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Some HBCUs ‘Will Not Survive’ Financial Crunch

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Philidelphia (NNPA)

By Nia Ngina Meeks
Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune

For many, it’s a given that historically Black colleges and universities will be around.

After all, as institutions, they’ve been in existence for more than 150 years, established during a time when Blacks had no other alternatives to pursue higher education.

In the past few decades, though, mismanagement issues—some fatal—have arisen on these campuses. Just last week, Morris Brown and Mary Holmes colleges had their accreditation withdrawn—though Morris Brown officials have said they will appeal the decision. Grambling State University remains on probation.

The specters of fiscal competency and academic competitiveness, have some questioning whether HBCUs have outlived their usefulness.

While some supporters say these are aberrations, others fear that what has happened in recent weeks is just emblematic of deeper problems that have been allowed to fester.

“There tends to be a lot of finger-pointing,” said Grant D. Venerable II, vice-president of academic affairs at Lincoln University. Until this summer, he had served as provost and vice-president of academic affairs at Morris Brown.

“Believe me, presidents all over the HBCU circuit are very concerned,” Venerable said. “They know there is a lot of grace of the good Lord that has kept a lot of our schools going.”

The situation at Grambling was not as dire as some. The bookkeeping issues that raised flags earlier showed signs of correction. The college commission of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) decided to give Grambling another year to meet all the outlined regulations, said James T. Rogers, the commission’s executive director.

The verdict was far different for Morris Brown in Atlanta and Mary Holmes in West Point, Miss. Both were stripped of their ability to accept federal funds. For Morris Brown, there were great questions about how the school could raise the estimated $23 million needed to alleviate its debt. Mary Holmes just completed its second year of probation—the maximum allowed under federal regulations—and SACS still had concerns regarding the two-year Black women’s college.

As private schools, both are dependent upon tuition. As institutions serving a largely lower socioeconomic population that relies on federal aid, the loss of these funds decimates their operating budgets. As de-accredited private institutions, they also lose support from the United Negro College Fund.

Morris Brown President Charles E. Taylor announced plans for an appeal, allowing for a little more time to operate as an accredited institution. While Morris Brown officials did not return calls the college did send a letter to parents updating them on the situation. It also offered answers to common questions, such as would they lose their financial aid and whether their degrees would be worth anything should the school lose its accreditation.

Alumni have rallied to support the college but admit that things look somewhat dim. At the appeals, no new information can be introduced. Instead, the review committee will revisit the process to see whether the SACS commission followed the rules fairly.

“We all pray,” said Mack T. Duncan, a 1966 Morris Brown grad. The Mount Airy resident is a regional alumni chapter president. “The quality of student we turn out is excellent. I guess we’ve looked at it as, ‘We’ve been broke all these years and doing an excellent job,’ but the rules have changed. We need to be fiscally solvent.”

The national alumni association has launched a one-year, $10 million fund-raising campaign. Duncan’s region, like the other eight, has a mandate to raise $250,000. He was on the phone last week until 1:30 a.m., strategizing for upcoming fund-raisers.

“We do $15,000 traditionally on a yearly basis,” Duncan said. “Obviously this is beyond the normal thing. What we’ve got to do now is go beyond. As alumni, some of us just got comfortable just giving $1,000, when you should know if your home expenses are going up, the college’s expenses are going up.”

In Morris Brown’s case, there was a failed plan to give every student a laptop, infrastructure repair, a housing shortage that led to leasing hotel rooms, unpaid bills and other fiscal ills.
Alumni have said that they cannot undo the damage alone. Too much had been building for too long.

Billy C. Hawkins could relate—all too well—to Charles Taylor’s position last week.
Like Taylor, Hawkins walked into a troubled situation at Texas College, about 100 miles east of Dallas.

It, too, is a small, private Black college with religious roots—in this case, the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Church founded Morris Brown, while the Presbyterian church founded Mary Holmes.

SACS had placed Texas College on probation for not meeting its standards, most notably in the fiscal and academic arenas. Then, the college marked its centennial by losing its accreditation in 1994.

Despite the 60-plus violations the college had garnered, it did not close. But enrollment halved. The CME Church stepped in with $10 million to supplement the lost federal aid, but that was not enough to assuage parents and alumni, angry at the college and the church about how far things had gone.

A new president was brought in, the board rearranged and the school worked to address the violations. The reform president left for Wiley College, but there was still work left at Texas College when Hawkins arrived in 2000.

“The big concern was [SACS article] 6.3.1, financial stability and conditional eligibility. I know that like the back of my hand,” Hawkins said. “That’s the one that haunts HBCUs.”
He assembled a plan, slashing staff positions, tightening fiscal controls, increasing enrollment, launching a major fund-raising plan and continuing the academic reforms of his predecessor.

SACS granted Texas College another shot. He was given three months notice to have things in order and advised to have $1 million on hand by the time the visit occurred.
Hawkins worked with alumni and came up with heavy hitters for fund-raisers. He tapped into corporations and sold them his plan. By the time the SACS visit ended, Texas College had cobbled together $1 million and was on its way back to accreditation as of Dec. 10, 2001—about seven years after the school lost its accreditation.

Said Hawkins, “‘It was a great day,’ I said to alumni then—a day that this college never wants to revisit.”
So he could empathize with Morris Brown as he sat alongside other HBCU presidents, hearing the announcement at the San Antonio meeting.

“It was a blow to us all,” Hawkins said. “When institutions get into situations like this, you have to hold a lot of folks accountable, from the board to the leadership of the institution.”
Leadership and vision are the two components that separate the strong schools from those just eking by, said Robert E. Millette, director of the Global Studies Institute at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

The sociology professor recently authored a study of governance at HBCUs.
Those who clearly lay out the direction for the institution and involve students, faculty, staff, trustees and the community in the forging and delivery of that dream fare better, Millette said. Yet, his research showed that the autocratic attitude that some leaders hold works against colleges, leaving disgruntled employees and students.

“The Darwinian perspective applies directly to historically Black institutions,” Millette said. “Some of those institutions, in my mind, will not survive. And there is a tremendous need for historically Black institutions at this time.”

Established as centers to educate recently freed slaves and underserved people of color in the United States, a vast majority of these institutions began with a curriculum of basic reading and math, agricultural and technical offerings. Today they are noted for an array of program offerings, from aeronautics to law to architecture.

There are 116 historically Black colleges and universities–58 private and 46 public four-year institutions are joined by 12 two-year colleges. The Philadelphia region is home to three HBCUs: Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest such institution; Lincoln and Delaware State universities.

All colleges and universities face money-crunch issues. Fund-raising ensures basic operations flow smoothly and that additional activities—upgrading NCAA divisions, dormitory construction and the like—aid in competitiveness.

Public HBCUs tend to fare slightly better when economic times are rough. They have a stream of income not solely related to tuition, and students who cannot afford the sometimes more elevated tuition and fees at private schools stick more closely to home, said Delaware State University President William B. DeLauder.

Private schools, on the flip side, are always under the gun to raise funds. Some, such as Morehouse and Spelman colleges, also in Atlanta, do quite well while others teeter toward the brink annually. While financial oversight exists from the board of trustees, the consequences are not as adverse as those from the public sector. The laxness that sometimes results can be nearly fatal in the wrong hands, said Hawkins of Texas College.

And deficiencies have plagued public and private schools alike. Fisk University in Tennessee faced financial crises in the late 1980s and almost shut its doors. Central State University in Ohio had its own share of troubles in the 1990s. There are other stories.
Some have wondered aloud whether HBCUs are even needed today. The bulk of higher education in the United States is integrated, unlike the “separate but unequal” climate that launched many HBCUs.

But Blacks have not completely overcome, said Frederick S. Humphries, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. The Maryland-based advocacy group represents colleges and universities with significant Black populations. He pointed to the current U.S. Supreme Court case looking at affirmative action policies in Michigan.

“As long as the world is not right…the more you exacerbate the need for Black colleges,” Humphries said. “It’s not in the interest of the uplift movement and forging ahead for Black people that any Black college should disappear. We should be doing all that we can to invest in Black colleges.”

The future for Morris Brown and Mary Holmes is not clear. Morris Brown will have a SACS appeal this spring. Word from Mary Holmes has been mum thus far.
Closure is not imminent, but possible. When Bishop College in Dallas ran aground, it closed its doors in 1987.

“Whenever you lose an institution, you always regret losing it,” said William H. Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund. Its counterpart, the Thurgood Marshall Fund, raises money for public HBCUs.

“One thing is for sure, mismanagement and fiscal mismanagement always lead to disaster, and I don’t care what color you are,” Gray said “It’s tragic that Morris Brown is in the process of losing its accreditation, but on the other hand, they may emerge stronger from this with new management and new direction.”

Texas College can attest to that. Rebounding from a 281-member student body to enrollment past 600, the college is looking at adding a new gym and student center—and increasing its enrollment to 1,000.
“We don’t need to lose these schools at all,” Hawkins said. “We’ll just pray that they come through next year.”

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