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Historically Black Missouri college in turmoil after suicide of administrator who alleged bullying

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Many students at a historically Black college in Missouri returned from Christmas break this week dressed in black, mourning the suicide of a beloved administrator who had alleged bullying and racism by the school's white president.

Known for keeping her office door open and greeting everyone at Lincoln University with a smile, Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey's death has spurred student protests and #JUSTICE4BONNIE T-shirts across the idyllic red-brick campus in Jefferson City.

While President John Moseley agreed last week to go on paid leave pending a third-party investigation, many of the school's 1,800 students and its alumni group are calling for his termination. A string of #firemoseley social media posts have questioned his qualifications, his treatment of the Black administrator and whether it was appropriate for a white man to lead an HBCU.

“We do want to see the removal of Dr. Moseley, as well as the board of curators and everybody else who was responsible,” said 22-year-old senior Xoe Binford, who was among about 30 protesters at a curators’ meeting on Wednesday.

The board described the 49-year-old’s death on Jan. 8 as “tragic,” but declined to comment in detail, citing the need to keep personnel information confidential.

“As a University community, we want to prioritize the mental health of everyone here and make sure each employee and student is treated with dignity and respect,” Board of Curators President Victor Pasley said.

Monica Graham, a Lincoln graduate and longtime friend, said Candia-Bailey killed herself days after being fired as vice president of student affairs. Graham shared an email in which Candia-Bailey detailed the problems she was having with Moseley, including saying that he harassed her and alluded to her being “an angry Black woman,” which she described as a “stereotype that has demoralized Black women for decades.”

Candia-Bailey wrote that the situation deteriorated after she requested time off through the Family Medical Leave Act to deal with her “severe depression and anxiety.”

Moseley has not responded to an email seeking comment.

Most historically Black colleges and universities had white presidents through the 1940s after which graduates began to push back, said Marybeth Gasman, a Rutgers University historian whose research focuses on systemic racism in higher education.

Today, a white president at an HBCU is a rarity, she said. She was aware of just one other example, Bluefield State in West Virginia, which is now a majority white school.

“As it’s rare, we don’t know much about the consequences,” she said. “However, we do know from research and many examples that Black women are often mistreated, bullied, and harassed in the workplace by white men and others. They have to contend with sexism and racism as well.”

The first Black female president of Harvard University was recently forced to resign after being accused of plagiarism and amid backlash over her testimony at a Congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to end affirmative action in college admissions, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs are increasingly under attack in academia and the corporate world.

Just 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Lincoln University, anti-racism protests erupted at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus in 2015, forcing that school’s president to resign. One Black student at the overwhelmingly white campus went on a weeklong hunger strike. Dozens of Black football players refused to play until the president stepped down.

Friends of Candia-Bailey said Moseley was never a good fit to lead the historically Black university.

“Why would you appoint a white president for such a position?” asked 53-year-old Eric Malone, who met the late administrator when they were both students at Lincoln and kept in touch with her over the years. His main concern, though, was Moseley’s qualifications.

Moseley was named as president in January 2022 after serving as the school’s director of athletics and basketball coach. His wife is an assistant professor at Lincoln.

“When he was the basketball coach, we loved him,” said Graham. “Everything was great. But then he became president and that’s where we didn’t support that. Again, not because he’s white, but because he wasn’t qualified to lead a university.”

Kendra Perry, 50, who also met Candia-Bailey when they were students, questioned his motivation in accepting the leadership role.

“I have to ask myself, ‘Are you really going to be for us or are you for what you can benefit from?’ And I saw him being more political and not being more personable to ensure that you keep the integrity of our HBCU,” Perry said.

Emails shared by Graham show Candia-Bailey reached out to the board in November about her troubles with Moseley, and that the board apparently dismissed her concerns. The board president, Pasley, told Candia-Bailey that the board “does not engage in the management of personnel issues for Lincoln University and will not be taking further action related to this issue.”

Pasley declined to comment to The Associated Press.

Cierra Tillman, a freshman computer information systems major at Lincoln, said she hoped the protests achieve “justice, not only for Dr. Bailey, but to raise mental health awareness for every student on campus and every other faculty or staff.”

“Her voice should have been able to be heard before we got to this point,” Tillman said.

Funeral services are set for Saturday.

The death has really taken a toll on Perry, whose daughter was hoping to become the fourth generation of her family to attend the school. She is wondering if they should rethink that plan.

“If you can break down someone as strong and confident as Bonnie, then I am in fear for my own child,” Perry said. “I can’t send her down there. I don’t have the trust. I lost the trust in that university.”

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.