Nearly three weeks ago, Bethune-Cookman University President LaBrent Chrite abruptly resigned.
In making the announcement on March 16, Chrite first informed his cabinet. He didn’t tell the school’s Board of Trustees until much later in the day — an indication that some acrimony existed between Chrite and the board.
Chrite’s letter of resignation suggested as much: “As the university enters this next stage of its trajectory, it is especially critical that the B-CU president be fully and demonstrably aligned with the board and the board’s leadership. It is clear to me that I cannot be that individual. I wish each of you the very best.”
The next day, March 17, Bentley University just outside of Boston announced that Chrite would be that school’s new president.
No doubt, B-CU has improved its outlook after the disaster that was the administration of Edison O. Jackson. (Chrite arrived about two years after Jackson’s resignation. Hubert Grimes served as interim president between the two.)
A dorm project hatched in 2014 could end up costing the university $306 million over 40 years. It has strained the school’s finances, and spawned lawsuits that have been making their way slowly through the court system.
Much as a result of the dorm’s impact on B-CU’s finances, the school also faced a potential loss of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, also known as SACS.
B-CU has made big strides financially
Over the past two years, the university has made major strides in righting its financial situation and SACS has taken the university off probation. Chrite never returned my call, but he may take some credit for those improvements.
But I believe that B-CU’s current Board of Trustees deserves a lot more credit than it’s getting for the improvements to the school’s finances and SACS standing. Those who have been demanding board members step down since Chrite resigned should ask themselves if they have the information they need to reach such a drastic conclusion.
I make those points based on a three-hour meeting with several members of B-CU’s board days after Chrite’s departure.
The meeting was largely off-the-record, which, frankly, I agreed to because there is a need for The News-Journal and B-CU’s board to develop a more trusting relationship. But I can share some points from the meeting.
The first thing to point out is that the current board is NOT the board that allowed Jackson to cut a dorm deal that put the university in dire financial straits and helped lead to SACS placing B-CU on probation.Three of the four officers on the current board were on the board as of 2016, two years after the dorm was approved.
The board members I met in person and via Zoom included:
• Chairman Belvin Perry Jr., who spent 25 years as a circuit judge, most of them as chief judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit. He is currently an attorney with the Morgan & Morgan law firm in Orlando.
• Vice Chairman Joyours “Pete” Gamble, former director of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority. Before that, Gamble was a program project engineer for Lockheed Martin, developing proposals for the F-22 and F-35 fighter programs. Before that, he spent 20 years as an engineer with General Electric, developing satellites and other technology. Gamble is also a B-CU grad.
• David L. Brewer III, a retired three-star vice admiral who served for 35 years in the U.S. Navy. He also served as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school system in the U.S.
• Jennifer L. Adams, who spent 33 years at Lockheed Martin, retiring as a database analyst in 2010. Adams is also a B-CU grad, and has held positions on numerous boards, including being the immediate past chairwoman of Healthy Start Coalition of Orange County.
• Wayne A. Davis, who is president and CEO of Touch Logistics Services Inc., an international shipping and logistics company based in Miami.
• John Crossman, who most recently was president of Crossman & Company, a regional retail leasing organization with offices across the Southeast, representing more than 350 shopping centers.
• Courtney R. Rhodes, who is co-founder and director of marketing and media relations at C&D/The Agency, and founder of Digital CEO School, both in Atlanta.
Here are the main things I gleamed from our meeting:
• Board members are keeping a very sharp eye on B-CU’s finances and have put in place controls to ensure that university spending is in the best interest of the institution. Those steps are a main reason SACS took the school off probation.
• Board members lobbied hard in 2019 and 2020 at the Florida Legislature to increase B-CU’s recurring annual funding. So did others. The result was an increase in annual funding of $14 million.
• The board’s main focus is to ensure B-CU continues to provide higher education to thousands of students.
Board members have their work cut out for them. They must find a replacement for Chrite. They need to build bridges with the community, and improve fundraising. They need to keep a continued sharp eye on B-CU’s finances.
But they have made good progress in the past two years — including settling another lawsuit in January over an off-campus student apartment project Jackson left behind.
Here’s hoping that the board continues to increase communication with the community that sees B-CU as one of our valuable institutions.
They don’t deserve the criticism leveled at them in the wake of Chrite’s departure. Rather, they deserve support.
Pat Rice is The News-Journal’s editor. His email is Pat.Rice@news-jrnl.com.