Did Morgan State Endorse a Candidate for Mayor Last Week?

Canceled debate raises questions about school’s political interests

Canceled debate raises questions about school’s political interests

Most HBCUs are political hotbeds. They are constantly at the center of state congressional plotting and maneuvering for funding, expansion and competitiveness with predominantly white institutions. Black lawmakers pick their spots in advocating for HBCUs, because too much black college pride can cost a valuable seat and vote in the halls of state legislature.

Morgan State University is one of the hottest of the hotbeds. It is at the center of a federal lawsuit which could determine the advancement of HBCUs throughout the country for the next 50 years, or until the federal government shuts them down for low graduation and student loan default rates.

But those politics typically don’t move beyond the state level, and it is very rare to see an HBCU embroiled in any kind of municipal political controversy. That changed last week, when officials from its School of Global Journalism and Communication canceled a mayoral debate, scheduled for live broadcast on the university’s radio station, WEAA.

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According to officials, the debate was canceled after Catherine Pugh, a Morgan State alumna and front-runner for the mayoral seat, said that she could not participate in the debate to which three other candidates had committed. No formal explanation was given by SGJC Dean Dewayne Wickham, but other candidates predictably decried the cancellation and Pugh’s intentions. From the Baltimore Sun:

“There hasn’t been a real opportunity to discuss the issues and debate the issues, particularly with the Democratic nominee,” (Green Party candidate Josh) Harris said. “I find it perplexing that simply because Catherine Pugh did not want to participate that Dean Wickhman would cancel it. This is the kind of politics that people don’t like. This is extremely disheartening.”

(Republican candidate Alen) Walden said he didn’t blame (WEAA Host Marc) Steiner for what happened.

“This is not the first time Catherine Pugh has ducked a direct confrontation with the other candidates,” he said. “I suspect she decided that she is the mayor presumptive and she doesn’t have to get involved with these other people.

“If this is the way political campaigns are going to be conducted, then our political process is in serious trouble.”

The truth is that the cancellation is not Pugh’s fault, but Morgan State’s. Everyone knows that a political debate of any kind is not stopped by the inaccessibility of one candidate. Maybe the debate gets low ratings, maybe it’s not a sexy night for listeners; but everyone who responds to a call to publicly debate important civic issues shouldn’t have the call revoked by the absence of one person.

Wickham, who has leveraged the SGJC into key promotional partnerships with the National Association of Black Journalists (an organization he helped to co-found) ESPN and other outlets, knows better than this. He knows how the political process works, how apathetic Baltimore is when it comes to political engagement of its citizenry, how high the stakes are for addressing its issues of crime, poverty and underrepresentation, and how Morgan should aspire to be a catalyst for change in all of these areas; if not for the benefit of the city, then for the example it creates for journalism students.

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Instead, Morgan adds another headline to its growing catalog of public missteps and controversies. Presidential leadership, student safety, economic development, athletic management — even the Black Lives Matter movement — have all come into public question multiple times over the last five years.

Now the school, under terms that seem to have been unnecessary at best, and a betrayal of public service at the worst, adds a pseudo political endorsement to the list.

To its credit, Morgan has developed what seems to be an impenetrable shell to cover what appears to be a culture of questionable administration. By this time tomorrow, everyone in the city will have forgotten the lost debate, just as we forget the rest of the school’s failings. It’s board of regents, and the politics which surround it and key members of administration, make sure that the school bears down, keeps quiet, and forges ahead categorizing criticism of the school’s direction as a culture of ‘anti-Morgan’ disloyalty fueled by personal vendettas.

But history teaches us that the issues we ignore today become the crises of tomorrow. HBCUs don’t have enough money, enough political clout, or enough community resonance to avoid it. And when it all falls in, which examples at Alabama State, FAMU and South Carolina State suggest to be inevitable, loyalty will not help the next administration left behind to clean up years of administrative mess.

It only makes it worse, for as long as it is allowed to fester and grow.