New Hope for College on the Brink

Financially strapped LeMoyne-Owen College gets three-year gift from Memphis City Council, but some wonder if it's a good investment.
June 11, 2007

By the start of next calendar year, employees and students at LeMoyne-Owen College, who have grown used to uncertainty, should have a better sense of the historically black college's future.

Whether LeMoyne-Owen will emerge from its prolonged financial crisis will depend -- in the short term, at least -- on the benevolence of others. The college received a major boost last week when the Memphis City Council agreed to give $1 million in each of the next three years. But the council's decision was not unanimous, and at least one member indicated that he didn't think investing in LeMoyne-Owen was a wise choice.

Johnnie B. Watson, LeMoyne-Owen's interim president, said the city's money will go toward paying basic bills. The college still needs another $1.5 million by the end of the month to balance this year's fiscal budget. It has already drawn down the endowment to nothing and is relying on emergency funds from several sources to stay afloat.

Another pressing concern is full-time enrollment. LeMoyne-Owen has 589 students, down from its 1997 total of roughly 1,000 -- a mark the college needs to eventually reach again to meet expenses, according to its chief financial officer.

All this comes as the Southern Association of College and Schools prepares in December to decide whether to pull the college's accreditation. The group placed LeMoyne-Owen on probation in 2005, and continuing budget woes might spell trouble.

"We're optimistic we are going to meet our financial goals before that meeting so that we don't have to go into a great cumulative debt," said Watson, who began in August after years as a college trustee. "The board is taking the position that the college is going to remain open, and that's the position I'm taking."

Watson, who has admitted that the college has a recent history of poor management, said the city's donation should be a catalyst.

“I don’t know of a stronger message that could have been sent than what the council did," he said. "A lot of groups were waiting to see what it would do, and since the decision we've already had a lot of activity."

But Jack Sammons, a Memphis City Council member, isn't convinced that a turnaround is imminent. He told WMC-TV in Memphis that "the management of the school has demonstrated time after time that they're inept in maintaining finances of the school and I think it is the definition of stupidity for us as a local government to continue to fund bad management ... I think we've got to strategically think for LeMoyne-Owen, not just provide a band-aid that we'll cover for another 90 days."

Still, a group of alumni, students and city leaders are pressing ahead with a fund raising campaign directed largely at local businesses and churches. In the meantime, LeMoyne-Owen's Board of Trustees have passed a new plan that includes developing stronger academic programs in, among other fields, business administration, public health and social services -- the idea being to draw more students and keep them working in the region.

Watson said the college is also hoping to work with the Memphis City School system, whose superintendent serves as a LeMoyne-Owen trustee, to operate a teaching center at the college. It would be part of a new emphasis on urban education.

Another idea floated by trustees is to outsource remedial education to Southwest Tennessee Community College, which would decrease some of the college's expenses.

Watson said the college has suffered along with other historically black institutions as students and donors decide to go elsewhere. "There are some who feel that there are ample opportunities for black students now, so why give to us?"

Michael Lomax, head of the United Negro College Fund, which aids private black colleges, like LeMoyne Owen, has said the college's struggles aren't out of the ordinary. He has pointed to competition from less expensive public colleges in the region. LeMoyne's annual tuition and fees are $10,318.

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