Sunday, October 15, 2023

Alabama A&M University struggles to contain the fire of a sexual-harassment scandal that continues to burn around the controversial presidency of Daniel Wims

Allegations of sexual misconduct have hung over Alabama A&M University President Dr. Daniel Wims since he was named a finalist for the position in September 2021. The allegations led A&M to spend $220,000 with a GOP lobbying firm, reportedly to help keep a public-relations fire related to Wims' candidacy from burning out of control. It also prompted previous A&M president Dr. Andrew Hugine to release a series of letters, the third of which included a strongly worded defense of Wims' character, plus Hugine's clear preference that Wims be named his predecessor over two other finalists.

All of this comes today in a wide-ranging article at A longtime Alabama attorney who has become a leading voice in online investigative journalism, Watkins has reported on Wims' role in reaching a new agreement for the Magic City Classic football game that appears to benefit politically right-leaning promotion and event-management firms over the historically Black universities (Alabama A&M in Huntsville and Alabama State in Montgomery), which generate the millions of dollars in proceeds from a top-drawing attraction that has become the No. 1 event of its kind in the nation. It is played annually at Legion Field in Birmingham.

While negotiations over a new Magic City Classic contract have pushed Wims into the  public spotlight in recent months, the fire related to the sexual-misconduct allegations has continued to burn.. Under the headline "Was Alabama A&M’s Presidential Search Process “Rigged” in Favor of Daniel K. Wims?"  Watkins writes:

Skipper Group was reportedly retained in September 2021 to help Alabama A&M manage the raging public-relations crisis that engulfed Dr. Wims after he was announced as one of the three finalists for the presidency of the university. At that point, allegations of sexual misconduct against Dr. Wims involving three women and one man had surfaced publicly. Wims denied the allegations.

Despite his denials, the nature and scope of the sexual misconduct allegations soiled Wims' reputation and threatened to doom his chances of succeeding President Andrew Hugine.

It was an open secret that Dr. Wims was President Hugine's preferred candidate to succeed him. At least four trustees of the university believed that Wims' objective qualifications for the presidency paled in comparison to the other two finalists -- Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, President, Huston-Tillotson University (Austin, Texas), and Dr. Roderick Smothers, President, Philander Smith College (Little Rock, Arkansas).

As reported by Josh Moon in the October 1, 2021, online edition of the Alabama Political Reporter (APR), Dr. Hugine sent three letters to university trustees during the search process. The first two Hugine letters could be justified under some limited set of circumstances. The third letter, however, could not be justified under any set of circumstances for a sitting president who pledged to remain neutral in the search process.

The merits of the sexual allegations against Dr. Wims (or lack thereof), and the weight to which these allegations should be given in the selection process, fell within the purview of the trustee search committee and/or full board of trustees, and not President Hugine. The committee had access to legal counsel and investigators to assist it with any desired confidential fact-finding inquiries related to Dr. Wims. The committee did not seek or need President Hugine's intervention in the process.

Dr. Hugine’s third letter, dated October 1, 2021, was a passionate defense of "The Daniel K. Wims that I Know." With this third letter, Dr. Hugine abandoned any pretense of neutrality and turned himself into a full-fledged "character witness" for Dr. Wims.

Did Hugine step over some boundaries in this process? Watkins says the answer is "yes." Hugine's third letter appeared to be an effort to calm the waters related to the sexual-misconduct allegations against Wims. But those waters still appear to be choppy, Watkins writes:

With his advocacy, Hugine effectively engaged in the act of handpicking his successor -- to the detriment of Drs. Burnette and Smothers. Unlike Burnette and Smothers, Dr. Wims had no prior experience as a college or university president. What is more, Dr. Wims had applied for the position of president at several colleges and universities and was passed over for these opportunities.

Realizing that Dr. Wims had no presidential experience, Dr. Hugine used the third letter to cloak Wims with the garb of his (Hugine's) presidential legitimacy at a time when Wims was dripping with allegations of sexual misconduct. With the stroke of his pen, President Hugine absolved Wims of all wrongdoing in these complaints.

Once Dr. Hugine issued his third letter, the trustee selection process became structurally “rigged" in Wims' favor. It was impossible for Drs. Burnette and Smothers to overcome the last-minute, unexpected, powerful lift that President Hugine provided to Dr. Wims by his generous act of "character witnessing" for Wims.

Where was Skipper Group during this time? Watkins says the firm's public-relations work for A&M is shrouded in secrecy, so it's difficult to determine the nature of Skipper's work and whom it was intended to benefit. Writes Watkins:

On November 2, 2021, Skipper Group received a $30,000 payment from Alabama A&M University for “contract services.” This payment was the first installment of $220,000 in university payments to this two-man, Auburn University-based, GOP lobbying and public relation firm between November 2, 2021, and August 8, 2023.

The Skipper Group was founded in 2013 by Tripp Skipper, a former Congressional aide to U.S. Representatives Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) and Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama), as well as former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama). The firm is one of the several gateways into Donald Trump's MAGA world in Alabama.

While Skipper Group’s MAGA political outreach work for Alabama A&M is fairly easy to document, the firm’s public-relations work for the university is murky and remains shrouded in secrecy.

Skipper Group was reportedly retained in September 2021 to help Alabama A&M manage the raging public-relations crisis that engulfed Dr. Wims after he was announced as one of the three finalists for the presidency of the university. At that point, allegations of sexual misconduct against Dr. Wims involving three women and one man had surfaced publicly. Wims denied the allegations.

The public is left with a question that still is to be sorted out: What did Skipper Group do to earn its initial $30,000 fee, which led to a total of $220,000 from Alabama A&M? Watkins provides background:

Insiders report that Skipper Group was hired to advise Dr. Hugine in managing the public-relations nightmare that had been created by the sexual-misconduct allegations swirling around Dr. Wims. The allegations were disrupting and threatened to doom a Hugine-to-Wims succession plan.

Skipper Group also reportedly helped Dr. Hugine: (a) craft the "character witnessing" themes in his controversial October 1, 2021, letter; (b) format the letter as an Op-Ed article for widespread public consumption; and (c) distributed Hugine's Op-Ed article to members of the press and public on September 30th and October 1st. Thereafter, Skipper Group orchestrated a full media blitz for the benefit of Wims' candidacy.

Dr. Wims did not pay for Skipper Group's PR/crisis management services, even though he was the direct beneficiary of them. Instead, Alabama A&M paid $30,000 for this personalized assistance for Wims, who was the university's provost and wannabe president.

Dr. Hugine's PR/crisis-management campaign was intended to keep a majority of the board of trustees on track to appoint Dr. Wims as president during its October 2, 2021, meeting, without independently investigating and assessing the merits of the sexual misconduct complaints against Dr. Wims.

APR reporter Josh Moon made this astute observation about Dr. Hugine’s October 1st "character witness" testimonial letter and Skipper Group's PR work:

“It’s also worth mentioning that the letter from Hugine was distributed by a PR firm — a PR firm presumably hired by the university. If that’s the case, it creates quite an odd dynamic — a university hiring a PR firm to defend a candidate vying to be that university’s president.

Skipper Group's PR/crisis-management plan worked -- at least for Wims and Hugine. Wims was selected as the university's 12th president on October 2, 2021, on a 7-to-4 vote.

The sexual-misconduct allegations against Dr. Wims were never independently investigated by the search committee prior to his appointment as president.

A&M officials still seem reluctant to discuss the circumstances surrounding Wims' appointment -- including Skipper Group's role in the process. Writes Watkins:

In response to my direct question to Dr. Jerome Williams (Alabama A&M's board chair at the time) on whether Skipper Group had any involvement in the presidential search that led to Dr. Daniel K. Wims’ appointment, Williams said, "No.” When asked why the university paid Skipper Group $30,000 on November 2, 20221, Dr. Williams said he was not aware of this payment

University trustees hired Academic Search, a presidential-search firm, to assist the ad hoc presidential search committee established by the board of trustees. Academic Search received applications and conducted the initial vetting on all applicants for the job.

It does not appear that the full board of trustees was made aware of Skipper Group's crucial PR/crisis-management role in the selection process. There is no disclosure of Skipper Group’s role in the selection process in any of Dr. Hugine’s three letters.

Skipper Group’s work for this $30,000 payment had to occur at least 45 days to two months prior to the November 2, 2021, payment, or around the time the three finalists were announced on September 6, 2021. Before the payment could be made, Skipper Group needed: (a) a fully executed contract with a defined scope of work and pricing for the services rendered; (b) a vendor number; (c) performance of the work; (d) submission of an itemized invoice; and (e) approval of the invoice for payment.

The university had a procedure in place for processing and paying invoices. It normally took a new vendor like Skipper Group about 45 days to two months to complete this cycle of transactions required before a payment would be issued for services rendered.

It is unclear whether President Hugine or Provost Wims authorized the $30,000 payment to Skipper Group. Either way, the payment is highly questionable, given the personal nature of the services rendered and Wims' status as the finalist who directly benefited from these services.

On October 12, 2023, we emailed Tripp Skipper a list of questions that sought clarity about this $30,000 payment. He never responded to our questions.

A number of individuals and entities seemingly bent themselves into pretzels to ensure Daniel Wims would become Alabama A&M's president -- even going to considerable lengths to push aside allegations of sexual misconduct. Is he grateful for that support, especially considering he clearly was the least qualified of three finalists? Not particularly, says Watkins:

Dr. Andrew Hugine came to Dr. Daniel K. Wims' rescue during a critical time in the presidential search process. Wims candidacy for the job appeared to be doomed.

Dr. Wims thanked President Hugine for this life-altering personal favor by completely disassociating himself from Hugine after he assumed the presidency. Wims' loyalty to Dr. Hugine lasted only as long as it took for him to get the Alabama A&M University presidency.

In most educational, religious, political, and business circles, the greatest sin of all is the sin of ingratitude.

Stay tuned! We will introduce our readers to the real Daniel K. Wims. Today, the public only knows the polished and spit-shined image of Dr. Wims that Skipper Group helped to create and continues to manage. We will present Dr. Wims, raw.

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