In a heated, narrowly divided closed-door meeting, Morgan State University's board of regents voted last week not to renew President David Wilson's contract, sources close to the board said Monday.
The ouster comes amid a string of recent incidents that have caused upheaval at the Northeast Baltimore institution, including two shootings on the campus in the past three months, a student accused of cannibalism, a botched move to replace the school's football coach and a professor's indictment on charges that he obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants fraudulently.
But some sources close to the board, including state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, said the campus violence was not the driving factor behind the decision.
Wilson's contract is set to expire June 30. He was named Morgan's 12th president in December 2009, having drawn praise for previous work reaching out to college towns and spurring urban renewal. Wilson has led efforts to increase scholarship money, donating $100,000 of his own, and to revitalize areas around the campus.
Morgan board members, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, Kweisi Mfume and Vice Chairman Martin Resnick, would not discuss the reasoning for the board's decision, made Dec. 4. Board members referred questions to board Chairman Dallas R. Evans, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment Monday.
Wilson declined to comment Monday in an interview. However, he released a long letter late Monday night addressed to the "Morgan Family" in which he expressed his love for the university and questioned the board's decision.
"I stand proudly on the body of work we have been able to achieve during my tenure," he wrote. "It is indeed unfortunate that half of the members of the Board of Regents and I do not see it the same way."
He also hinted that he was pushed out because of interest expressed by others in hiring him away from the university.
"It is very unfortunate that, based on what I have heard, I am being punished for having a top research university in this nation take note of our achievements at Morgan and express appreciation for the body of work that we have achieved," Wilson wrote.
According to the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., Wilson had been a finalist for the University of Albany presidency but withdrew his name from consideration in July.
"I am even more distressed and disheartened that it appears that I am also being punished for allegedly having my name uttered from the lips of some unknown 'White House official' for an opportunity with the Obama administration, when I did not even know about such thoughts," he wrote.
Students, alumni, faculty and staff voiced their disapproval via social media and a petition asking for the board to reconsider. Monday was the last day of exams for the fall semester, but by Monday night, news of the decision had spread, with more than 160 people signing the online petition.
"I definitely feel like it was a bad decision to make," said Orze Killgo, a junior hospitality management student from Washington, D.C. "He's a really good example of someone who cares about students more than anything else."
Killgo, who signed the online petition, said Wilson has played a role in boosting the reputation of Morgan's business school.
Conway, whose district includes the university, said board members told her the meeting was called because of a clause in Wilson's contract allowing them to choose not to renew it without cause if he was notified at least six months before its expiration. Members told Conway the vote was 8-7, she said.
"I don't think it had anything to do with the violence on campus, specifically," Conway said. "Everyone is very concerned about the violence on campus, but the violence is not just happening on that campus; it's happening on every campus."
The university has received attention for a handful of public safety incidents in recent months. In May, student Alexander Kinyua was accused of dismembering a family friend off-campus and eating his heart and some of his brain. Several months earlier, a school instructor had called him "a Virginia Tech waiting to happen," but Kinyua had continued to be a student in good standing until May, when he was arrested in a separate incident, accused of assaulting a man with a baseball bat wrapped in chains.
Wilson and the university were criticized at the time because they said little publicly after Kinyua was charged with first-degree murder.
In July, university officials revamped public safety leadership on the campus, promoting police Chief Adrian J. Wiggins to a new post as chief public safety officer.
Twice in the past three months, shootings have occurred on the campus. The latest was Nov. 30, when a 20-year-old man, who police said is not a student at Morgan, shot a lineman on the university's football team as students wound down the last day of classes before fall semester finals.
Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Manoj K. Jha, director of the university's Center of Advanced Transportation and Infrastructure Engineering Research, on seven counts, charging him with fabricating documents in a research proposal and spending grant money on his mortgage and credit card bills.
Also last month, Morgan athletic director Floyd Kerr accidentally forwarded an email to football coach Donald Hill-Eley outlining a schedule for seeking Hill-Eley's replacement.
The school never made an official comment on the coach's status, and Hill-Eley said Monday that he still hasn't met with Morgan officials or received any official communication about his job. He said he wasn't sure whether Wilson's departure might affect him, adding, "My hands are tied."
Hill-Eley, who recently completed his 11th season as Morgan coach, has said he felt pressure from Wilson to improve the program's on-field performance without a commensurate rise in the university's financial commitment.
Wilson has overseen recent growth at the university. Officials broke ground Nov. 28 on a $72 million business school, part of a plan to expand the campus' western edge and improve a nearby shopping center. At a ceremony, Wilson called the project "the dawn of a new era at Morgan."
The university is also in the early phases of planning the "Morgan Community Mile," an effort to improve the areas within a one-mile radius of campus.
Early in his tenure, Wilson launched what was dubbed the $5 Scholarship Fund seeking to raise $5 million for students facing rising tuition rates and shrinking financial aid. The fund was inspired by Wilson's father, an Alabama sharecropper who paid for his son's college education with his life savings.
In 2010, President Barack Obama named Wilson to the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a group that advises federal officials on ways to strengthen the institutions.
Before coming to Morgan, Wilson built a reputation for using universities to solve problems in struggling communities. At Rutgers University, he helped land a community empowerment grant that spurred development in Camden, N.J., while at Auburn University, he co-founded the Alabama Black Belt Community Foundation, a nonprofit focused on creating economic opportunities in a predominantly poor, black area of Alabama.
Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.