By Maynard Eaton
Joseph Arrington has never been a politician, although his brother Marvin Arrington is a former Atlanta City Council President and mayoral candidate, and his nephew, Marvin Jr., is a current Fulton County Commissioner. Now, however, at age 78, Joe Arrington is in a hotly contested campaign to be elected president of the Morehouse College National Alumni Association.
It is a politically sensitive and politically powerful position that could prove pivotal as to whether Dr. John S. Wilson retains his job as Morehouse College president. As is the case at most colleges, Morehouse’s alumni organization enjoys considerable clout because they raise funds and have a seat on the school’s Board of Trustees.
“There is a big rift between the Alumni Association and the administration at the current time,” Arrington reveals. “I understand that people are very upset with our present president and what’s going on with him. Hopefully that will be corrected. If the President needs to go, that’s what we have to do.”
Wilson is now serving a year-long contract extension of his original three-year deal to captain the highly regarded, 149-year-old college for black men, which has a long held tradition and mystique of producing a unique breed of proud “Morehouse Men”. His fate will be decided this fall by the Board of Trustees, which includes such notables as Ambassador Andrew Young, contractor C.D. Moody and the revered Billye Aaron.
“This is may be the most important Alumni Association election I have seen because of all the dynamics since I graduated in ’78,” opines Calvin Vismale, a self-described Morehouse loyalist who says he was baptized in theoretical finance there. “The alumni seat on the trustee board will have a crucial influence on the college leadership; who’s the next president hangs in the balance.”
Historical Black colleges or HBCUs are under siege and facing such financial hardships they have become a Democratic Presidential campaign issue with both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders pledging programs to save them.
“HBCUs are an endangered species,” laments Vismale, a registered municipal adviser. “Our institutions are woefully under-endowed.”
Even Morehouse, once arguably among the nation’s top three Black colleges along with Hampton and Howard Universities, has fallen on hard times financially. Every semester reportedly some 200 students drop out because they can no longer afford to pay their tuition.
Vismale, a gadfly and financial whiz, estimates that Morehouse should have a $1 billion endowment today, rather than only the $100 million it actually does have in the bank. Two decades ago Morehouse reportedly had a $300 million endowment.
“We do have financial challenges,” Vismale says. “The expectations placed on Dr. Wilson –or self-imposed –have been challenging to move the needle. Morehouse can survive but is struggling to be properly endowed and to optimize our brand.”
Arrington is worried that Morehouse is in dire financial straits.
“I am running for President of the Morehouse College National Alumni Association because I am passionate about my alma mater and because historical Black colleges are in crises,” he says. “It seems to me that there is a move to get rid of HBCUs. Albany State has already merged with a white school. I understand they are trying to get Fort Valley and Savannah State. Fisk University is in bad shape. FAMU is losing money. I was told that Morehouse is on the list too. So, if I can help it, it’s not going to happen.”
Black colleges have traditionally been a nurturing, supportive and uplifting educational environment for African American students, many of whom that may have graduated from sub-par inner city or rural high schools. Black college graduates – such as this reporter a Hampton University alumnus – often fondly recall and liken their time on campus as akin to a family atmosphere.
“At Georgia State, GA Tech or the University of Georgia you don’t get the Black experience at those schools like what we receive at Morehouse College,” says Arrington. “I finished Booker T. Washington High School here in Atlanta reading on a 9th grade level. I took reading for a whole year before I finished Morehouse. And, I have a law degree from North Carolina Central University and I have a Masters degree in public health from the University of Pittsburgh. HBCUs are our heritage and I am very passionate about keeping them alive and well.”
Alumni associations are ostensibly the most influential entity on a college campus, outside of the president and the board of trustees. Arrington says that is far from the case given the current climate and changing culture at Morehouse. He contends that the alumni group is nowhere near as important or powerful as it could or should be. He intends to change that.
“The Alumni Association is in real, real bad shape,” says Arrington who has traveled the country for the past several months cajoling and campaigning to win the election that will be decided this week.
Arrington is considered the favorite to win, but is competing against four others: Emanuel Payton, Jonathon Dudley, Alonzo Robertson and Dr. Howard Willis.
Alumni election could determine fate of Morehouse President Dr. John S. Wilson