The perseverance of Morris Brown College: The aftermath of the withdrawMorris Brown College's Fountain Hall on the Atlanta University Campus (Special: Lord Aeck Sargent)
With their accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked, the prosecution of their former president, and the mountain of debt piling up, the Historically Black institution had to pull itself out of an ever-deepening hole.
By Allison Joyner
As the reaction to the only HBCU in Georgia founded by Blacks losing its accreditation spreads throughout the U.S., Morris Brown College never gave up on trying to regain its status in higher education.
Actor and comedian Teck Holmes was a student when former president Dolores Cross came to Morris Brown in 1998 from the University of Chicago. After leaving school before completing his studies to join The Real World: Hawaii, Holmes had high hopes for Cross and was upset that the misappropriation of funds happened under her watch.
“[We] thought everything was gonna be good,” said Holmes, “and all of a sudden, it just went down.”
Cross and Morris Brown’s former financial aid director Parvesh Singh were indicted on 34 counts of defrauding the institution, the U.S. Department of Education and students in 2004. She pled guilty to fraud by embezzlement in 2006, paid an $11,000 fine, and was sentenced to five-year probation with one-year home confinement.
“I owned up to the serious problems happening under my watch,” Cross said in an interview with Diverse: Issues in Higher Education while promoting her book Beyond the Wall: A Memoir in 2011. Once the financial mismanagement came to light, she took administrative action and thought that she put in place a “corrective plan” after the fact.
The sentence Cross received, though, was far shorter than the decades-long impact of her financial misconduct on the institution.
Picking up the pieces
With Morris Brown now going into uncharted territory, the board of trustees asked Dr. Samuel Jolley, the previous president before Cross, to help the school recover. The first priority was the students.
As a result of the loss of accreditation, students at Morris Brown were not eligible to apply for financial aid. Over eighty percent of the student body received assistance in the early 2000s, so those students had to make the painful decision to either transfer to an accredited institution or drop out altogether.
In a crisis, the board of trustees needed a plan to get the school back on track. One option was an offer from syndicated radio host Tom Joyner to purchase the college outright; however, the board did not feel comfortable with that proposal. After several rounds of negotiations lasting over two years, they agreed to accept a $1 million donation from Joyner and his Tom Joyner Foundation in 2004.
But it wasn’t enough. With enrollment falling to under 50 incoming students, the school was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2012.
Two years later, though, the school was given a lifeline. Invest Atlanta purchased the school for $35 million, which gave Morris Brown a clean slate to rebuild.
The president who could save Morris Brown College
Leadership became a revolving door after Jolley retired in 2006. The school went through four years of interim presidents before the board of trustees selected Dr. Stanley Pritchett in 2010.
Pritchett’s tenure had a stabilizing force on the institution desperate for consistent leadership. He served in the role for nine years until his retirement.
“It took me a few seconds to say, wow, I want to be the next president of Morris Brown,” James said.
Although his mentor warned him against seeking the presidency of an unaccredited college, James felt he was up for the challenge, having over twenty years of experience in higher education serving in senior-level roles for Strayer and Herzing Universities.
Now in the role for two years, James tells everyone that God sent him to Morris Brown to do the critical work of restoring the institution.
When he was in an interim capacity, James was able to have Morris Brown approved by the Georgia Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission (GNPEC), which authorizes and regulates in-state nonprofit and out-of-state postsecondary colleges and schools operating or offering instruction in the peach state.
Approval from GNPEC cleared the way for James and Morris Brown to apply for accreditation on the federal level. The school decided to apply through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).
This application process, however, required the school to examine itself critically, a task James saw as an opportunity. James likened the exercise to “writing a book on ourselves regarding who we are as an institution and how we meet all of the standards and requirements of the applications.”
At the beginning of this year, a peer review team from TRACS paid a visit to Morris Brown to evaluate the institution and last month.
James appeared before the commission that voted in favor of allowing Morris Brown to be a candidate for accreditation.
True to his promise of having Morris Brown undergo a “hard reset,” James is in the process of righting the ship. What will the future of Morris Brown look like? That story has yet to be told.
This is part two of a three-part series. In the last installment, James addresses the projects and donations to help Morris Brown’s historic journey towards reaccreditation.