The decision last week by Morgan State University's governing board to oust Dallas R. Evans as chairman appears to have been the culmination of a bitter struggle over the school's leadership between Mr. Evans and University President David Wilson. In December, Mr. Evans tried to orchestrate Mr. Wilson's dismissal after only 21/2 years on the job by persuading the school's 15-member Board of Regents not to renew the president's contract when it ends in June. But then an outpouring of support for Mr. Wilson from students, faculty members and community leaders forced the board to reverse its decision a few weeks later.
For the moment, Mr. Wilson seems to have won a reprieve that will allow him to continue to focus on the program of reforms outlined in his ambitious 10-year plan aimed at improving academic programs and governance and raising student retention and graduation rates. He is in the process of negotiating a one-year contract that will keep him in office until at least 2014, and over the next 18 months he and the board, of which Mr. Evans remains a member, have pledged to develop better working relationships and consult more closely to meet the challenges facing the school.
Beyond any interpersonal dispute, the conflict at Morgan centers on what the school's future should be in Maryland's system of public higher education now that it is no longer the automatic first choice of the state's most academically gifted African-American students. Mr. Wilson envisions Morgan as a major urban research institution, but he also recognizes that such a goal will be hard to achieve as long as seven out of 10 entering freshmen fail to graduate within six years. The school must find a way to realign its mission with both the needs of students who are less well prepared for college-level work than were previous generations of undergraduates and with the state's overall higher education needs and goals.
Unlike all but one of the state's other public colleges and universities, Morgan is not part of the University System of Maryland. For historical and political reasons related to its role as the state's premier historically black university, it has its own, separate board appointed by the governor, and there are no term limits for its members.
That has given Morgan a unique independence and status, but it also has drawbacks. The university system has a coordinated plan for developing new instructional tools and techniques and for tailoring academic programs specifically to the state's economic development needs, especially in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math, where the greatest number of new jobs are being created.
Yet the conversation about Morgan's long-term direction that is at the root of the conflict between the board and the president is occurring in a vacuum, divorced from the development of the state's overall higher education strategy. Morgan can and should be a crucial part of the effort to increase the number of college graduates in the state, but the steps Mr. Wilson has advocated to achieve that goal seem not to sit well with the more tradition-minded members of the Morgan community.
It may prove impossible to reintegrate Morgan into the larger University System of Maryland. Key lawmakers in both the state legislature and in Congress remain committed to maintaining the school's independence and unique legacy, and the political obstacles to such a fundamental change appear insurmountable. But that doesn't mean there's no point in having a conversation about whether the current situation really serves the interests of Morgan and its students — or about what steps Maryland can take, short of bringing Morgan under the university system, to ensure that it does.