A couple months back I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on the dire situation at Morris Brown College. The institution has lost its accreditation, is $30 million in debt, and has an enrollment of only 50 students. After reading the op-ed, the president of Morris Brown, Stanley Pritchett, contacted me.
Often when HBCUs, as well as other colleges and universities, are under fire, they do not talk to the media. I think this is a mistake. I believe it is vital to walk up to your battles and take them on directly. And, if HBCUs do not communicate their stories, others will do it for them. During our conversation, I asked Pritchett if I could interview him about the situation at his school. He agreed.
The first question I asked the president was why Morris Brown College has struggled for so long, and why it continues to struggle.
“Morris Brown’s greatest challenge is fighting history. In the grand scheme of things, $30 million in debt is not a great amount. In fact, Mitt Romney earned more than that last year; a greater amount was raised in about one week when the [Martin Luther] King papers were purchased by Morehouse College. But it is a great amount to us as we struggle to stay afloat. If we could raise that much money, we could not only solve all of our debt problems, but also get a push toward the future,” Pritchett said. “When people look at our past financial woes, which have been great, many supporters are not willing to step forward until they see tangible progress. However, there can be little progress if there is little financial support. We need more supporters to step forward and say, ‘Morris Brown has too much to offer to fail. I’m going to do what I can to see that, that does not happen!’”
Pritchett is correct in his assertion that donors want to see results before contributing, but if alumni truly believe and want the institution to exist (and are resistant to the alternatives suggested for the college), they have to give consistently, during good and bad times. There’s no other choice.
Pritchett blames poor leadership for some of the institution’s problems. I agree.
“We are challenged by leadership, including myself. Because of poor decision making in the past, the school is where it is today,” Pritchett said. “I feel in a very real sense that I am on a mission. One of my brothers who died in 2000 graduated from Morris Brown, and I feel that he is watching over me and the college; he is urging me to save his school. So I have a personal investment in the college.”
Often times when I am giving a talk related to HBCUs, someone will ask me, “Why do we need some of the smaller, less stable HBCUs such as Morris Brown College?” As Morris Brown continues to be in crisis, this question becomes more difficult to answer. I asked Pritchett the same question.
He responded: “I feel that Morris Brown is an essential part of the HBCU scene. Education is a top priority for African Americans; yet, too many of us do not have the resources needed to get a higher education. Historically, approximately 95 percent of Morris Brown’s students have been eligible for and received some type of financial aid. Many of them were first generation college students, looking to start a new ‘tradition’ in their family. Now, however, since we are not eligible for federal funds, grants and other sources of aid, numerous students make the decision not to attend college at all.
“I also feel that Morris Brown is essential because of the nurturing environment we offer our students. While we, like all colleges, make appeals for the best and the brightest to attend our school, we have also welcomed students who might not have a stellar academic record in high school but who, as ‘late bloomers,’ developed a desire to attend college and have the potential to be successful college students. Morris Brown has been willing to take a chance on these students.
“There are no new HBCUs.Each time we lose one, we are closing the door of higher education for thousands of students (and not just African-American students) who, if they had had an opportunity, could have had a brighter future.”
Although Pritchett makes a convincing argument, I continue to question Morris Brown’s ability to bounce back and provide an effective education to its students given its current condition.
If the institution does not seek an alternative path, how will it continue to survive?
Pritchett said: “When people say that Morris Brown should give up and close, I want to ask the naysayers several questions. First, what would our fathers who envisioned our educating our OWN children, say? Would they believe that their efforts were in vain? Second, why should we limit the possible opportunities for our young people, especially those who, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to go to other larger schools which, in many cases, are not as committed to seeing OUR children succeed?
“Next, don’t you want to see more and more of OUR children walking away from college with degrees which will usher them into a better life situation, especially students whom others might have doubted would be successful in college? Then, do you want to see all of the efforts put forth by faculty, staff, students and supporters, all of the sacrifices they have made to keep our college afloat, and all of the money they have raised to help us keep our doors open, be for naught?”
Pritchett is filled with passion for Morris Brown, but I do not hear him thinking in non-traditional ways about the institution. Overall in the HBCU community — save a few institutions — there is a resistance to making major changes. For the stronger HBCUs, sticking to what has worked is smart. But for those institutions that are struggling in various ways, a major change needs to happen; the status quo is not working. As all HBCUs are unique, these changes should be based on context, resources and external support.
Although I’d like to see Morris Brown College move forward as a four-year liberal arts college, at this point, I do not see this happening. It seems that embracing a new future might be the best strategy. As I have said before, I think concentrating on one dynamic major or becoming a strong two-year feeder school for other colleges might result in greater success. However, before anything can happen, the alumni need to seriously rally together with their voices and the checkbooks behind Pritchett. He has the will to save Morris Brown. Let’s give him the way.
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).
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