The perilous decline of Morris Brown College has been analyzed ad nauseum, but a rational recovery plan has yet to take hold.
As educators with deep ties within the black church and the black-college tradition, we issue, for the first time, a public call for an end to the further wasting of millions of dollars raised in the ongoing but ill-fated crisis-and-response exercise focused on re-accreditation.
We argue instead for the implementation of a radical reorientation of the college consistent with the aims of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Atlanta University Center to which Morris Brown belongs.
Morris Brown College should retain its name, its location, its history, its denominational affiliation and its position as America’s oldest college founded by blacks for blacks — but not as a degree-granting institution. The college should be re-missioned as a “residential college” in the British sense, serving a unique purpose within the A.U.C.
What is a “residential college” in the British sense? Students and scholars voluntarily affiliate with a college through selective admissions processes. Integration of faculty, staff, undergraduates, and graduate- and professional-school “tutors” occurs through intellectual, athletic, social, cultural and religious pursuits.
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The residential college approach works well in many contexts. In 2006-07, when one of us served as a residential tutor at Whitley College, the Baptist-affiliated college of Australia’s public University of Melbourne (and where author Jones’ late uncle, the Rev. Dr. William A. Jones Jr., lectured in the 1970s), he was energized by the twice-weekly, all-college formal dinners, including the tradition of “high table.”
Brooks Hall, a college-like residential community at Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Texas, summarizes this hallmark of college life in its recruitment materials: “Through its High Table, Brooks College embraces the practice of recognizing its accomplished members and distinguished guests by according to them a seat of honor. To recognize achievement, to honor distinction, and to cherish success — particularly the kinds that embody the apogee of Christian intellectual and spiritual life — gives concrete form to the ideals to which we aspire.
“It also represents a fine way of celebrating and encouraging one another, activities that no good community can do without.”
The clergypersons who control Morris Brown College as trustees surely appreciate the admonition from Luke 5:37-38: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Spelman, Morehouse, Clark, and Atlanta University — colleges continuously affiliated with the American Baptist, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ denominations — applied this maxim in recent decades and thrive today, two of them having merged interdenominationally.
Morris Brown, by contrast, was managed as if nothing new were happening, in spite of competitive pressures arising as by-products of the civil rights movement.
Re-missioned as a residential college, Morris Brown College would aggressively recruit and attract the finest students to the undergraduate institutions comprising the Atlanta University Center, becoming, once again, a respected, intellectual, self-sustaining destination.
Morris Brown would have as its residential and nonresidential tutors advanced students from institutions such as Gammon Theological Seminary, the Morehouse School of Medicine, and the Atlanta University Graduate School of Social Work.
Morris Brown’s valuable physical plant would remain in full use, with abundant chapel, library, athletic-field, dining-hall, practice-room, performance, lodging and conference facilities.
We conceive this re-missioned Morris Brown College as an esteemed undergraduate variant of the venerated and well endowed International House New York, where we respectively resided as graduate students in the early 2000s and late 1960s and served separate terms on the Board of Trustees.
Last summer, we approached influential Atlanta clergymen and two influential bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to proffer this way forward. Our letters remain unacknowledged.
Time is running out, and money is drying up. A.M.E. founder Richard Allen and his successor Morris Brown are turning in their graves.
If Morris Brown College closes permanently, it will not have died for lack of an innovative, efficient, and affordable way up; the college’s blood will be on the hands of its own board.
Amos N. Jones is a Washington, D.C., attorney who has served on a number of national education-related boards. Shirley Hunter Smith, Ph.D., is a 1962 alumna of Morris Brown College and an educational consultant in New York City.