New Leader of White House Initiative on HBCUs Comes With Controversial Past

September 13, 2013

George E. Cooper, a former president of South Carolina State University, has been chosen to lead the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges, the U.S. Department of Education announced on Thursday.

His appointment as executive director comes several months after leaders and advocates of historically black colleges complained that they were "disappointed and dismayed" by the Obama administration's delay in filling the post, which has been vacant since late January, when John S. Wilson Jr. left to lead his alma mater, Morehouse College.

The appointment also comes some 18 months after Mr. Cooper resigned after a tumultuous four years as president at South Carolina State, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

The university's Board of Trustees had fired Mr. Cooper in June 2010, only to rehire him two weeks later, after two new members joined the board.

Later in 2010 a faculty member filed a lawsuit alleging that Mr. Cooper and the vice president for academic affairs had demoted her for criticizing the university leaders. In 2011 the Faculty Senate voted no confidence in Mr. Cooper, based on the suit's allegations.

The lawsuit was settled in 2012, restoring the faculty member's position as a department chair and providing her with more than $68,000 in state funds, plus an undisclosed amount from the defendants.

Growing Rift

In a news release, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education congratulated Mr. Cooper and Ivory A. Toldson, a researcher at Howard University who has been appointed deputy director of the initiative on black colleges.

Mr. Cooper's "experiences at the helm of an HBCU provide him with unique sensitivities and understandings that will serve well the Department of Education and the HBCU community," the news release said.

Johnny C. Taylor, chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, had no comment on Mr. Cooper's appointment, according to a spokeswoman for the fund.

In July the two groups joined in criticizing the administration for appointing a second interim leader for the initiative and ignoring their recommendation that the job be filled permanently by Linda Earley Chastang, an adviser to the initiative's Board of Directors.

"The decision to have the White House Initiative on HBCUs without leadership for almost a year is confounding, especially given the administration's higher-education goals and the vitally important role HBCUs must play in reaching the goals," the two groups said in a letter to the White House at the time.

In addition, the associations vented frustrations at tighter standards for federal Parent PLUS Loans, a change that has been blamed for a drop in enrollment at many black colleges, and over the loss of an estimated $150-million in federal contracts to historically black institutions because of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration.