Was Alabama A&M’s Presidential Search Process “Rigged” in Favor of Daniel K. Wims?
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on October 15, 2023
An Editorial Opinion
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. SenatorJeff 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.
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 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.
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.
Why Was Skipper Group on the Scene at the Time Wims Needed Help?
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 dooming a pre-planned 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. 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.
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 benefitted 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.
Wims' Sin of Ingratitude
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 tune! 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.