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Morris Brown Hanging On In Wake of Scandal

Morris Brown Hanging On In Wake of Scandal
With trial of former president behind it, school looks to rebound.

By Add Seymour Jr.

Three years ago, the massive crowd at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, on hand to witness the Honda Battle of the Bands, got a huge surprise.
Ripe from huge exposure during the collegiate coming-of-age film “Drumline,” the Morris Brown College Marching Band shocked the cheering crowd by strutting onto the field at the very end of the competition.

But they didn’t play a note. That’s because at the time, Morris Brown College didn’t actually have a marching band. In fact, the 125-year-old institution really didn’t have enough students to fill a section of the Georgia Dome, much less the roster of a full marching band.

The AME-affiliated school, part of the Atlanta University Center and its cradle of historically Black institutions that includes Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, was reeling.

The school’s accreditation was yanked after a financial scandal that left Morris Brown deep in debt, with no federal funding and few students.
Former president Dolores Cross pled guilty in federal court to embezzlement for misusing school financial aid funds. She could face prison time when she is sentenced this August. Her chief financial officer at the time, Parvesh Singh, was also found guilty and could also end up in jail.

Both admitted to acquiring federal financial aid money for students who weren’t actually enrolled on campus. The money was used to help keep the institution financially afloat, not for personal gain.

The events of Cross’ tenure, from 1998 to 2002, was the final straw for the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools, which stripped the school of its accreditation status in December 2002. That move
left students unable to receive federal financial aid funds — at an institution where 90 percent of the students relied on some sort of aid.

So Morris Brown, an institution reveling in newfound fame from a movie depicting it as a bustling cradle of intelligentsia, is now just struggling to survive. The lights are on in only a few of the campus’ buildings and less than 70 students were studying on campus during the last academic year.

“It’s obviously in dubious shape,” says Virgil Hodges, a 1953 graduate and member of the school’s board of trustees.

Since its beginnings in 1881, Georgia’s only college started by and for Blacks, has prided itself on accepting students who were “diamonds-in-the-rough” and turning out highly polished graduates.

Some of those graduates include Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson and Dr. Hosea Williams, one of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s main foot soldiers in the civil rights movement.

But Morris Brown’s main reclamation project over the years has been the school itself.

Financial hardship has historically dogged the school, while less than a mile away, Morehouse and Spelman continually court deep-pocketed donors and maintain multimillion-dollar endowments.

Morris Brown’s endowment plunged to zero after the latest financial crisis, says Getchel L. Caldwell, the school’s vice president for institutional advancement. Alumni gift giving that reached $5 million just after the loss of accreditation, was only $203,189 in 2004.

Morris Brown now offers programs in management and entrepreneurship and technology for traditional students and a program for adult education students. The school is also currently in the midst of a search for a new president after Dr. Samuel Jolley, a former president who returned to the helm in 2003, retired this past January. Less than 20 people work full time at the school, which, according to federal documents, only has nine professors.

Caldwell, part of a three-person management team now running the school, says the mood on campus is anything but dire, despite a $27-million deficit that includes $5.4 million owed to the U.S. Department of Education. 

“The mood is working and keeping the pieces together,” he says. “We’re going in to try to negotiate since the [Cross-Singh] trial is over. So we are pursuing negotiations with the Department of Education.”
The rest of the debt consists mainly of both long- and short-term bills that had not been paid over the years, he says.

If things weren’t bad enough, three lawsuits have been filed against the school, two by groups of former students. One is a class-action suit by a group of students whose credit status was directly affected by the financial scandal. Another is by a group of former students challenging the institution’s board of trustees, who they want to step down.

The third lawsuit is an attempt to foreclose on three of the school’s buildings, including the administrative building. All three suits are pending, and school officials are not commenting on the legal issues. What they are doing is positively looking towards the future. The school intends to negotiate payment plans with creditors, and officials are also courting donors and alumni for gifts.

He says there were 500 new student applications this year and they are expecting to have 107 students on campus in the fall.

“The good news is the reviving of interest in the college after the trial,” he says. “And the AME church has been phenomenal, led by the head of our board of trustees, the Rev. William P. Deveaux.”

Hodges says Morris Brown’s survival isn’t only important to other Wolverine alums.

“When we lose a Black college, it’s not like another is opening around the corner,” he says. “I’m hopeful we’ll recover.”

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