Morris Brown College’s ‘Hard Reset’

April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Morris Brown's president Dr. Kevin E. James at Morris Brown College on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Morris Brown's president Dr. Kevin E. James at Morris Brown College on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATLANTA -- Kevin E. James called his work at Morris Brown College when he arrived as interim president in March 2019 as “the hard reset.”

For years, students of the Atlanta college have been unable to receive federal financial aid to help pay tuition, a major challenge since many come from low-income households. Morris Brown's accreditation was revoked nearly two decades ago after a financial aid scandal began a downward spiral that resulted in the college filing for bankruptcy. Morris Brown, which had an enrollment of approximately 2,500 students before the drama, currently has about 50 students.

The reset for Morris Brown, a private historically Black college located about a touchdown pass away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, took an important step forward a few weeks ago when an accreditation agency approved the college's application for candidacy status. Paine College, located in Augusta, Georgia, received a similar status from the same agency, the Virginia-based Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, in late 2018 before it approved its accreditation in October.

Morris Brown is not yet fully accredited, but its supporters are more hopeful about its future than they've been in years.

"People love a comeback story," said James, who is now permanently in the job. "It's a comeback where everyone gave up and said it's impossible and here we are reinventing history."

The challenge ahead

Still, there is work to do. The next steps, James said, include getting students eligible for financial aid, finding a major donor and completing the accreditation process. He also wants Morris Brown to rejoin the Atlanta University Center Consortium, a collective of the city's historically Black colleges and universities, which shares academic resources. There are also plans for a hotel to be built on campus.

Another task will be enrolling more students in an educational landscape far different than two decades ago.

The college can apply both to enroll students with federal financial aid and to participate in direct federal aid programs, said Timothy Eaton, the accreditation organization's president. If the federal government gives swift approval, students enrolled this spring would be eligible to use federal aid at the college for the current semester, he said. Federal officials had not received any forms from the college as of two weeks ago.

Nearly two dozen students filled out applications the day after the college's candidacy was approved, James said. He's not set goals for fall enrollment, saying he does not want to overload the college's resources. The college has no student housing, but is working with nearby apartment complexes to find 300 beds for those who want to live on campus.

Morris Brown's courses are being taught remotely this semester because of the coronavirus pandemic, but students are expected back on campus for the fall.

The college currently has four full-time faculty members and about two dozen adjunct professors who primarily teach courses in business, psychology and music. Its tuition and fees next school year will be $4,250 a semester. Its net assets were about $3.1 million, according to federal tax records for a 12-month period that ended June 30.

Comparatively, tax records show the net assets of Atlanta's three other HBCUs that offer bachelor's degrees -- Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman colleges -- are approximately $220 million, $266 million and $541 million, respectively.

Founded in 1881 by the Georgia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and named for one of its bishops, Morris Brown was the first institution of higher education in Georgia created by Black people for Black people.

In 2003, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked Morris Brown's accreditation because of the school's ballooning debt. Its president and financial aid director were put on probation after pleading guilty to embezzlement charges.

Morris Brown filed for bankruptcy in 2012, but the college continued to operate to the bemusement of some and cheers of others.

James, previously interim CEO of the 100 Black Men of America, said upon his arrival his goal was to regain accreditation. He got alumni excited by regularly posting updates on Facebook and setting ambitious fundraising goals. Accreditors wanted to make sure the college was on solid financial footing, and a key moment came in January 2020 when the AME church forgave the college's $4.5 million debt.

Schools seeking reaccreditation also need to show stability in areas such as student support services, curricula and student learning outcomes, said Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

It may take another year before the college receives its accreditation. When asked what he says to critics and skeptics, James said, "I don't say a lot. I show them what we're doing."

Hope for a different outcome

Morris Brown had a prior experience with reorganizing after financial turmoil. The school filed for bankruptcy in 1928 and restructured four years later.

This time, Morris Brown faces a far different educational environment. Many colleges are scrambling to find new ways to attract students amid enrollment declines resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Analysts predict college enrollment will decline statewide in a few years. Historically Black colleges are facing greater competition from predominately white institutions for Black students. By some accounts, Georgia State University now graduates more Black students than any school in the nation.

"Morris Brown has a rich cultural legacy on which it can build, but on its own, that will be insufficient," said Shaun Harper, a Georgia native who is founder and director of the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center. "It has to differentiate itself through culturally empowering curriculum, the hiring of Black faculty, multidimensional recruitment activities, and innovative academic programs."

James and others believe the college can carve out its own niche by being on the front lines of social justice issues. It was the first Georgia college to support a boycott of companies it believes weren't outspoken on the state's new voting law, which critics say will make it tougher for many minorities to vote. James said the college is also partnering with Covenant House to enroll 15 homeless, sex-trafficked youth this fall.

It’s also involved in a partnership that could bring a sorely needed revenue stream. Hilton and CGI Merchant Group, a real estate investment management firm with offices in Miami, Palm Beach Gardens and Toronto, are planning to build a hotel on Morris Brown’s campus in its old science building, a L-shaped, brick building next to the college’s administration offices. Construction is scheduled to start this fall.

Morris Brown will receive an undisclosed portion of the hotel's proceeds as a revenue stream. The school will offer hospitality courses, internships and train students who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. The partners in the project envision hotel guests who attend events at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, people visiting for homecoming and attending other events at the Atlanta University Center.

The idea of a hotel at the school came about through conversations between James, board member Cassius Butts and Euclid Walker, CGI's senior managing director, also a Morehouse College trustee. CGI has worked on some mixed-use developments and in December announced a $650 million fund to acquire and develop more than 20 hotels over the next three years. The partners include retired baseball star Alex Rodriguez.

"We really thought it was a great opportunity for CGI and our partners at Hilton to help an underserved historically Black college regain prominence and regain accreditation," said Walker. "We were attracted to that story because we felt it had a even greater social impact than if we did it at another school."

Nala Sarabi Miller, who plans to resume her college education at Morris Brown this fall, said she was also attracted to that story.

Miller, 21, was previously a student at Georgia State University, but didn't return last year when the coronavirus pandemic began. She believes being at a historically Black college like Morris Brown will be a better fit, along with its smaller staff-to-student ratio. Miller, noting the college's role as a backdrop in some movies and the use of its name in rap songs, described Morris Brown as "prestigious."

Her dad, Jeffery, president of the DeKalb County chapter of the college's alumni association, was by her side on a recent visit, carrying a jacket he already got her with the college's logo.

Miller said she's thinking about pursuing a degree in management, but will discuss her options with the college's registrar. She took dual enrollment courses in high school and wanted to know how many credits she'll be able to transfer to Morris Brown.

"That's the point. She wants to meet and we'll be able to figure it out," Miller said. "I won't feel like I'm figuring it out by myself."

---

Morris Brown College timeline

1881: Founded by the Georgia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and named for one of its bishops. It is the first HBCU in Georgia that was founded by Black people for Black people.

1912: The college receives a state charter and becomes Morris Brown University.

1928: The school's rapid growth and financial practices force Morris Brown into bankruptcy.

1941: Morris Brown joins the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of the area's historically Black colleges.

2003: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revokes Morris Brown's accreditation because of the school's ballooning debt.

2012: The college files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and erases tens of millions of dollars in debt.

January 2020: The African Methodist Episcopal Church board's Executive Committee voted to forgive more than $4 million in debt owed by the college.

November 2020: The Virginia-based Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools accepted the college's application for accreditation.

April 2021: TRACCS approved the college's candidacy for accreditation.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service

April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Exterior of Science building, where a new hotel is to be built in partnership with Hilton on Morris Brown College campus, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Exterior of Science building, where a new hotel is to be built in partnership with Hilton on Morris Brown College campus, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Morris Brown's president Dr. Kevin E. James (right) talks to incoming student Nala Miller (left) as father and Morris Brown alumnus Jeffery Miller listens at Morris Brown College on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Morris Brown's president Dr. Kevin E. James (right) talks to incoming student Nala Miller (left) as father and Morris Brown alumnus Jeffery Miller listens at Morris Brown College on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Morris Brown alumnus Jeffery Miller and his daughter and incoming student Nala Miller share a smile after they wore school jackets at Morris Brown College on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
April 21, 2021 Atlanta - Morris Brown alumnus Jeffery Miller and his daughter and incoming student Nala Miller share a smile after they wore school jackets at Morris Brown College on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In Other News