Lincoln University’s Board of Trustees schedules new vote on president’s contract

(Image via Philadelphia Tribune)

By Christina Kristofic

The Lincoln University Board of Trustees has scheduled another special meeting to discuss Brenda Allen’s contract.

The board will meet at 12 p.m. on July 31 to seat five recently appointed trustees, select an acting university president and discuss Allen’s request for a new contract for her position as president. The meeting notice does not explicitly state that the board will vote on the third item.

The board also canceled the special meeting it had planned for July 23; at that meeting, board leaders planned to appoint an interim president to replace Allen.

The board scheduled the new meeting after a Chester County judge ordered a stay of its previous vote to remove Allen from her post.

Judge William P. Mahon Jr. issued the order 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 have sued the board, echoing Allen’s allegations and adding to them. The AG’s office also has asked the court to unseat board chairwoman Theresa Braswell, saying in its suit that Braswell exercised a “gross abuse of her authority” as chairwoman when she led the board to take actions that violated state laws in “willful defiance and wanton disregard” of the board’s attorney’s advice.

“We welcome the stay… because it allows the full board, including the new appointees, to consider allowing Dr. Allen a contract extension or negotiating a new contract. That’s the way it should be,” said Riley Ross III, Allen’s attorney.

Ross noted that Allen has received significant support from students, faculty, staff and alumni. More than 15,000 people have signed an online petition urging the board to keep Allen as president.

Based on that support and Allen’s accomplishments as president, Ross said, “I fully expect that the vote to extend her contract will carry. What I’m concerned with is ensuring that the vote is fair, and that the trustees are given the opportunity to speak and voice any concerns that they need to voice and raise any questions they need to raise.”

The board has not publicly indicated why it initially sought to unseat Allen, and Ross said the board has not privately given Allen any indication.

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

“It’s quite baffling because there’s no basis for having her removed. Lincoln has strived and improved under her leadership,” Ross said.

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.

Pa. AG Shapiro, alumni question Lincoln University’s decision to not renew president’s contract

However, the AG’s office says in its lawsuit that 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.

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 have conspired to make Hutcherson the “de facto president” of the university.

Ross said Allen still does not have access to the university.

“She is waiting for this decision, and she is hoping that too much damage hasn’t been done to Lincoln’s plans for reopening,” Ross said. “She’s hoping that she’ll be able to get back in there and get Lincoln back on track.”

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