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Spending smart – economic restructuring of Morris College

Behind his back, Morris College alumni refer to the president of the small, Black Baptist college in Sumter, SC, as “the survivor.” It is a respectful nickname that has been earned by staying power — more than two decades at the helm — and an ability to financially right an institution that was sinking fast.

Morris President Luns C. Richardson enjoys the nickname and knows that it fits, but probably not as well as “proven fund spender” — his personal favorite.

“So often, I see advertisements announcing that the board of trustees of a particular college is seeking to fill a vacancy in the presidency and that one of the principal characteristics being sought in a prospective candidate is that he or she is `a proven fund raiser,'” wrote Richardson in a lengthy document marking his 15th anniversary as the college’s chief executive.

“I have always believed that it was more important for the president to be a proven fund spender … than a proven fund raiser, and I have always given particular attention to the matter of controlling expenditures to ensure a balanced operating budget.”

Richardson’s wish is that someday his secret for success — knowing how to spend and monitor institutional funds — will be adopted by others in the higher education community.

The former high school principal began applying his fiscal survival techniques to Morris in 1974, when he inherited what was then a staggering $500,000 debt. The college’s fiscal woes were compounded by its not being accredited. The institution couldn’t attract enough students or corporate dollars to keep it afloat.

“Student enrollment was about 242 upon my arrival,” says Richardson, retelling the story of the college’s fiscal turnaround. “Upon my arrival, I studied the situation. My first priority was to get more than a half-million [dollar] debt paid.”

The Internal Revenue Service usually doesn’t allow much room for negotiation, but Richardson worked out a timetable for paying back the $300,000 owed the government. As for the other creditors, largely private vendors, Richardson persuaded many to write off the debt for tax credits or establish a payment plan for eventual settlement.

Within three years the entire debt was liquidated. In addition, the college was able to accumulate a $120,000 reserve — as well as apply for institutional accreditation.

For Richardson, gaining accreditation ranked high with becoming fiscally healthy. As part of his initial five-year plan developed as part of the accreditation process, officials had to “stabilize the budget, increase enrollment, hire more faculty with doctoral degrees, boost library holdings and institute faculty retirement programs and personnel benefits,” Richardson said.

The Personal Touch

Morris has remained debt-free since the hard years that ended in 1977. The college’s claim to fame — being “a model of financial stability” — is a heady pronouncement for any institution of higher learning today — especially for one so small, historically Black, “family-oriented” and church-related.

Morris has grown from a couple of hundred students in 1974 to more than 900 today. “That’s a great deal for a small school,” said the Rev. Ed F. Johnson, president of the Baptist Education and Missionary Convention of South Carolina and pastor of Morris Chapel Baptist Church in Greenwood, SC. “We could do better, but we don’t have anywhere to put them.”

The campus is still small enough for Richardson to personally oversee nearly every aspect of fiscal management at the college.

His administrative and management skills have won an endorsement from Morris senior Ivy Green. She also applauds Richardson’s accessibility and people skills.

“Dr. Richardson dines with us periodically in the cafeteria and he’s always with us at assemblies,” says Green. “If he’s not available, he makes sure we know where he is and when he’s coming back.”

When it comes to finances, Richardson is equally attentive. To drive this point home, he personally approves all expenditures made by the college.

“At a larger institution, the president wouldn’t have time for that kind of personal oversight … well, perhaps they would if they organized their time right,” said Richardson.

No Small Gifts

South Carolina’s Black Baptist Convention founded Morris in 1908 and remains its owner and operator. Morris continues to enjoy the reputation it gained decades ago as the producer of some of the state’s finest African-American teachers and ministers. But while its graduates may be among the nation’s best clergy, they aren’t among the wealthiest, said the Rev. Johnson.

“The churches just aren’t able … and we don’t have pastors of wealth who are in a position to give. And the convention hasn’t made a special effort to go after the big gifts,” says Johnson, whose wife, daughter and son are recent Morris graduates.

Johnson declared: “Morris is ours. The Baptists wouldn’t let it go. It was once the training source for Blacks who weren’t allowed to go anywhere else to learn.”

Johnson maintains that while contributions from South Carolina’s estimated 400,000 Black Baptists and their 1,700 churches might not look impressive on most financial reports, “[the college] is important to the state.” Annual giving from the convention is between $500,000 and $750,000, say church and college officials.

The college’s fund-raising goal for the 1995-96 academic year is $1.5 million. Members of the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina have already contributed nearly $400,000 in unrestricted gifts.

Tallies from Baptist state associations, auxiliaries and church gifts generally range from $50 to $43,000. Then there are the individual gifts that to an outsider may seem negligible in the grand scheme of operating a college — $1, $5, $10. College officials painstakingly publish a list of each financial gift made to Morris along with the name of the giver. No contribution is too small.

But the college doesn’t stop there. Every contributor receives a personal letter from the college president and a tax receipt, said the Rev. Marion Newton, director of alumni affairs and church relations. “These aren’t just form letters,” boasted Newton, “Dr. Richardson signs — not stamps — every letter. We mail them daily or else we wouldn’t be able to keep up.

“Every penny that comes in here, we are accountable for it. We can’t overlook the small gifts,” Newton adds.

Recently, nearly three pages had to be added to Morris’ spring Update newsletter when more than 100 names were inadvertently omitted from the financial report section of an earlier edition.

When it comes to the big gifts, a $250,000 grant from The Teagle Foundation of New York in 1991 is considered Morris’ largest private foundation grant. Its largest donation was a $500,000 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Education, says Richardson.

In the late 1970s the college received 42 percent of its revenue from tuition, room and boarding fees; 31 percent from government grants; and 18 percent from private gifts and grants. Now that enrollment has grown, tuition and room and board fees constitute 51 percent of the institution’s total revenue, while private gifts and grants make up 13 percent. Government grants have grown in the past 15 years to become 33 percent of the college’s total revenue.

Once the institution was admitted to College Fund/UNCF (then the United Negro College Fund) in 1982, large corporate gifts have been channeled to the college through the fund. During its first fiscal year as a UNCF member, Morris received $155,000 for operating funds. By 1989 that had more than doubled to $359,000.

Nearing his 22nd year as president, Richardson said his enthusiasm for Morris and its potential for continued growth and success is high.

Said Richardson: “Whenever I retire the presidency, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I left Morris College as a stronger institution of learning than when I first arrived.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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