Back From 2 Decades on the Brink

Atlanta HBCU spent nearly 20 years limping along without access to federal financial aid funding. Then its board chair gave an ultimatum: get on a path to accreditation or close.

January 12, 2021
 
Courtesy of Morris Brown College
Kevin James, Morris Brown's president, stands behind the college's campus sign.

Three things saved Morris Brown College, according to its president: God, alumni and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

After nearly two decades in bankruptcy proceedings, rebuilding a crumbling campus and seeking a new accreditor, Morris Brown may be back from the brink of closure. The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a national accrediting agency, approved the college’s application for accreditation in November. Pending a successful site visit by the agency this month, the college will become a candidate for accreditation after first losing its accreditation more than 18 years ago.

Reaccreditation could be a lifeline for the historically Black college. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, Morris Brown’s former accreditor, stripped the college of its accreditation in 2002 after a former college president and financial aid director were found to be misappropriating money from the Department of Education.

Without accreditation, Morris Brown no longer had access to federal funding, including federal student loans and Pell Grants. The college had enrolled more than 2,000 students but quickly lost them. Carrying millions of dollars in debt, the college filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and sold most of its campus in Atlanta.

In the last 19 years, the college never closed. It has operated as a shell of its former self, enrolling a few dozen students each year and leaning on alumni volunteers to staff its offices and keep the grounds. Some assume the college is already closed; Google suggests that people searching for Morris Brown often also ask “Does Morris Brown College still exist?”

When the college’s president, Kevin James, took the job, even his mother was surprised Morris Brown was still operating.

“I’ll never forget my mother asking me,” he said, “‘how in the world is the school even still open?’”

‘The College Was In Disarray’

James first heard the president’s job was available on TV a couple of years ago.

“My goal has always been to be a college president at an HBCU,” James said. “I was sitting at home, and I was watching the news, and I saw that my predecessor had resigned. It took me a few seconds to say to myself, ‘Wow, I want to be the next president of Morris Brown College.’”

The college needed new leadership, said Bishop Reginald Jackson, chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees and bishop of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“It made no sense that it had been this long and the college had not regained its accreditation,” Jackson said.

About two years ago, he gave the board an ultimatum: if the college was not on a path to reaccreditation by the end of the year, he would recommend to the Atlanta North Georgia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church -- the college’s church sponsor -- that they close Morris Brown.

The college had been limping along since 2002. That year, Dolores Cross, a former Morris Brown president, and Parvesh Singh, a former financial aid director, were accused of falsifying data and collecting money from the U.S. Department of Education for students who were never enrolled at Morris Brown. The two routed the federal funding to operational expenses, like payroll, which the college wasn’t earning enough revenue to pay. They never used the money for their personal benefit.

SACSCOC pulled the college’s accreditation when Cross and Singh were accused of embezzlement. The two pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges several years later. Singh was sentenced to five years of probation and 18 months of home confinement. Cross was sentenced to five years of probation and one year of home confinement. She also agreed to pay $11,000 in restitution to the Department of Education.

Cross published a memoir in 2010 reflecting on her career in higher education, her time at Morris Brown and her resulting house arrest. She told the Associated Press in 2011 that she takes some of the blame for what happened to Morris Brown, but not all.

“I just feel really bad for the college,” she told the Associated Press. “I would hope that what the memoir does is clear the air. I think Morris Brown can be saved. I think that it's worth saving.”

Years later, the first step on the path to reaccreditation was bringing in new leadership, Jackson said.

“I called in the former president and said to him that it was clear that Morris Brown was not going to regain its accreditation without new leadership,” he said.

Jackson said he persuaded Stanley Pritchett, the college’s former president, to step aside. Pritchett, who had been president for 12 years, formally resigned in December 2018. James started as interim president the following March.

James feels God sent him to the college, which was still in rough shape when he arrived almost two years ago.

“The college was in disarray,” James said. “Our financials were not in order; our processes, procedures and policies were outdated -- the college was in bad financial shape.”

The college’s utility bills were outstanding.

“I was amazed, because we hadn’t paid the light bill in over a year and the lights were still on,” James said.

Morris Brown was also in incredible debt, he said. Even after resolving its bankruptcy case in 2015, the college owed $4.2 million to African Methodist Episcopal Church. With the debt looming, James knew the college would never be able to get on top of its bills and pay operational expenses.

So he asked the church for forgiveness.

“If we’re going to save Morris Brown, we’re going to ask you guys to please forgive this $4.2 million in debt,” he told church leaders.

The church agreed on the condition that the college create a $1.5 million scholarship program for African Methodist Episcopal Church members. The church is one of the largest Black denominations in the world, and the scholarship program will help the college recruit new students in 2021, James told Atlanta Magazine.

Today, the college owns three buildings, one of which is operational. Fountain Hall -- a historical landmark home to W. E. B. Du Bois’s office -- is currently under renovation.

Morris Brown’s alumni association has been critical to keeping the college operational, said Jethro Joseph, president of the association. Alumni volunteers help with groundskeeping and administrative work. Some serve as instructors at the college.

At this year’s virtual homecoming event, the college raised $550,000. A third of that total comprised large gifts from wealthy alumni. Small donations from hundreds of other graduates made up the rest. About half of the money the alumni association raises throughout the year goes directly to the college, Joseph said.

Alumni support for Morris Brown never wavered, even after an embezzlement scandal rocked the college and pushed it to very nearly close, Joseph said.

“It was consistent,” he said. “The alumni continued to give.”

The Hard Reset

The 2002 scandal caused students, alumni and many others in the higher education industry to lose trust in the college. So transparency has been a priority for James as president. Morris Brown’s financial information is easily accessible -- its most recent audit is available from a dropdown menu on the college’s website.

Being honest about the college’s finances and path forward has helped rebuild the college’s brand, James said.

“I have been a transparent president. I don’t hide any punches or ignore our past,” James said. “That transparency has translated into folks supporting again.”

James calls the college’s rebranding campaign the “hard reset.” He likened it to wiping a cellphone clean.

In addition to refreshing its external reputation, Morris Brown has changed its personnel. In the four years that Jackson has served as board chairman, the Board of Trustees completely turned over, he said. It plans to bring on four new members next fall.

“We’ve gotten our governance structures in order. We’re bringing in new board members, a new CFO. We’ve got a new president, new faculty, new staff,” James said. “We’ve just completely turned this college around.”

Morris Brown’s application for new accreditation with TRACS, a national accreditor, was approved in November. This week, the agency is conducting a site visit to ensure that the college passes what TRACS president Timothy Eaton calls “the duck test.”

“They quack like a duck,” he said, “but when you actually go and see things on the campus, does it walk like a duck?”

If Morris Brown passes the site visit, TRACS could make the college a candidate for accreditation as early as April. The college then has five years to achieve full accreditation. Candidacy would allow the college to receive federal funding again, and students would have access to crucial federal loans and Pell Grants. Access to federal financial aid funding is important for colleges attempting to grow in size, because many students from low-income and even middle-income families cannot afford to attend without the support.

However, federal law stipulates that higher education institutions that have filed for bankruptcy protection are permanently ineligible for financial aid. The law was designed to dissuade owners of for-profit institutions from repeatedly filing for bankruptcy and opening new institutions, said Yan Cao, a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Morris Brown’s case is interesting because very few nonprofits have come back from bankruptcy, Cao said.

It’s unclear exactly how the college will navigate this issue with the Department of Education. James wrote about this concern in a letter addressed to college stakeholders on Jan. 5.

“Because we were no longer a participant in the Federal Financial Aid programs when we sought bankruptcy protection, we do not believe this law should prevent our current application plans,” James wrote. “We are working with the U.S. Department of Education to confirm this understanding and look forward to filing our application [to qualify for federal financial aid dollars] soon.”

James knows that even with accreditation candidacy, the college faces an uphill financial battle. But he’s used that battle to leverage support from alumni and others in the higher education community. He likened the college’s story to the movie Rocky.

“Folks want to see Rocky win, the underdog,” James said. “I translate it to a comeback story.”

The week after the college announced its accreditation application had been approved, it received 167 new applications from prospective students. Tuition is listed at $4,250 per year, but the college plans to increase that to $8,500, James said.

Despite the recent gains, Morris Brown remains far from reclaiming the operating scale and exact position in Atlanta higher education that it once did.

Morris Brown significantly downsized in 2014, when Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, and Friendship Baptist Church jointly purchased 37 acres of the college’s 42-acre campus for $14.6 million, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The church took two housing towers, the college gymnasium and two parking lots. Invest Atlanta took the rest, including the football stadium.

Clark Atlanta University, a nearby historically Black university, later challenged the sale, arguing that it had deeded land to Morris Brown for educational purposes 75 years ago and that it should be returned. In 2018, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Clark Atlanta, returning the 13 acres in question to the university.

When Morris Brown lost its accreditation, it also lost its membership in the Atlanta University Center Consortium, a coalition of historically Black colleges including Clark Atlanta, Morehouse University, the Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College. Membership to the consortium is contingent on accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, Morris Brown’s former accreditor. The AUCC board would need to vote to change the bylaws to allow Morris Brown to rejoin if it’s accredited by TRACS.

But even without formal membership, Morris Brown has continued to work with consortium institutions.

“It is important to note that despite Morris Brown College not being a current member of the AUCC, we regularly engage Morris Brown and its leadership and work together on issues of common interest,” Todd Greene, executive director of the AUCC, said in an email. “Recent examples of coordination include campus safety efforts and managing our approach to COVID-19. Regardless of its membership status in AUCC, Morris Brown is a component of the institutions that comprise the greater Atlanta University Center.”

Eaton, TRACS president, said that the accreditor is happy to be working with Morris Brown despite the college’s financial challenges.

The accreditation agency has worked with other historically Black colleges and universities when their prior accreditation has been threatened. Bennett College, an all-women’s historically Black college in Greensboro, N.C., earned accreditation candidacy with TRACS in December. Paul Quinn College in Dallas was accredited by the agency in 2011, and Paine College in Augusta, Ga., gained full accreditation with the agency in October. All three colleges had been struggling with their long-term financial health and turned to TRACS when their former accreditors terminated their accreditations. Paul Quinn has gone on to position itself as an innovative institution and win recognition as a turnaround story.

“We are a developmental accreditor at our heart,” Eaton said. “We try to engage institutions in that self-reflective process so that they can actually become self-directed and self-improving.”

The Morris Brown that applied for accreditation this year is nothing like the one that lost it 18 years ago, Eaton said.

“This is really a new institution,” he said. “This is resurrection.”

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