LeMoyne-Owen College Claws Back From the Brink
Major financial gifts, debt restructuring adds to momentum.
By Natalie Y. Moore
LeMoyne-Owen College can do little in the next month or so but await its fate. Placed on probation and on the verge of losing its accreditation, the historically Black liberal arts college has made required changes to its faculty and finances and laid the foundation for a massive fund-raising campaign — all in an effort to keep its accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools visited the college last month and will make a decision on its future in December.
“I’m pretty optimistic,” says board of trustees chairman Robert Lipscomb. “These folks have made a lot of progress in a short time.”
SACS put the college on probation last December for failure to employ competent faculty members and for a pattern of financial instability. LeMoyne-Owen has suffered from declining enrollment, aging facilities, high leadership turnover and accumulating debt. The college has an endowment of $11 million — about the same as its annual operating budget.
Adding to the cash burden is the fact that 98 percent of its students receive some form of financial aid.
According to Lipscomb, the board had been mired in trouble and turmoil. Five presidents have served during the past 20 years, and in August the board hired retired Memphis public schools superintendent Dr. Johnnie B. Watson as interim president.
In its 2005 findings, SACS ruled that the business school did not have enough faculty members with doctorates. Commission standards require that 25 percent of the courses be taught by professors with terminal degrees. Watson says 50 percent of full-time business faculty now have doctorates.
Major financial gifts bestowed this year “came in the nick of time,” Watson says. An anonymous donor gave $1.5 million with a pledge of another million, which was used to conclude last school year with a balanced budget. Also, the United Church of Christ donated $500,000.
The college has reduced the budget by $900,000 through nearly two-dozen layoffs. It has also hired a fund-raising consultant on a commission basis and restructured its debt, including a $2 million loan from 2000 that has since grown to $7 million. Instead of paying principal every year, LeMoyne-Owen will now treat the debt as a long-term loan.
Watson says there is momentum for helping the college, which he hopes will translate into significant check writing. The fund-raising efforts, he says, will draw upon the corporate and philanthropic communities in Memphis.
“If LeMoyne-Owen was a sinking ship, I don’t think the anonymous donor would have pledged,” he says. Watson and Lipscomb say media reports about the anonymous donation coming with a stipulation that the board of trustees resign were wrong. Lipscomb says that a board meeting over the summer included a discussion about the group resigning amid a buildup of tension and challenges in fundraising, but that his comments to the media about the resignations were “misunderstood.” He says the mass resignation proposal was scrapped in favor of restructuring, including adding eight new trustees to help with fundraising.
If SACS is satisfied with the college’s progress, the commission can reaffirm accreditation. It can also continue the probation or deny accreditation outright, which would prevent students from receiving federal financial aid.
Lipscomb and Watson, both LeMoyne-Owen alumni, say the institution needs to fine tune its long-term mission and assess its curriculum. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission has been tapped to look at the college’s academic offerings.
Competition for students from other universities has negatively affected LeMoyne-Owen’s population, Lipscomb says, but the college continues to serve a niche market. The college currently enrolls 714 students — down from 852 two years ago — and is comprised of mostly commuters and low- to moderate-income students.
“The public schools [in Memphis] are still segregated,” Lipscomb says. “There are still a lot of kids who need that one-on-one attention. There’s a cultural connection that we provide. We understand the struggles.”
The United Negro College Fund, of which LeMoyne-Owen is a member, has stepped in to offer support.
“The issues LeMoyne-Owen is facing are in some ways generic to small liberal arts colleges that don’t have large endowments and active fund-raising programs,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF’s director and CEO. “Our HBCUs have been traditionally challenged to do more with less, and over time, that is an onerous burden.”
Dr. Cheryl Golden, a psychology professor at LeMoyne-Owen, says morale has been low at the college but is picking up. She says there had not been a balanced discussion among the board of trustees, faculty and the administration.
“We’re at a place where each element is talking to each other in the right way,” Golden says. “We’re more on the same page. The roles of each [are] being respected in ways that weren’t before.”
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