With $30 million of debt, 50 students enrolled, and a decades-long struggle, Morris Brown College filed for bankruptcy this week in an attempt to keep the institution from closing.
The college, founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1881, has a long history, steeped in the African-American struggle for justice and learning. Unlike most historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Morris Brown was not the product of white philanthropic support. Being founded by and supported by blacks allowed the college greater autonomy in terms of curriculum, but also crippled the institution in terms of its financial stability from the start.
Morris Brown is a treasured institution established by former slaves and with a rich history of educating and empowering African Americans. But Morris Brown has a problem; actually it has several problems.
First: The AME Church controls the institution, but it does not support the college in a manner that allows it to operate successfully. In order to function and get on its feet (steadily on its feet), Morris Brown needs the support of the AME Church in full.
Second: Morris Brown has a board, led by a bishop in the AME Church. This board does not have access to wealth, and its members do not personally contribute to the institution at the level that is needed. It is time to completely reconfigure the board, bringing on people who are aligned with the needs of the college — including its educational and financial needs, and the occupational fields of Morris Brown’s graduates.
Third: Although the small college has graduated some prominent alumni such as civil rights leader Hosea Williams and Pulitzer Prize winning author James McPherson, its alumni do not support it in any substantial way. (The alumni giving rate hovers at around 4 percent.) Morris Brown cannot survive without financial support from its alumni.
Fourth: Morris Brown is situated next to four other HBCUs, at least one of which is also not stable (Clark Atlanta). It must compete for resources (and students) in Atlanta with these other black colleges. Moreover, two of Morris Brown’s black college neighbors are among the best liberal arts colleges in the nation (Spelman and Morehouse) and at the very top of the 105 HBCUs, attracting large amounts of attention in terms of philanthropic support for African-American education.
At this point, with few people willing to support the institution, no accreditation, dismal enrollment and enormous debt, it is time for Morris Brown and its leaders to try something completely new or close the institution. Morris Brown leaders need to put students and education first. They need to partner with non-traditional entities and think in innovative, almost mind altering ways about student learning and student success.
Here are a few ideas that might accomplish the goal of putting students first:
●What if the campus was converted into a charter school focused on African-American leadership and its students fed into black colleges, including those in its backyard, and majority white schools across the country?
●What if Morris Brown joined together with Georgia State University, which is nearby, and became a junior college of the institution? (Oxford College has this relationship with Emory University in the same city.)
●What if Morris Brown focused on the first two years of college — in effect becoming a community college — and set up transfer agreements with other colleges in Atlanta and the rest of Georgia?
●What if Morris Brown gave its campus to the other HBCUs in Atlanta so that they could expand and grow?
●What if Morris Brown took radio host and HBCUs supporter Tom Joyner up on his offer of a few years ago and let him buy the campus?
●What if the college chose a single major, such as social work or education or public health, and then became the best at delivering that specific type of education?
With all of these ideas, there is no reason for Morris Brown to go it alone. There are plenty of national organizations that want to support charter schools, establish partnerships that increase minorities in public health and create innovative learning opportunities. Partnering with these organizations and capitalizing on their resources is smart and necessary at this point.
When these ideas or ideas like them have been suggested in the past, Morris Brown supporters and alumni jump up and say no, yet these same supporters are not willing to give substantially to the institution. There are only two options here: financially support the institution in a big way, or change course and turn the school into something else.
There are many people who might be wondering what role foundations and corporations have in supporting Morris Brown; the institution has received funding from them in the past. However, supporting Morris Brown today is a hard sell. Donors want to see stability, internal backing and success, and the institution has not been able to demonstrate its value and worth over the past few decades. In addition, Morris Brown suffers from the same problem that many small, under resourced HBCUs do: It does not properly tell its story to the larger world and as a result, potential students, likely donors, and the media do not understand its value and role in society.
The only way to keep Morris Brown College alive is for its alumni and supporters to invest in the college’s future and continue investing. Coming to an institution’s rescue only when it is in crisis does not work.
The case of Morris Brown is a wake-up call to all colleges and universities, and HBCUs in particular. African-American students in the 21st century have choices, and they will attend institutions with quality academic programs, extensive support services and financial and human resources. After years of doing research related to HBCUs and spending time on over 90 of the 105 HBCU campuses, I know their potential. For others that believe in the potential of HBCUs, it is time to support and do it consistently — year after year — with your time, money and voice. There is no other choice.
Marybeth Gasman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “Fundraising at HBCUs: An All Campus Approach” (Routledge, 2011) and “Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions” (State University of New York Press, 2008). She will speak at the National HBCU Media Summit in Baltimore on Sept. 7 to discuss HBCUs and their presence in the media.
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