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Morris Brown, Historically Black College, Faces Possible Closure

By Alice Gordon, Staff Writer, The Atlanta Progressive News (January 07, 2009)

This article contains additional reporting by Matthew Cardinale, News Editor

(APN) ATLANTA -- On Saturday, January 03, 2009, Morris Brown College held their second fundraiser in two weeks in order to pay a water bill to the City of Atlanta.

The City of Atlanta has stepped up its aggressive collection of water bills across the city in recent weeks, with the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless another institution also threatened with water turn-off.

Judge Henry M Newkirk has allowed the school, having paid off over $160,000 in recent payments, to continue water services until February 17, 2009.

At that point they must pay the remaining $380,000 water bill.

Yesterday, January 06, 2009, the school barely avoided one of its buildings, Jordan Hall, being auctioned off. The school has fallen behind on its construction bonds, but the court agreed to give the parties another month to see if they can come to an agreement.

Meanwhile, the school raised $125,000 in just four days leading up to the recent rally, much of it from individuals, which was considered cause for optimism.

The alumni and staff are optimistic because the rally on Saturday raised $25,000.

"This is not a problem; it is just a challenge they are having right now in regards to the water bill," Dr. Vivian El-Amin Johnston, Vice President of Student Affairs, told Atlanta Progressive News.

"The Board of Trustees is very committed and optimistic about being able for pay off their debts. There is an 11-step process for getting back our accreditation and we have completed 10 of them. The last step has to do with financial accountability and we should be able to reapply for accreditation in 2009," Rhonda Copenny, Board of Trustees, said in a phone interview.

Yet, the school owes $32 million to its creditors. Much of that accumulated after the school became ineligible to provide students with federal student grants and loans.

Money for the school has been coming from tuition and private individuals.

"I am giving support because they are financially strapped. Me and my little group tried to raise money to help them out," Don Phillip, a rock producer at the event, told APN.

"Basically people need to come together as one and help out each other. By us coming out here we are giving people hope and faith that it can be done," Lil' Buck Smith, a rap artist, said.

In a recent rally by the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus held at the Georgia Capitol, State Sen. Emmanuel Jones and Rep. Calvin Smyre pledged $5,000 each to held Morris Brown.

However, these are desperate financial conditions for a college of this stature.

Morris Brown was the first college in Georgia started by African Americans in 1881. It offered all levels of education until it became a University in 1913. One of the things that distinguishes Morris Brown from many other historically Black colleges is that it was started not only for Blacks, but by Blacks.

It had a mission to educate the poorest, most underprivileged Blacks.

Now this mission cannot be accomplished without restoration of government funding or accreditation.

Prior to losing its accreditation, it was one of the four historically Black colleges in the Atlanta University Center, along with Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College.

Graduates include civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and Rev. CT Vivian, and four-time gold medal Olympian Angelo Taylor, who has himself donated $10,000.

Another graduate is former State Sen. Donzella James, who, as previously reported on Atlanta Progressive Blog, may be re-seeking her State Senate seat. The seat will likely become vacated by its current occupant, State Sen. Kasim Reed, due to his expected run for Mayor of Atlanta.

"Everyone seemed to work well together," James recalled. "Everyone was always willing to help, get someone to help tutor you, people to help study together. It was always like, what do you need help with? Okay, come over here."

"Most campuses, people dared ahead in their own work," James said, adding at Morris Brown, "Everyone seemed to have a lot of camaraderie with other students. I go on some of the campuses and people barely look at each other. At Morris Brown, it was like hi, hi, hi."

Many say the disastrous problems of Morris Brown date back to the administration of former President Delores Cross and Financial Aid Director Parvesh Singh.

They lost the accreditation of the school in 2002 due to financial problems, shortly after it was discovered the officials engaged in fraudulent government billing for students who were not enrolled and for those who dropped out.

The school was $6 million in debt in 2001.

Losing the ability to get government loans combined with lost accreditation has exacerbated the financial problems of the institution.

"Most of time when a school loses its accreditation, it’s not because of some management problems, but because students are not learning and they’re not educating students," James said.

"They had a strong enrollment, a strong graduation rate," James said.

James says the college was always at a disadvantage because it would make arrangements for students who were unable to pay for the full cost of their education.

"The financial problems came because many students couldn’t get there and they always tried to find ways to get them there," James said.

"They worked with you on your finances. It would be ironic they later would lose their accreditation over money. They allowed so many people there who couldn’t afford to go. They reached out to people and allow them, they were always ready to work something out to assist people in getting to school," James said.

Morris Brown also took in students who were less academically prepared and could not get into other colleges.

"A lot of people didn’t make it [at other schools], they had to have an A average, they had to make so much on the SAT or they wouldn’t even be looked at," James said.

"We know that we are looking for large corporate support. We are looking for large faith-based support. This is the beginning of a movement," Stanley Pritchett, President of Morris Brown College, said.

"How can a college sponsored by the African Methodist Episcopal Church be lacking in faith based support? How could corporate support have taken this long to solicit?" asked a staff member who asked to remain anonymous in an interview with the APN.

Some attribute current problems to conspiracy.

"The pipes underground are busted. The City hasn't fixed them. They are going to try to sell this property to developers," General Larry Platt, long-time civil rights activist and resident of Palmer House, said.

"There’s a lot of beautiful prime land and buildings on the campus of Morris Brown. It’s just been said some of the major corporations, like Coke and Ted Turner... have been trying to buy that for years and years, right there where the dome is. They tried to use some imminent domain on the campus for MARTA some time," James said.

"It’s right next to Vine City. It borders it," James said.

Broader changes in US society over the last century have also contributed to the woes of this school.

Civil rights legislation opened options for Black students and this reduced some revenue for historically Black colleges.

Also, the amount of government money for all college education was sharply reduced under the Reagan Administration.

"I don't think it is just the African American colleges. I think Caucasian colleges are also struggling to a degree. The entire economy is struggling. Whole cities are bankrupt and the City of Atlanta is trying to collect on its bills," Dr. Johnson added.

For now, Morris Brown is reopened for the Spring 2009 term. They currently have about 100 students enrolled, James said.

While Morris Brown students are still not eligible for federal financial aid, the Georgia legislature last year allowed students there to again receive the statewide Hope Scholarship, towards their education.

About the author:

Alice Gordon is a Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News, and is reachable is alice@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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