Judge orders Lincoln U. to reinstate ousted prez Brenda Allen

(Image via Philadelphia Tribune)

By Christina Kristofic

A Chester County judge has ordered the Lincoln University Board of Trustees to temporarily reinstate Brenda Allen as president of the university, effective Friday.

Judge William P. Mahon Jr. ordered the board to cancel the special meeting it had planned for July 31 where it was to vote on Allen’s contract and instead schedule a new meeting for Aug. 6.

At the new meeting, Mahon ordered, the board must discuss, in the following order: seating newly appointed trustees, rejecting the resignations of two trustees, whether Allen’s contract should be extended, and the selection of an interim president if the board does not renew Allen’s contract.

Allen’s attorney, Riley Ross III, said Allen is “very happy” with Mahon’s ruling.

“We believe that once a fair meeting and a fair vote is held, that Dr. Allen will be in that position. And we just want to get there,” Ross said. “I’m just glad that the court is concerned with Lincoln, too, and saw fit to install someone who has Lincoln’s best interests at heart.”

Ross said Allen has been very concerned about Lincoln’s ability to reopen for the fall semester in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which is what she was working on before the board voted two weeks ago to remove her from her post.

Mahon on Tuesday ordered the Lincoln University Board of Trustees to stay its vote to unseat Allen and hold a new meeting on July 31.

Judge orders stay of Lincoln U. Board of Trustees’ vote to unseat Brenda Allen

But Ross raised concerns about attempts by some members of the board to retaliate against other members who “had provided information about the wrongdoings of the chair and the vice chair” and the likelihood of the meeting being fair, Ross said. So the judge issued the new order reinstating Allen on Friday.

Mahon’s orders have been in response to a lawsuit Allen filed against the board of trustees last week. Allen’s lawsuit alleged that the board violated the state Sunshine Act (the open meetings law) when it voted on her contract in executive session earlier this month and its own bylaws when it excluded five board members from participating in the meeting.

The state Attorney General’s Office and Gov. Tom Wolf also sued the board, echoing Allen’s allegations and adding to them. The AG’s office also asked the court to unseat board Chairwoman Theresa Braswell, saying in its suit that Braswell exercised a “gross abuse of her authority” when she led the board to take actions that violated state laws in “willful defiance and wanton disregard” of the advice of the board’s attorney.

The board appointed Allen, a 1981 graduate of Lincoln University, its 14th president in 2017. Her contract expired on June 30.

The board held a special meeting on July 10 to discuss renewal of Allen’s contract. In the meeting, which was conducted via video conference, the board prevented five recently appointed board members from participating by muting their microphones. Three of the excluded board members were appointed by the state House of Representatives in January, and two were appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf — one in February and one in March; none of them had officially been seated and the board has not explained why.

Twenty-two other board members were allowed to participate in the meeting, and they reportedly discussed Allen’s contract in a nearly four-hour executive session.

The vote was “purportedly tied 11 to 11,” the AG’s lawsuit says. However, in the public portion of the meeting, the board of trustees reported that 21 members voted, and of those, 52% voted against renewing Allen’s contract and 48% voted in favor.

The board then voted 14-7 to begin the search for an interim president.

When the board reopened the meeting to the public, it announced the outcome of the vote and adjourned without explaining the reason for its vote or taking public comment.

The board was quick to take steps to remove Allen from her post.

On July 13, the first weekday after the vote, the board sent a letter to Allen, signed by board Vice Chairman Dimitrius Hutcherson, advising her that her “status as President of Lincoln University” ended on June 30 and she is “no longer authorized to act in such capacity or conduct official business on behalf of the university.” The board also asked Allen to vacate the president’s residence by July 31.

On July 14 and 15, the board instructed university staff to bar Allen from entering the building where her office is located, reclaim her technological devices, and cut off her access to university email, among other things, according to Allen’s lawsuit.

The board announced on July 15 that Hutcherson would be working with the administration on “any day-to-day issues where supervisory assistance is required,” i.e. presidential duties, until the board selects an interim president at a special meeting on July 23.

Allen sued the university on July 16, alleging that Braswell and Hutcherson had conspired to make Hutcherson the “de facto president” of the university. The AG’s lawsuit soon followed.

Ross said he expects Allen to be allowed back on campus soon.

“She has a great working relationship with staff there and I think they’re going to welcome her back with open arms,” he said.

Christina Kristofic is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.