A star’s downfall at historically black Alcorn

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LORMAN, Miss. (AP) - M. Christopher Brown II was regarded as a rising star in the world of historically black universities and a transformational leader at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University. Hired at just 38, he and the university were winning awards and Alcorn’s profile was on the rise.

But by his third year on the job, complaints began to surface about money spent on lavish upgrades to the president’s residence and the relationship between a Brown aide and a production company that staged campus concerts, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request. Amid an investigation of the spending by the board that oversees the university, Brown and two others resigned in December.

The probe and resignations come at a time when Alcorn and other historically black schools are working to recover from the recession. Mississippi’s three historically black public universities fought off a proposal by former Gov. Haley Barbour to merge them, and overall higher education spending in Mississippi has only begun to recover from sharp cuts.

“I’m sick about it because it’s going to impact recruiting, support from the Legislature, everything,” said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, who oversees the state’s public universities.

Hundreds of pages of invoices, checks, emails and other correspondence reviewed by the AP show Alcorn spent almost $89,000 on furniture and renovations at the president’s house - all without seeking bids as required under state law. The documents also show the production company associated with Brown’s aide university collected $85,000 in fees as part of the money Alcorn paid it. And an auditor says the school spent more than $67,000 in bond money on projects that weren’t allowed in the lending agreement.

The documents reveal for the first time details of the spending that led to Brown’s departure, which were known only among a select group of students, faculty and alumni. When Brown resigned, Bounds would only say it was related to an investigation into possible purchasing violations.

Students interviewed Wednesday on campus said they’d only heard rumors about why Brown left.

“It was kind of sudden, but no one really spoke on it. We didn’t know the president was gone unless we looked on a website,” said Ayobunni Saleem, a freshman biology major from Milwaukee.

The documents show Brown was aware of the spending on the president’s house and the concerts. It’s not clear, though, whether he knew before the probe started that money was being spent in ways that auditors would question. Reached at his home in Las Vegas, Brown declined to comment and didn’t return other messages.

In one email, Brown complains about unfinished work in the bedroom and bathroom at the two-story stucco and brick structure that overlooks a lake near Alcorn’s football stadium.

“Regrettably, I don’t function maximally in varying stages of incomplete; particularly, without clarity regarding expected delivery dates,” Brown wrote in an email dated Oct. 13, 2013, to Alcorn Senior Vice President for University Operations Betty Jean Roberts, who oversaw purchasing.

The investigation was launched after whistleblower complaints to the College Board, which runs Alcorn and Mississippi’s seven other public universities. The state auditor’s office is also investigating, said spokesman Brett Kittredge, who declined to provide further details.

When Brown joined Alcorn in 2011, he was viewed as an up-and-comer who had studied the history of historically black schools and served as provost at one - Tennessee’s Fisk University - before joining Alcorn. He had previously been dean of the college of education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Students say Brown was unusually accessible, both on the historic campus that alumni call “the yard,” and on social media, reacting quickly to student complaints. He also won plaudits for bringing events to the rural campus where students say they have to make their own fun.

A saxophonist in Alcorn’s marching band gave Brown credit for an invite to the Honda Battle of the Bands in Atlanta, a showcase for top bands from historically black schools.

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