On December 28, an alumni-led group representing over a thousand members called for Oakwood University President Leslie Pollard to resign or be removed by the board. The Concerned Oakwoodites—a multi-generational coalition of university graduates, current students and their guardians, employees, and Huntsville, Alabama, community members—cite problems with school finances, violations of policy, enrollment, faculty and staff retention, ethical practices, and board governance.
Active online and in the community, the Concerned Oakwoodites have held a press conference and met with representatives from the university’s board of trustees. With little change after those efforts, their end-of-year open letter supporting presidential change alleges that Pollard’s 11-year tenure has been marked by financial decline. They allege net income down by over 175 percent, expenses up 34 percent, and total liabilities up 155 percent.
Focusing on 2018 to 2022, the letter states that while net institutional income dropped 234 percent, the president and his wife, who until recently was also a university vice president and dean of the School of Graduate Studies for Oakwood, received a 25 percent wage increase. This occurred during a time when, according to the letter, the majority of campus wages remained static.
In addition, the Concerned Oakwoodites allege the university produced misleading information about its nursing program, indicating that the university’s NCLEX pass rate was 100 percent but failing to mention there were only two nursing students and that the program’s accreditation is conditional.
In March 2022, the university suffered a cyber security breach and ransomware attack, giving hackers access to students’ potentially sensitive information. Shortly after, a student filed a class action lawsuit against Oakwood, claiming the university was largely responsible for a “massive and preventable data breach.”
On July 14, 2022, Oakwood filed a lawsuit against its IT company, Dynamic Campus Solutions, for failing to implement adequate safety measures.
In October, Oakwood released a statement explaining that its 40-member board “held an eight-hour working session” to review its financial records and “found that certain assertions were based on misunderstandings.” It added that the board “focused on the university’s financial challenges during their Executive Session, which are being addressed in various ways and will be announced once the audit for this year is completed.”
A January 4 statement from Oakwood University to Spectrum reaffirmed board support for the president and placed its troubles within the larger challenging context faced by similar educational institutions. Without denying the alumni group’s concerns, it mentioned that administrators and the board have been engaged in strategic planning and are “developing updated plans to further strengthen Oakwood University’s financial foundation in a way that aligns with and responds to current market realities.” It also pointed out a 2023 increase of $1.2 million in philanthropy over 2022 and recent institutional accreditation through 2032.
In November 2023, Spectrum first reported on Oakwood’s bleak financial landscape, including debt that jumped from $22 million to $43 million between 2021 to 2022. In an additional statement, Oakwood explained that student scholarships and capital projects have reduced cash on hand, adding, “There has been no new indebtedness.” It added, “Previous financial and enrollment challenges required adjustments in financial operations, but did not affect solvency.”
The same day they released their open letter, the Concerned Oakwoodites published a letter written by Ellen G. White in 1904, expressing concern over Oakwood leadership at that time.
Drawing parallels to contemporary circumstances, the group argued the concerns articulated in White’s century-old letter apply today.
Emphasizing the need for transparency and accountability, Concerned Oakwoodites co-founder David Person said in an interview with Spectrum, “We’re going to continue doing what we started.” He added that they will continue to release information “addressing the objectives that we not only have as a group, but that we’ve been asking the Board of Trustees [for].”
Sheila McNeil, a member of the Concerned Oakwoodite leadership committee, spoke of her concerns regarding the university’s lack of cooperation with the group. She said that improvement will come if both sides “have a serious conversation about university leadership change.”
Image: Josafat Zemleduch / Adventist Media Exchange