The Morehouse School of Medicine celebrated the grand opening this month of its National Center for Primary Care, a gleaming, $21 million brick-and-glass research facility seen as undeniable proof of the growing significance of the historically black institution.
Luminaries toasted the center, headed by former surgeon general David Satcher, as one destined to become a national leader in closing the health care gap that separates African Americans and whites.
But as the Morehouse medical school exults in the latest boost to its growing reputation, nearby Morris Brown College is locked in a desperate fight for survival.
The 117-year-old school -- which like Morehouse's medical school is part of the Atlanta University Center, the nation's largest concentration of historically black colleges -- is struggling to pay off more than $15 million in overdue bills, including $5.4 million in federal financial aid given to students who had dropped out or never enrolled in the school. The school's accreditation is in jeopardy because of its financial instability and questions about the number of faculty members who hold doctorates. Without accreditation, the school would almost certainly be forced to close.
The contrasting fortunes of Morehouse and Morris Brown reflect the current state of the nation's 105 historically black colleges and universities. Some are enjoying unprecedented prosperity, raking in record gifts and attracting increasing numbers of top-flight applicants. But others are confronted by financial and managerial problems, declining interest from prospective students and legal and legislative mandates that are forcing them to radically rethink their missions or even shed their black identities.
Over the past quarter century, as the number of black college students in the country has increased nearly 60 percent, to 1.6 million, about a dozen black colleges have closed, researchers said. Many other historically black schools, some with storied histories, including Fisk in Tennessee, Wilberforce and Central State in Ohio and Louisiana's Grambling State University, have been battered by serious financial problems in recent years.
Currently, six historically black schools, including Morris Brown, have been given warnings or placed on probation by accreditation agencies, mostly for financial problems. Still others are struggling with inadequate budgets, antiquated facilities, underprepared students and aging and underfinanced facilities -- conditions rare at most other schools. While Duke University has installed Internet connections in lamp posts, allowing students to surf the Web while camping out for basketball tickets, Morris Brown has at times struggled to keep food in the cafeteria and to ensure that faculty paychecks don't bounce.
This pressure has contributed to the departure of nearly a quarter of the presidents of the nation's historically black colleges over the past two years. "Some of this is people being worn out by continued financial crises," said Charles E. Taylor, Morris Brown's new president, who previously recruited candidates for administrative posts at black colleges. "Black college presidents typically don't have enough financial or support resources. That makes the job much more intense."
Beyond financial woes, some black colleges are simply victims of the times. Founded in segregation, state-supported black universities turned out generations of black teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals with only a fraction of the funding enjoyed by majority white institutions.
Efforts to boost funding in recent decades, however, often have been accompanied by increasing legal pressure to desegregate. Several of the schools are now predominantly white, including Bluefield State in West Virginia, West Virginia State College and Lincoln University in Missouri. Others, including Maryland's Bowie State University and North Carolina Central University's law school, now have substantial white enrollments.
Many of the 39 private black schools, particularly those located in isolated, rural areas, are struggling to compete for students, faculty and funding as new opportunities have opened for African American students and teachers.
Despite the serious problems, black colleges and universities continue to fill an important, if diminished, role in higher education. As recently as 1968, 80 percent of black college graduates earned their degrees at historically black schools. Now, those schools enroll 14 percent of the nation's black college students and account for 23 percent of those who receive college degrees, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. In addition, the vast majority of African Americans with degrees in engineering, computer science, life sciences, business, and mathematics are graduates of the schools.
"All black colleges, like everybody else, have had some difficulty with budgets being reduced," said Frederick S. Humphries, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a Silver Spring-based association of historically black colleges and universities. "But we are still the colleges of record for graduating our students and sending them on to graduate school."
Part of the black schools' appeal is their relatively low cost. In 2000-01, the last year for which statistics are available, the average cost of tuition and fees at private black colleges was $7,815, less than half the overall national average for private colleges, according to the United Negro College Fund, which has provided $1.7 billion in assistance to 39 private historically black colleges over its 58-year history.
The schools also have a reputation for providing nurturing atmospheres that allow black students to forge close relationships with faculty members and take on leadership roles more readily than their counterparts at other universities.
"There are very few places in the country where a black student can say 'this was built for me,' " said Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, one of the nation's wealthiest and most selective black colleges.
Officials at the school say that connection enhances student achievement. For more than a decade, tiny Xavier University in New Orleans has been the nation's leading producer of black medical students. At Morehouse School of Medicine, the student pass rate on the national medical licensing exam is higher than the national average.
"We are taking a chance on students, but not much of a chance," because many arrive with medical school admission scores at the lower end of the acceptable range, said Dr. James R. Gavin III, the school's president. "We are confident our students will be successful."
That success is helping Morehouse School of Medicine attract money and students, placing the school in the company of a select group of black universities that regularly receive multimillion-dollar grants to fund research projects and new programs. Other black schools that have done well in recent years include the separate Morehouse College, Howard University, Spelman College, Florida A&M, North Carolina A&T and Hampton University in Virginia.
Some black schools are now pursuing ambitious fundraising goals that were once unthinkable. Howard, which has an endowment of $324 million, has embarked on a five-year, $250 million fundraising campaign. Hampton has raised more than $200 million in recent years, and Morehouse College is in the early stages of its own capital campaign. Spelman, meanwhile, has managed to build a $220 million endowment while adding a $34 million science building and a $16 million fine arts center to its campus.
More black schools will have to become better at fundraising if they are to flourish in the future, experts say. Historically, the schools have relied more heavily or corporate and foundation grants than on alumni to raise money.
"African Americans have as much money as the world's eighth-largest economy," said Billie Sue Schulze, a former Spelman College vice president who used to coordinate the school's fundraising efforts. "But black colleges have been skipping a lot of steps when it comes to soliciting money from their alumni."
Schulze is overseeing a five-year grant from the Kresge Foundation to help the schools build their fundraising capacity. The foundation awarded $18 million to five historically black colleges to help expand, train and equip their fundraising staffs. Donations to each of the schools have risen significantly since the grant was awarded.
At Morris Brown, the new president is struggling just to ensure that the school survives. The college ran into deep financial problems under its former president when it expanded enrollment without increasing dormitory capacity, leaving students living in expensive hotels. The school also upgraded its athletic program to Division I, a costly mistake that left the teams with few home games and many expensive road trips, and reneged on promises to give students laptop computers for which they had paid.
Such problems have a disproportionate impact at many black colleges because they typically operate with a thin financial margin. In addition, some experts say, many of their boards include directors who bring neither deft oversight nor financial clout to the schools.
"There is a saying about governing boards and money," said William "Buddy" Blakey, a higher education lobbyist who serves on the boards of two historically black colleges. "Either give, get or get off." The boards of black colleges and universities have not always followed that wisdom, he said.
Founded in 1885 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Morris Brown has never had much money, but still has managed to mold generations of college graduates, many of whom entered with only marginal high school credentials.
"We provide a high-touch education, as opposed to a high-tech education," said Taylor, the school's president, explaining that students typically develop close relationships with faculty.
It is a sentiment shared by many students. "Morris Brown is a family atmosphere," said Johnecia Hardaway, a junior who hopes to be a Supreme Court justice. "The professors here will give you the shirt off their backs if they think you need it."
The future of the 2,500-student college will hang in the balance when Taylor and other college officials meet with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools next month to try to resolve accreditation issues. Taylor has developed a plan that calls for the school to refinance its debt, slowly pay back the misappropriated financial aid and raise an unprecedented $50 million -- 10 times the school's current endowment.
"All of our problems are serious," Taylor said, "but they're not insurmountable."