Despite Morris Brown’s struggles, alums celebrate

Ronnetta Davis should have hung up her Morris Brown College cheerleading outfit in 2005, the year she graduated. But desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.

On Saturday, Davis will suit up again to cheer for the Morris Brown Wolverines as the 131-year-old school celebrates homecoming. But unlike the optimism, hope and careless fun that most black colleges’ homecomings evoke, Morris Brown’s comes with a cloud of uncertainty.

The African Methodist Episcopal-supported school remains mired in crippling debt and will soon have to reveal a reorganization plan as part of a recent bankruptcy filing that, for the moment, saved the school from going on the auction block.

The college is without a steady cash flow and has no academic standing since it lost its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2002. Only 36 souls make up the current student body.

That’s not enough to field a football team, which was dropped in 2002 along with all other sports. So the big homecoming sporting event is the Saturday alumni basketball game featuring radio station celebrities. With no cheerleading squad, Davis has been called into action.

“When we get together, we don’t think about the adversity the school is facing,” said Davis, who owns a local dance studio.

The campus was noticeably quiet Thursday. “You don’t see people running around and screaming, ‘It’s Homecoming!’” said sophomore class president Rashad Davis-Gladney. “But there is a lot going on.”

A decade of financial and academic struggle will do that to a school. With no accreditation and no federal dollars coming in, the school has had a hard time attracting students, many of whom counted on federal financial aid. With no students coming in, donations have all but vanished.

The school is $35 million in debt, and creditors holding $13 million in bonds secured by Morris Brown were days away from foreclosing on parts of the campus this summer. The school responded by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Aug. 25, which gave the college at least 120 days to reorganize and come up with a plan to provide a steady flow of income with which to begin repaying bond holders and others to whom it owes money — including several faculty and staff members.

College President Stanley Pritchett, who hasn’t been paid in three years, said the school was looking to raise more than $50,000 at a scholarship gala Friday.

As for Saturday’s festivities, “the status of the school is going to be in the back of some alums’ minds. But I don’t think that is going to be a major emphasis this weekend,” said National Alumni President George Hopkins. “This is homecoming.”

Economist Bill Dickens, a professor at Florida A&M University, is not so sure homecoming will be the answer.

“People who like to lean on (homecoming) nostalgia and sentiment obviously didn’t help Morris Brown… all those years. Where was the support then?” Dickens asked. “If a financial white knight rolls in at halftime with a check for $30 million, that would be great. … I know the probability of that happening is extremely low.”

Morris Brown was founded in 1881 by freed slaves, the only such school in Georgia. Over the years, the AME school flourished, serving 3,000 students at its peak. Its “Marching Wolverines” band was featured in the 2002 film “Drumline.”

But shortly after the film’s release, former president Dolores Cross was convicted of embezzling federal student aid to keep the financially struggling school afloat. She pleaded guilty in 2006.

Even before the threat of foreclosure and the bankruptcy filing, the school’s water was shut off, a dorm burned down and historic buildings were boarded up, including the multimillion-dollar football stadium built with Olympic money.

Bankruptcy papers show administrators, faculty and staff haven’t been paid for several months — yet they still come to work. Students, only 13 of whom live on campus in two single-sex dorms, pay $4,100 for tuition and an additional $4,200 if they get room and board — yet they mow the lawns on the second Saturday of every month.

Pritchett said the school is an applicant for accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.

In order to regain accreditation, Morris Brown will have to show financial stability and a series of clean audits, said TACCS President Paul Boatner. Morris Brown is not listed as a candidate for accreditation on the organization’s website.

Dickens said using what scant resources are available to barely keep Morris Brown open is “subsidizing failure.” He said the time has come for the school and the AME church to make some tough decisions.

“At the end of the day, when bills are not paid and faculty is working pro-bono, you have to come to the conclusion that it is time to pull the plug,” Dickens said. “Any financial metric that one uses to appraise the viability of an institution would conclude that Morris Brown has outlived its economic usefulness and should close.”

Closing Morris Brown is not without precedent, as other historically black colleges and universities have closed in the past. In 1988, Bishop College, founded in Texas the same year as Morris Brown, closed after losing its accreditation in the midst of a financial scandal. The AME church has closed at least two schools — Western University in 1943 and Kittrell College in 1975.

Most colleges that lose accreditation quickly close their doors, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. That Morris Brown has stayed open this long is “a tribute to the loyalty and affection of the people who work there, the Atlanta community and the institution’s alumni,” he said.

Morris Brown is expecting up to 5,000 alums to swarm the campus Saturday for homecoming festivities, including the parade, where the band — composed of students, alumni and community members — will march.

“As long as people know we are moving forward we will be fine,” said student government president Kareef Groce, who last attended the school in 1998, but has come back to finish his degree. “Morris Brown is not closing. We are here. Still standing.”