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Morehouse College relies on new leadership for change

After a leadership shakeup, Bill Taggart and Willie Woods aim to get back to college’s core principles

During a time when Morehouse College should be celebrating 150 years of serving its community through the education and production of successful black men, interim President William “Bill” Taggart has been tasked with creating a new legacy and getting back to the core values on which the college was founded.

On Thursday, Taggart and Willie Woods, the college’s new board of trustees chairman, began to publicly articulate their thoughts on Morehouse’s future and what it will take to regain trust of the student body. One of the first courses of action, Taggart said, is to unify everyone under the focus and mission of the Atlanta school.

“I think what everybody has in common — whether it be faculty, staff, students or alumni — we all love the college, and at the end of the day that love showed up in the fact that we realized we had to make some leadership changes,” Woods said. “And so we did. And with leadership change always comes new ideas, new thinking, different ways of doing things and, frankly, the college and any organization should encourage new leadership changes because ultimately that leads to making things better.”

Interim President William Taggart and Chairman Willie Woods

Morehouse University

The college’s success has been overshadowed by events that began nearly two months after the start of the 2016-17 school year, causing distrust and strained relationships among the faculty, students and administration.

  • In October 2016, an online petition created by Morehouse alumni called for the termination of then-President John S. Wilson’s contract, with petitioners expressing feelings of alienation and citing declining alumni participation because of Wilson.
  • In January, the school’s board of trustees voted not to renew Wilson’s contract before its expiration in June without explanation.
  • In February, representatives from Morehouse’s Student Government Association filed a lawsuit against the college’s board of trustees after student and faculty trustees were barred from the meeting that would ultimately end Wilson’s term as Morehouse’s president.

“It is something that no alumni, no historical prevalence and no mystique can save,” said Chad Rhym, a sociology major from Athens, Georgia. “As an academic year of complete, utter chaos and external media frenzies conclude at the college, the Morehouse community is forced to evaluate the actions that led up to ‘The War at Morehouse.’ As a student who chose Morehouse for the impact it’s had on the lives of African-American men, there must be a reassessment of the culture, whether that’s from a student, faculty, administrator or alumni perspective — we need change.”

The effects of the leadership changes were felt and expressed mostly by students, but faculty members also disclosed their thoughts about the shake-up and the future of the institution.

“The departure of the chairman of the board, but most in particular President Wilson, certainly impactful,” said professor Stephane Dunn, director of the Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse. “On one hand, I am disappointed that the chapter ends in the way it does. You have to be disappointed with the messiness. I think that there was wrong and right and justifiable stuff, really enough to go around, and that when the media, in particular, got involved, I think sometimes dominant narratives come out when there really is a more complex narrative.”

The concerns of the students, faculty and alumni have been heard by both Taggart and Woods, which is why the pair have been working toward getting Morehouse back on its intended path.

“Anytime you have leadership changes, of course the students tend to bond to that president,” Taggart said. “So what I’ve spent some time doing is spending time with students, understanding what their wants and needs are, had lunch with students today and actually spoke at one of our student forums to let them get an understanding of who I am — more than just what’s in the resume.”

Although Taggart is an Atlanta native who earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University, the interim president took time to talk about his place in a long line of Morehouse men in his life who have become mentors and lifelong friends. “I have a great, natural affinity to Morehouse,” he said. “I may not have been a Morehouse man, but I’m one in spirit.”

Woods graduated from Morehouse in 1985 before heading to Harvard University’s business school. He went on to have a successful investment banking career and started his own business as co-founder of a private equity firm.

“Morehouse instilled some key values in me,” Woods said. “One, it gave me a lot of confidence to pursue my dreams, taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be no matter what my background or where I came from. It gave me an education outside of the classroom, and so I feel like I owe a great deal to Morehouse.”

Taggart said he intends to address some of Morehouse’s past issues and instill trust among students, alumni and supporters by opening the lines of communication, reaching out to parents and students to let them know leadership changes have taken place. More importantly, he said he’d assure current and prospective students that Morehouse will be fine. The educational development of students, building moral character, a focus on graduation rates, fundraising tactics, supporting faculty and developing leadership are several priorities that Taggart intends to tackle during his tenure. Taggart has already met with six groups of employees for question-and-answer sessions, and he said he noticed a renewed spirit and revitalization on campus — especially from those looking forward to commencement next month.

“We’re an optimistic group here at Morehouse,” Taggart said. “We tend to think of [challenges and adjustments] as opportunities. … I think that we are positioned very well to continue on with the level of collaboration and teamwork that made Morehouse, Morehouse.”

Rhoden Fellow C. Isaiah Smalls II assisted with this story.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.