An Embarrassment and the Colleagues Who Enabled Him

Editorial, Detroit Free Press, June 22, 2010

The good news is that most Detroit Board of Education members have ignored school board president Otis Mathis’ ill-considered attempt to retract the resignation he submitted last week after Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Gueyser outed him for masturbating in school business meetings. Mathis has no future in public service. If he even dimly appreciated his predicament, he’d be decamping to a remote foreign country instead of trying to get his office back.

The bad news is that the board majority that elected Mathis president earlier this year is still in place, and at least one of their number, the Reverend David Murray, has dismissed Mathis’ over-the-top transgressions as a function of either the ex-board president’s youth (Mathis is 55) or his naivete. (“Maybe he didn’t know,” Murray suggested Friday after Gueyser’s accusations became public, “it was offensive to her.”)

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But every board member, including the nine who voted to elect him school board president last year, was aware that Mathis had difficulty reading and that he struggled to compose a coherent English sentence. The fact that none of Mathis’ peers regarded this as disqualifying him as the titular head of Michigan’s largest school district speaks volumes about the board’s collective judgment, or lack of it.

Mathis’ failure to offer his resignation when his deficit became a source of national embarrassment, and the board’s reluctance to make a leadership change or to even publicly address the matter, can be viewed in hindsight as a omen of the more grotesque scandal to come.

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mathis

Otis Mathis.


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In a March 4 column, when I reported on Mathis’ inability to write a coherent sentence, I asked whether he had overcome disabilities or convinced people that an academically challenged school board president was a good choice to lead the nation’s lowest-achieving big city district.

In retrospect, the rise of Otis Mathis to that leadership role says as much about the current Detroit Board of Education as it does about Mathis.

This is the body that unanimously elected Mathis over Tyrone Winfrey, a board member who is an academic officer at the University of Michigan.

Mathis has succeeded over the years by never admitting defeat when he failed. Unable to meet academic requirements, he found ways around them.

After graduating from Southeastern High School with a D-plus average, he got into Wayne State University in a program for the academically unqualified. When he failed to pass an English language writing exam required for graduation, he sued, claiming the exam discriminated against African-Americans. When the exam was dropped, a decade later, he duly received his bachelor of science degree.

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Last week, when board-appointed school Superintendent Teresa Gueyser astonished most of us by filing a complaint with the DPS Office of Public Safety, alleging that Mathis had fondled himself repeatedly in front of her during one-on-one meetings, Mathis apologized for inappropriate behavior, then resigned. Within hours, though, he tried to rescind his resignation.

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Even then, though, some DPS board members continued to defend him. Reverend David Murray, who is 58, described the 56-year-old Mathis as “a young man,” who is still learning basic rules of deportment.

“Like I say, it’s not that uncommon for people to behave in that fashion,” he said Monday, “especially if the person is coming on to them. In most workplaces, they tell you you shouldn’t have any social carrying on in the workplace.”

Murray’s willingness to dismiss Gueyser’s sexual harassment complaint as a kind of courtship strategy is bizarre–but it also helps explain why Gueyser waited so long to complain about behavior she said had been a regular feature of their meetings.

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Murray, who legally changed his first name from David to “Reverend,” is now campaigning for a seat on the Wayne County Commission–a $68,000 a year job. Who knows? Perhaps the school board of low expectations is a springboard to higher office.

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