The Morehouse College community woke on Thursday morning to the news that William Taggart, interim president of the historically black institution in Atlanta, had died Wednesday night.
Taggart, 55, took on leadership of the college after Dr. John Silvanus Wilson was ousted from his position in April. The change in leadership was part of a broader shift in governance at the school, which reportedly had been plagued by a poor working relationship between former board of trustees chair Robert C. Davidson, Jr., and Wilson for years.
The former president and CEO of Atlanta Life Financial Company, Taggart joined Morehouse as chief operating officer in July 2015. As a graduate of Howard University, Taggart was the first non-alum to lead the school in decades.
In a statement on Thursday morning, the board of trustees said:
“We are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Bill Taggart, a beloved colleague, father and friend. For the past two years, Bill devoted himself wholeheartedly to Morehouse College. We are eternally grateful for his loyal support, counsel and the leadership he provided to students, faculty and alumni. Throughout his tenure, Bill had a positive impact on Morehouse College and the Greater Atlanta Business Community. He leaves behind a long legacy of compassion, integrity and devotion.”
In response to a request for comment, Morehouse representatives referred Diverse to the board’s statement.
Taggart served as chief operating officer with the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid, which administers federal student loans and Pell grants, from 2009 to 2011. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos commented on Taggart’s passing in a statement Thursday evening.
“I was saddened to learn of the sudden passing of President Taggart. By all accounts, he had a tremendous impact on Morehouse College during his tenure and was well-respected by those who served with him at Federal Student Aid. My thoughts and prayer are with his family and the entire Morehouse community.”
Taggart’s appointment as president concluded a period of turmoil at Morehouse following the board of trustees January vote to not renew Wilson’s contract, which was set to expire at the end of June. Wilson led the school for four years.
“Taggart’s death leaves Morehouse in a difficult situation given the recent turmoil,” Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, wrote in an email. “The institution greatly needs someone who understands its core mission and will lead it in a way that will ensure it thrives and looks toward the future of educating Black men.”
In the wake of the board’s January decision to not renew Wilson’s contract, constituents in the Morehouse community said that the board had failed to take their voices into consideration. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to engage the board in a broader dialogue, faculty took several votes of no-confidence in board chair Davidson. Student trustees, who were excluded from attending the meeting where the board voted on Wilson’s term, also weighed in, suing to nullify the board’s decision.
As the controversy intensified and after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said that it would open an investigation into the college, the board announced several key leadership changes in April. Davidson, who has served on the board since 1997, stepped down as chair amid a larger shakeup in board leadership. In what some said was an effort to make a clean sweep, Wilson’s contract was also terminated three months early.
Taggart, who had assumed “day-to-day” leadership of the college in early March, was chosen to usher Morehouse into a new period of stability.
Recent Morehouse graduate Johnathan Hill said, “Being a part of the same group that voted for president Taggart to step into that role, I believe in his responsibility, his leadership skills, and honestly his love for Morehouse College. It was contagious. I knew that with him being in that seat, Morehouse would have no worries.”
In his dual capacity as student trustee and former SGA president, Hill worked closely with Taggart in recent months to set the school on a new course, but the pair began meeting to discuss Morehouse’s future as early as two years ago, according to Hill. In conversations over the years, Hill said, Taggart’s passion for Morehouse always shone through.
“Prior to becoming the SGA president, Mr. Taggart and myself sat in numerous meetings for hours talking about how we get Morehouse back where it needs to be, just talking about the future at length,” Hill said.
The news of Taggart’s passing came as a shock to those in the Morehouse community who knew him well. He was an avid runner and appeared to be in good health. Taggart leaves a daughter who is currently in high school. His wife died several years ago.
Initial reports suggest that Taggart died from an aneurysm. An autopsy will be performed later this week, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.