Morris Brown fails key test; historic college loses its accreditation

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools announced its decision Tuesday. The news is a grave blow that could force the historically black school, founded in Atlanta in 1881, to close its doors.

Without accreditation, Morris Brown students no longer will receive the federal financial aid most depend on to pay their tuition.

But President Charles Taylor said he would appeal the decision and that he was upbeat about winning back the private school's accreditation.

"We are going to do everything in our power to make sure this decision does not stand, " he said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon on the Morris Brown campus. "SACS is going to make its decisions, and God is going to make others."

Taylor said a new team of administrators at Morris Brown had developed a plan to address the school's problems and debts, but he would not go into detail. He also said he had not received a copy of the full report from the accrediting group.

When asked whether the school is going to close, Taylor said the Southern Association "does not determine if the school is going to close. We determine that. This is a great and historic place. We've been here since 1881, and we're not going anywhere."

But accreditation officials said the problems facing Morris Brown ran so deep that they could not adequately be addressed in the next year. That left SACS no choice but to revoke accreditation, said Jim Rogers, executive director of the association.

"There were serious questions raised about the financial stability of the institution, " Rogers said.

The decision was made by a 77-member commission of college presidents from across the South.

"These are very difficult decisions, and [commission members] take all of the ramifications into consideration, " Rogers said. "The commission tried to look at every possible angle in reviewing the institution, but we have an obligation to our membership and to the public at large to ask that institutions that want to be accredited adhere to our standards.

"It was concluded by the commission that [Morris Brown] had not met the standards and did not have the potential for meeting the standards" in the next year.

Yanking a school's accreditation is the most serious measure that can be taken. In the last five years, only a handful of schools have lost accreditation nationwide, including Shorter College, a historically black school in Arkansas, and Sue Bennett College, a women's institution in Kentucky. Both schools closed months later.

It's unclear exactly what the commission's decision will mean for Morris Brown's roughly 2,500 students.

Students will continue to get financial aid while the school appeals the decision, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Jane Glickman said.

If Morris Brown loses its appeal, however, federal funds would quickly be cut off, she said.

To win an appeal, Morris Brown will have to show the review commission did not follow proper policies and procedures or that the commission acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner, said Rogers, executive director of the accrediting association.

An appeals committee of 12 college presidents from schools in the region will convene a one-day hearing in Atlanta to hear Morris Brown's case, probably in March, Rogers said.

If the school loses its appeal, this year's class of seniors will graduate from a college without accreditation, which could make it difficult for them to go on to graduate school or even get desired jobs.

"All of it has been utter disbelief, " 21-year-old senior Sharonda Hunter said. "People are wondering what they're going to do next."

News that Morris Brown had lost its accreditation stunned officials of the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for historically black colleges. Officials said they will have to remove Morris Brown from the fund's membership.

"This is a tragedy, " said William Gray, president of the fund. "A great, historic college that had such a wonderful mission of providing opportunity for low-income students has lost its accreditation. We can only hope that the new administration and alumni and the Atlanta community will come together to resolve the financial problems, so that their accreditation can be reinstated very quickly."

Under United Negro College Fund rules, when an institution loses its accreditation, it loses its membership immediately, Gray said. From March 1992 until March 2002, Morris Brown received $24.2 million from the fund.

Losing United Negro College Fund support is yet another financial blow for Morris Brown, which is $23 million in debt, according to President Taylor's estimates.

Federal investigators are looking into whether the school's previous administration illegally received millions of dollars intended for student financial aid and used the money to pay bills.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education ordered Morris Brown to repay $5.6 million in federal loans the school received for people who did not qualify, had dropped out or had never enrolled. The school has yet to agree to a plan to repay that money.

Alumni said they would rally behind the school.

Ulysees Baety, who graduated in 1960 and heads an alumni association in Miami, said he was "depressed, saddened and disappointed" to hear the news Tuesday.

"I'm disappointed that since we survived a prior crisis we didn't establish proper controls to see we didn't get to this situation again, " he said, referring to Morris Brown's highly publicized financial problems in the 1990s, when the school found itself $10 million in debt. "It's like we didn't learn anything from that. These problems did not creep up."

Baety's alumni association is planning a fund-raiser Sunday. "We made a concerted effort to make it our best one yet, and it will be."

--- Staff writers Ernie Suggs, Rebecca McCarthy, Add Seymour Jr. and Patti Ghezzi contributed to this article.