After fighting for more than a decade just to stay open, Morris Brown College has finally accepted reality. It must drastically change if it is to survive and thrive.
It’s too soon to say what the beleaguered school will look like or if proposed reforms will resuscitate it. But, for the first time since accreditation was revoked in 2002, school leaders acknowledge they can’t replicate what Morris Brown used to be. Morris Brown must become something new.
It likely will become a smaller school with less assets. Some have suggested that the school offer degrees unavailable at other area schools or target nontraditional students. A graduate class at the University of Pennsylvania, led by a respected expert on historically black colleges, has taken on the role of pro bono consultant. The group’s ideas include abandoning the school’s traditional four-year degree programs and instead becoming a two-year community college or maybe even a charter high school.
By the end of June, Morris Brown will finish part of a restructuring plan required after the college filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows reorganization and gives federal protection to groups unable to pay their debt. The school filed for Chapter 11 last summer, just days before creditors were set to foreclose on several pieces of property on campus.
“We are becoming a lot more realistic than we were before,” said William “Sonny” Walker, vice chairman of the board of trustees. “We’ve finally come to grips with what kind of support is out there for us. We couldn’t get the financial support to bring back the glory of the old Morris Brown, so we need to create a new Morris Brown.”
The school is about $35 million in debt and has no steady cash-flow. It used to enroll nearly 3,000 students but, with students fleeing when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools stripped accreditation, is now down to just 35. SACS faulted the college for gross financial mismanagement.
A couple of years before the bankruptcy filing, the water was shut off because the college couldn’t pay its bills.
But the college’s problems have been mainly financial, not academic. Morris Brown graduated 13 students May 18 and half are going to graduate school, President Stanley Pritchett said.
The natural question is, why students would choose Morris Brown? Some are attracted to the college’s legacy. It was founded by in 1881 by freed slaves and is among the country’s 106 historically black colleges and universities.
Rashad Davis-Gladney, a rising junior, came because the small classes make it easier for him to learn. He calls professors in the evenings and gets extra help.
“Everyone says, ‘What, Morris Brown is still open?’ and I tell them that we never closed,” he said. “There is a fighting spirit here, and that is an important lesson to learn. You can’t learn that everywhere.”
Pritchett said any turnaround depends on developing niche programs that don’t compete with what’s offered nearby at Morehouse and Spelman colleges or Georgia State University. He suggested hospitality and tourism as a possible new major with the possibility of students receiving hands-on experience off-campus.
The college is discussing selling or leasing some buildings or land. The campus has 16 buildings, but only uses four. Historic buildings are boarded up, and vegetation grows on the fence near the football stadium.
“We are trying to be receptive to new ideas,” Pritchett said. “We need to look at how Morris Brown can reinvent itself and still be relevant.”
This openness led Pritchett to consult with a graduate class led by Marybeth Gasman, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. About half the students in the consulting class earned undergraduate degrees from HBCUs. Gasman is finalizing the class’ private report, which covers everything from branding and fund-raising to enrollment and academic programs.
“There are some who want Morris Brown to continue as is, but I don’t think that is possible or realistic,” Gasman said. “For me, changing is the only realistic thing they can do.”
Instead of focusing on four-year degrees, the college could become a two-year community college and build strong transfer agreements with Georgia colleges and other HBCUs, said Matthew Nelson, one of the student consultants.
The college could evolve into a charter high school focused on special programs, such as math and science or the achievement of black men, he said.
Some question whether alumni would accept these changes. Turning into a charter school wouldn’t have much support, but alumni realize Morris Brown can no longer be the same place they attended, said George Hopkins, past president of the national alumni association and a member of the college’s strategic planning committee.
Other ideas include targeting special populations, such as returning veterans or those recently released from jail. Both groups have strong financial support from public agencies and private foundations.
While these changes are drastic, Morris Brown would remain an institution that educates and serves the community, Nelson said.
“The reality is, regardless of what Morris Brown ends up becoming, if it is saved, there must be a shift in the focus and mission,” Nelson said.
Those who doubt Morris Brown could pull off a transformation should look at Paul Quinn College, said that school’s president Michael Sorrell.
SACS voted to take away the college’s accreditation in 2009, but the small, historically black college sued to prevent it from going into effect. The battle and national attention caused students to abandon the school and financial support to dry up. But now the college of nearly 250 students is hailed as a national model of a turnaround.
“What is critically important is appreciating you are in a turnaround scenario and realizing there can be no business as usual,” Sorrell said.
The college demolished about 15 abandoned buildings. Sorrell eliminated the football team and turned the field into an urban farm to support the campus and local community and teach students about entrepreneurship. Revamped academic programs emphasize experiential learning, which allows students to gain knowledge and skills from experiences outside the classroom.
The school improved recruiting and increased Latino enrollment. The college struggled with fundraising, so Sorrell opened a center to teach students about giving and to train people how to raise money.
It’s unclear whether Morris Brown will take such a radical approach.
The college has applied to receive accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. Morris Brown will have to show financial stability before it can receive accreditation, Pritchett said.
“Who knows what would have happened if we tried some of these ideas 10 years ago,” Pritchett said. “We weren’t ready then, but we are continuing to strive and work to save this institution. We are ready to emerge like a phoenix.”
About Morris Brown
Founded in 1881 by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to serve black students, the college opened less than 25 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
Alumni include civil rights leader Hosea Williams and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James A. McPherson, along with Alberta King, the mother of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The college lost its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2002 because of gross financial mismanagement.
Dolores Cross, president from 1998 to 2002, pleaded guilty in 2006 to embezzling federal student aid money to try to save the school from financial ruin. Former financial aid director Parvesh Singh also pleaded guilty.