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Concerned Oakwoodites Issues Open Letter; Oakwood Board of Trustees Responds

Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama

On May 8, the Concerned Oakwoodites group of alumni, students, parents, and community supporters of Oakwood University sent an open letter to Oakwood’s board of trustees. That letter follows in its entirety. Below that is a statement from the university in response to Spectrum‘s request for comment.

Dear Oakwood Board of Trustees,

We, the Concerned Oakwoodites, a collective group of dedicated alumni, parents, faculty, staff, students, and friends, take this opportunity to address you with both a sense of urgency and a profound commitment to the institution that has played a significant role in shaping our lives. Oakwood University has evolved from its humble beginnings as Oakwood Industrial School through various phases, reflecting its academic growth and expansion to its status as Oakwood University. However, with a heavy heart, we now confront the sobering reality of a precipitous decline in its state of affairs. This open letter serves as a clarion call for immediate and decisive action to address the critical issues threatening the very survival of our beloved alma mater. 

Areas of Concern

  • Board of Trustees’ Oversight – The Board of Trustees has the fiduciary duty to safeguard Oakwood University’s reputation and integrity.  This obligation includes the selection assessment, support, and, when necessary, the replacement of the university’s president.  Because of the issues we will enumerate in this document, we believe the board has failed to executive its duty, up to and including holding the president accountable and taking the appropriate action to replace him. 
  • Communication with Alumni—Communication between the Board and its alumni has been fractured due in part to recent legal disputes and the resulting deterioration of a decades-old network. Consequently, Board and alumni interactions have become more sporadic, weakening the board’s ability to get direct feedback and engage with its stakeholders. 
  • Enrollment Decline and Comparative Analysis—The stark decline in enrollment, which has persisted under the current administration, contradicts the Board’s responsibility to safeguard the institution’s future. Notably, while the Board has pointed to the challenges faith-based institutions face in attracting students, neighboring higher education institutions, such as Alabama A&M University and Southern Adventist University, have reported record-breaking freshmen classes. These contrasting outcomes raise concerns about the effectiveness of Oakwood’s recruitment and retention strategies. 
  • Transparency and Financial Disclosure—The Board’s reluctance to provide critical information and respond to alumni inquiries is disturbing. The Concerned Oakwoodites have done significant financial analysis and raised reasonable questions about Oakwood’s finances that have gone unanswered. Yet the Board continues to expect Oakwood’s supporters to respond positively to its continuous fundraising efforts. Fundraising success without transparency, accountability, and disclosure is not a reasonable expectation.  
  • Financial Health and Executive Compensation – Oakwood University’s financial trajectory is alarming, with operational costs, accounts receivable, and liabilities increasing dramatically, raising the specter of potential closure. Additionally, the timing of the sale of 75.5 acres of university land in April 2024—a significant financial transaction— only deepens our concerns about Oakwood’s ability to meet its financial obligations. With these pronounced concerns about Oakwood’s financial viability, it’s very concerning that it appears the president’s compensation has increased during his tenure. This certainly gives the appearance of rewarding failure, something that is not common practice in healthy organizations.
  • Farm Operations and Fiscal Losses – The farm operations’ financial performance, with losses exceeding $2.8 million over three years, is another area of concern. The administration’s public representation of sales figures without corresponding expenditure data is an example of the lack of comprehensive and transparent reporting. 
  • Board of Trustees’ Composition and Effectiveness – The board’s composition, predominantly clergy and denominational workers, and size, at approximately forty-nine members, seem to hinder its effectiveness. By contrast, other universities demonstrate more diverse and streamlined boards, which may contribute to more effective governance. 
  • Faculty Salary Disparities and Infrastructure Concerns—Oakwood’s faculty remuneration trails industry standards, affecting morale and our ability to attract and retain top educators. Furthermore, infrastructure issues, reports of mold, unreliable Internet access, and inadequate medical facilities directly impact the well-being and experience of our students. 
  • Alumni Engagement and Support – The administration’s actions have led to a profound divide among alumni, as evidenced by the unprecedented call for unity during the 2024 Alumni Sabbath sermon. The Board’s responsibility extends to fostering an environment where alumni can actively contribute to the university’s future. 

Concerned Oakwoodites call for immediate action.

In light of these critical issues, we, the Concerned Oakwoodites call for the following: 

1. Termination of the current president and installation of an interim president before the 2024-2025 academic year. 

2. A written response to the issues outlined in this document within 20 business days. 

3. A town hall meeting facilitated by a neutral mediator to discuss corrective measures. 

4. Quarterly open meetings with alumni to address concerns and provide transparent updates on the Board’s activities. 

5. A reassessment of the Board’s bylaws, size, and composition to improve governance. 

6. Independent financial and enrollment audits for the past five years. 

7. Independent surveys to assess faculty, staff, and student morale and satisfaction. 

Conclusion and Historical Context 

Since Dr. Leslie N. Pollard assumed the presidency in 2011, the university has encountered significant challenges that we believe jeopardize its legacy. As we stand at a crossroads, it is imperative that you act with resolve and foresight to reverse the severe enrollment decline and financial problems that Oakwood is facing.  The continued existence of Oakwood University is not merely a matter of historical significance but reflective of our commitment to future generations. The Board of Trustees faces the daunting decision to determine whether the Oakwood University president is bigger than the institution or is the institution bigger than the Oakwood University president.

In closing, we urge the Board of Trustees to recognize the gravity of the situation and to engage with us, the Concerned Oakwoodites, in a meaningful and productive manner. Let us not forget that Oakwood University’s strength lies not just in its historical roots or its academic offerings but in the spirit and tenacity of its people—students, faculty, alumni, and supporters alike. In this spirit, the Concerned Oakwoodites stand ready to collaborate with you to revive and revitalize our institution. 

As you know, Concerned Oakwoodites hosted a meeting addressing these issues during Alumni Weekend on Friday, March 29. Since then, this meeting has garnered more than 4,300 views. You can watch the meeting by clicking here. For further details, visit concernedoakwoodites.com.

We await your prompt and thoughtful response to these pressing concerns. Please direct all correspondence and inquiries to the Concerned Oakwoodites Leadership Team at ConcernedOakwoodites@gmail.com. 

Respectfully, 

The Concerned Oakwoodites

***

The Board of Trustees of Oakwood University shares the following statement with Spectrum magazine:

The Oakwood University Board of Trustees remains committed to its plan to position Oakwood University for long-term enrollment success. The Board continues to collaborate with the institution’s administrators, higher education experts, and Adventist leaders to refine and execute our strategic plan.

While the challenges to higher education are significant – as is the case for HBCUs broadly and Adventist and other peer institutions universally – we are grateful for God’s protection as we make progress in the face of industry challenges. We are reminded by Mrs. E. G. White that “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us and His teaching in our past history.”

Having experienced the support of an extraordinary Alumni Weekend for our “Standing in the Gap” message in March, this 2024 graduation weekend continues our optimism as we at Oakwood University celebrate the more than 270 students who have completed their academic journey.  They are our focus. Our University Administrators, Faculty, Staff, and the Board of Trustees salute them. We invite all to celebrate their outstanding accomplishment! We invite all to lift up Oakwood University and Adventist education in prayer as we continue to chart the course forward and ask that God grant us wisdom.

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