping down in January. This week, Baltimore City Community College's board announced that it was immediately terminating the college president, Carolane Williams.
Unlike Wilson, both Avery and Williams had been under fire for some time and had received votes of no confidence from faculty.
It remained unclear Thursday whether the Morgan board could be forced to revisit its decision.
In an email sent to students and staff Thursday, the University Council said that according to the regents' bylaws, "In order for the Board's vote not to renew President Wilson's contract to be binding and final, it must be made in an open session."
A spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler said Assistant Attorney General Elena Laingrill was present at the meeting and believed that the regents did not violate the state's open-meetings act.
The meeting was posted on the board's website, which is the "usual and customary" manner in which such meetings are announced, said David Paulson, Gansler's spokesman. No one has filed a complaint with the state's open-meetings compliance board about the meeting, he said.
However, Paulson said, the attorney general's office could not speak to whether the board had violated its own bylaws.
The University Council planned to send a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who appoints the regents, and several other campus groups were compiling correspondence and petitions to send to the governor.
"We'd certainly like to hear their concerns," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Wilson said Thursday that the board had not told him why his contract had not been renewed. He reiterated his commitment to the university and frustration that he had barely begun to implement his 10-year plan for Morgan.
"I am humbled and honored we have this kind of support," he said. "I am fighting for Morgan."