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A College Faces Its Greatest Test

Plagued by debt and bad management, Morris Brown, one of the nation's oldest black schools, fights to keep its good name.

March 15, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — While friends at other schools are enjoying spring break, Anthony Adams and about 350 classmates at Morris Brown College will don caps and gowns today for a graduation whose early date is just one sign of a campus in turmoil.

Opened in 1885 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and one of the nation's oldest historically black schools, Morris Brown faces perhaps its decisive test. Shaky finances and shoddy management prompted the Southern Assn. of Colleges and Schools to yank the college's accreditation in December -- a blow that would render Morris Brown students ineligible for federal aid as well as hurt their chances for getting into graduate schools.

Losing accreditation would also cost the school its membership in the United Negro College Fund -- which this month chipped in $1.47 million in emergency aid -- and ultimately could jeopardize the college's survival.

The school is appealing the decision. Officials decided to speed up the spring semester and hold commencement early to make sure their students finished the year and received diplomas before an important April 2 hearing on the appeal. After word of the accreditation ruling in December, about 1,000 of Morris Brown's 2,500 students transferred or chose to pass up the spring semester.

The pending appeal casts uncertainty over the graduation celebration.

"There's a lot at stake," said college President Charles E. Taylor, who took over in September -- after the school had generated big debts, allegations of improper spending and a low credit rating.

The school's travails place it in stark contrast to better-known Atlanta cousins, such as Spelman and Morehouse colleges, which have hefty endowments and sturdy finances. But experts say that although most of the nation's 107 historically black colleges and universities are healthier than Morris Brown, they tend to face greater challenges than other schools.

"Black colleges generally have a mission that tends to create financial stress. They are always trying to do a lot with a little; they have little endowments; most of their alums are not rich -- they're schoolteachers, managers," said William H. Gray III, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund. "Most black colleges don't have 200 living millionaires that can give large checks like white colleges."

Morris Brown officials are mounting an aggressive drive among AME churches, alumni and other groups to raise as much as $10 million to keep the school running while they straighten out the finances.

The school, whose alumni include Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James A. McPherson and the late civil rights leader Hosea Williams, owes at least $27 million. But administrators say a little more than half of that is routine long-term debt that they can manage.

They dispute an additional $5.4 million in debt that the federal government says was improperly doled out in financial aid to ineligible students. The rest, they concede, is red ink.

Taylor and the school's board of trustees have sought to cut costs -- the payroll has been trimmed by 100 positions -- and raise money. Tuition, about $8,000 a year, will rise 5% next year. Officials also have worked to stretch out debt payments. Two bankers are among a handful of business executives who have joined the board of trustees to lend their expertise to the school, whose campus of red-brick buildings sits near downtown Atlanta.

Those moves -- plus some additional reforms -- may be enough to get the college back on course, said M. Christopher Brown II, an associate professor and senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. "I'm 100% convinced that the situation Morris Brown College finds itself in is not insurmountable," he said. "It can be done. The question is, will it be done?"

Taylor said he hopes that the belt-tightening and fund-raising results will persuade the accrediting group that the school can recover. Even if Morris Brown loses the appeal, he said, it will stay open. Other schools have regained accreditation. Texas College, a historically black college in Tyler, Texas, recently did.

"We're going to be open," Taylor said. "We're going to continue to be an academic institution and continue the traditions we've kept for over 100 years."

In support, AME churches around the world have passed the collection plate, garnering $1 million for Morris Brown. Officials hope for $2 million more. Alumni have kicked in another $1 million.

Students held a benefit walk-a-thon at nearby Clark Atlanta University -- one of six institutions, including Morris Brown, Spelman and Morehouse, that make up the Atlanta University Center. Morris Brown students have dug into their own pockets for donations.

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