This was the Morris Brown campus in 2009. The interim president is working to win back the HBCU’s accreditation and reverse its decline.
Photo: Bita Honarvar / AJC
Photo: Bita Honarvar / AJC

Morris Brown: Can this college be saved? Leader says it can.

Interim President Kevin James sees federal Opportunity Zone as boon for the Atlanta HBCU

Today, Dr. Kevin James, interim president of Morris Brown College, explains the challenges the school faces and how the federal Opportunity Zone could help.

The AJC’s Eric Stirgus outlined those challenges in a story in March, writing:

Atlanta-based Morris Brown College's new leader is working on a plan to regain its accreditation, more than a decade after losing it due to financial aid fraud that nearly caused the school to shut down.

Because Morris Brown is not accredited, students are not able to receive federal loans and enrollment plummeted from its peak of about 2,700 students to less than 100. The college currently has 42 students, James said.

Morris Brown was founded by the Georgia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1881. It was the first historically black college and university in Georgia founded by African-Americans.

In his guest piece, Dr. James updates his plan to restore the campus.

By Kevin James

Two hashtags #restoremorrisbrown and #thehardreset. 

Located on the west side of Atlanta, steps from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, stands what remains of Morris Brown College. I am vested in working to save Morris Brown College as its new interim president. 

I know what you’re thinking—Morris Brown College? Didn't it close years ago? The answer is no. While it’s true the college did lose its accreditation in 2003 due to financial mismanagement and debt, the school never shut its doors and has been operating ever since. I will not allow Morris Brown to close.  

Our school now relies on volunteers and operates on a small budget donated mostly from alumni and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church gifts. Morris Brown is the first historically black college and university in Georgia founded by black people and has been operating since 1881. However, the college is holding on by a thread.  

Kevin James, the interim president of Morris Brown College, is working on getting the school accredited again. 

There is one thing I know for sure, God has been with Morris Brown College since the beginning and continues to be with us throughout a staggering number of challenges.  

We have had our share of financial challenges. In 2011 the college reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to pay $500,000 on its debt of $9.4 million; the balance was forgiven. In 2012 the college filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy owing $30 million, thereby erasing much of that debt. 

Our leaders decided in 2014 to sell most of the campus to Invest Atlanta and Friendship Baptist Church, which purchased 37 acres for $14.6 million. And just recently, the school’s only remaining operational building was severely damaged by fire and water, displacing employees.

Today, I am humbled to stand as the leader of Morris Brown College. My experience consists of higher education leadership, strategic management and vision, accreditation, championing community, and resources building.  

The immediate challenges we face are accreditation, financial stability and governance.  

Accreditation

My first priority is two-fold: 

Gain candidacy (pre-accreditation giving Morris Brown the rights of a fully accredited school) with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools within 12-18 months. TRACS is approved by the Department of Education and eligible for Federal Financial Aid. In April I traveled to Virginia to go through the required orientation to become an official correspondence school. We are now formally working on our application for accreditation. My goal is candidacy by October 2020. 

As a candidacy school, Morris Brown's students will be eligible for financial aid, and we’ll be thereby able to rebuild student enrollment. 

To achieve the first, the second part of this priority is just as important—raise fiscal resources and ensure processes are in place that are sufficient to fulfill our mission as well as respond to future challenges and opportunities. This, too, will be an uphill battle and we will need to prove the institution’s finances are adequate to support the staffing, facilities, equipment, materials, and support services.  

Governance/Leadership

In my first 100 days, we have stabilized our leadership team. Dr. Gloria Anderson, who has been dedicated to Morris Brown College for an amazing 52 years, serves as our vice president of academic affairs. I recently hired a new chief financial officer; both roles are critically important.

I am hard at work collaborating and working with our Board of Trustees, which recently held elections and added several new dynamic leaders. Our board will assist in finding and developing new fundraising sources to diversify our revenue streams.  

Additionally, I created a President Advisory Board to advise on critical issues. This phenomenal group of diverse leaders will offer support to me, the institution, administration and faculty. Our new advisory board consists of 16 high-caliber local and national leaders who have specific skills critical to help me strategize the resurrection of the school.  

Saving Morris Brown College requires more than rallying alumni and corporate backers to support the college in traditional ways. It requires a boldness to consider and implement new approaches to financial stability—one such way is maximizing the fact that we are located in an opportunity zone. 

Maximizing Opportunity Zone

One of those bold approaches I’m excited about is federal Opportunity Zones, a new community and economic development tool designed to foster long-term private investment into low-income communities throughout the country. Of the 260 Opportunity Zones in Georgia, 26 are in the city of Atlanta, and Morris Brown College is located in one of them—the Atlanta University Center zone. 

A provision of the 2017 tax law, the zones offer companies seven years to defer or reduce capital gains taxes in exchange for their investment in impoverished communities. The zones were created as part of legislation written by Republican and Democratic leaders and signed into law by President Donald Trump as part of the tax bill. The idea is for Opportunity Zones to bring financial resources, construction, affordable housing and jobs to areas desperate for stimulation and development. 

My vision for Morris Brown College is establishing corporate partnerships via the Opportunity Zone on our campus that will be a win-win for all. I am willing to partner with a company to build on our campus. While the opportunity can take many forms, the bottom line is that we benefit by a much-needed financial infusion, the business gets the tax break and our community is enriched.  

This is a pivotal time for Morris Brown College as we diligently work to reposition the college to her rightful place among the great institutions of higher learning. Leveraging the Opportunity Zone poses real promise for our school, our current students/faculty/staff and those who will receive the finest higher education here in the future.  

The time is now to save Dear Ol’ Morris Brown College. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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