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An aerial view of the SAU campus

With McPhail’s dismissal, SAU becomes the latest HBCU looking for a permanent president.

Saint Augustine’s University

Saint Augustine’s University fired President Christine McPhail this week and also suffered a setback on its shaky accreditation status, according to statements issued by the SAU Board of Trustees.

McPhail told The News & Observer she was fired Sunday. While she said she was not given a reason for her termination, it came on the heels of a gender-based discrimination complaint she filed in October against the board, which she accused of yelling at and berating her.

Her attorney told the newspaper that trustees pressured her to drop the complaint after an alleged clash with board members, who reportedly threatened her with termination.

McPhail was hired as president of the private historically Black university in North Carolina in February 2021, stepping into the role after the death of her husband, Irving Pressley McPhail, who briefly served as SAU’s president in 2020 before becoming an early casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her contract was reportedly scheduled to run through February 2025.

In an announcement on Tuesday, SAU board chair James Perry said that trustees had “voted to release Dr. Christine McPhail from her position as president,” noting that the board “denies the unfounded allegations Dr. McPhail has made” against SAU. He did not address specific claims.

“The university will have no further comment on these issues given that this is a personnel matter. Instead, the Board is focused on restoring the university’s standing with [the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges] under new university leadership,” Perry said in a statement from the board sent Tuesday afternoon, alluding to recent scrutiny from its accreditor, which had placed the university on probation over financial issues.

Accreditation in Danger

But later Tuesday evening, Saint Augustine’s released another statement announcing that the accrediting body’s board had “voted to remove the University from SACSCOC membership.” The statement cited compliance issues related to its governing board and institutional finances but noted that SAU will remain fully accredited while it appeals the commission’s decision.

“The work has already begun to appeal SACSCOC’s decision, and we will remain steadfast during this process,” SAU acting president Leslie Rodriguez-McClellon, who was appointed earlier this week, said in a university statement. “While we are disappointed by SACSCOC’s decision, we are confident and unified in our commitment to fulfill and complete our mission.”

SAU officials noted in the statement that the university has increased its retention and graduation rates, added to its endowment, and balanced budgets amid improvement efforts.

“We will stop at nothing to ensure that SAU maintains its accreditation,” Perry said in the second statement sent Tuesday, noting that employees across Saint Augustine’s University are working collectively “to comply with all policies and procedures, advance the institution’s mission and division, and work collectively to place SAU back in good standing with SACSCOC.”

The accrediting body held its annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, where the vote to drop Saint Augustine’s was cast on Sunday, according to the SACSCOC website. A disclosure statement posted on the website confirms that Saint Augustine’s was dropped from the accreditor’s membership for compliance issues related to issues with its governing board and finances.

The SACSCOC disclosure statement notes that if Saint Augustine’s University chooses to appeal within 10 days of the vote, as board leadership has made clear it intends to do, it “will remain an accredited institution on Probation until the Appeals Committee renders its decision.”

McPhail’s firing means another HBCU is without a permanent leader, an issue experts have suggested is on the rise across the U.S. this year.

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