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

(Image via Philadelphia Tribune)

By Philadelphia Tribune Staff

A Chester County judge has ordered a stay of the Lincoln University Board of Trustees’ vote to remove university president Brenda Allen until July 31.

Judge William P. Mahon Jr. issued his order in response to a lawsuit Allen filed against the Board of Trustees on Thursday. 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 have sued the board, echoing Allen’s allegations and adding to them.

“Today’s order to stay the Lincoln University decision until a proper vote is conducted with all members of the board seated is a good part of what my office has been fighting for,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a written statement Tuesday. “Lincoln is a jewel of our Commonwealth’s heritage and the students, alumni, faculty and staff deserve a Board that makes decision in accordance with state law.”

The Tribune has contacted Allen’s attorney, Riley Ross III, for comment; he could not immediately be reached.

A board spokeswoman could not immediately provide a statement from the board, but said one might be forthcoming.

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.

At the meeting, which was conducted via video conference, the board prevented five recently-appointed board members from participating by muting their microphones, according to the two lawsuits and members of the public who watched the meeting.

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.

In a notice sent to students, staff and alumni and posted on the university website, the board said it excluded the newly-appointed members from voting because it had to cancel its April meeting due to the coronavirus pandemic and those members could not be properly seated. The board has not explained why it did not seat the members at the July 10 meeting.

However, the AG’s office says in its lawsuit that board chairwoman Theresa Braswell said the newly appointed members were not allowed to participate because they had not been “vetted” by the board’s Committee on Trustees, Degrees and Nominations. There is no provision in the Lincoln Act or the university’s bylaws that requires the “vetting” of any appointed trustee, the lawsuit says.

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.

The board’s legal counsel reportedly advised the board that voting in executive session and excluding the five board members violated the state Sunshine Act, the Lincoln Act and the university bylaws. Braswell did not listen, the AG’s lawsuit says, and instead acted in “willful defiance and wanton disregard” of the board’s attorney’s advice.

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 Thursday, alleging that Braswell and Hutcherson have conspired to make Hutcherson the “de facto president” of the university.

This story was first published by the Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.