LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. — Saint Paul’s College football player Osmund Brown headed across a nearly deserted campus in search of his transcript — his ticket to a new place to play.
“I came here to play football,” says Brown, who transferred from a junior college in California to play tight end for the Tigers this year.
But the day after commencement, Brown, his teammates and others in this Brunswick County community were stunned when the college announced it would sacrifice athletics to save itself.
“We’ve just taken the stance that we had two options,” says Raymond Holmes, Saint Paul’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “One option is we close the doors and have football. Or we keep the doors open and at least temporarily eliminate athletics with the hope we can bring it back in a couple of years.”
Now Brown and more than 250 other athletes are left with a tough decision — stay at Saint Paul’s and give up their sport, or transfer in hopes of finding a new team and a new home. Brown expects most will try to transfer rather than play on the intramural teams the college plans to start.
With just 517 students this year, an exodus of athletes is something this school struggling with declining enrollment and desperate finances can’t afford. The college’s financial troubles threaten the school’s accreditation, which would deepen its troubles.
The historically Black college, founded in 1888, needs to boost its enrollment to about 650 students, the level it was at just a few years ago, says Holmes. A consultant has advised the college that eliminating athletics would likely cause only a short-term effect on enrollment.
The college is ready to establish new majors in psychology, social work and health care as soon as its accreditation is affirmed, Holmes says.
The decision to end athletics was a painful pruning that the board of trustees made so that the college can focus on its mission “to serve the underserved,” he says.
The college was “established to prepare students for the workaday world and to help them be marketable,” he adds. “That is the true mission of the college. Athletics is a very nice program to have, but we at this point just can’t afford it.”
Financial troubles are not new to Saint Paul’s, or to many other HBCUs. But this round has been different, Holmes says.
The college has had to pay nearly $1 million to make up for missed payments and penalties resulting from financial mismanagement that occurred under the previous administration.
Saint Paul’s was cited by the Internal Revenue Service for problems that included failing to pay into the employee pension plan, says Holmes.
U.S. Department of Education audits found instances in which the college had not paid balances due students from federal aid after tuition was withheld. However, no fines were issued and the case was not referred to the Office of Inspector General for further review.
Financial instability was one of the primary concerns of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges when it put Saint Paul’s on probation last summer.
In denying reaffirmation of accreditation, the commission also cited the physical condition of the facilities and credentials of the faculty, among other concerns.
Holmes says faculty credentials just needed to be documented, and the college is on track to meet SACS’ other requirements.
The accrediting agency will meet next month to decide if the college has taken adequate steps to end a yearlong probation, and Holmes says he is confident that will happen.
But if Saint Paul’s were to lose its accreditation, it would be a potentially devastating financial blow. Saint Paul’s students would no longer be eligible for the federal grant aid that about 95 percent of them receive. Virginia students also would lose state Tuition Assistance Grants that help pay for tuition and fees, which are more than $12,600 annually.
“We’re not asking anyone to give us anything. We’re working hard to meet the standards, and we feel we’re very close,” Holmes says.
Two summers ago, the faculty agreed to teach summer school without pay to help the college stay afloat, he says.
The faculty, alumni and the board of trustees have stepped forward to help the college, says board member Samuel Davis III.
“We’ve taken the hard medicine and are doing the right things,” he says. “[Saint Paul’s] is going through what a lot of small schools tend to go through, especially those that serve students who need financial support and don’t have the size to build an endowment.”
The college is attempting to cut about $4 million from its $11 million budget. The athletics program costs more than $1.3 million, and athletic scholarships add up to an additional $ 1 million.
Holmes says he believes there is a need for a school like Saint Paul’s, which accepts students who can’t get into other colleges and works with them to build their skills.
The college is also a major employer for the community, he says.
“If we for some reason are shut down, that’s going to have a devastating effect on the community,” he says.
That sentiment is shared by Lawrenceville Mayor Douglas Pond, who said the college and town have collaborated on many projects over the years, such as the rebuilding of downtown sidewalks.
Not many small towns “are fortunate enough to have a four-year college in their boundaries,” he says. “There’s no question in my mind that school sitting on the hills over there has enormous potential for this community.”
Some people around Lawrenceville said they were as surprised by last week’s decision as they were when Saint Paul’s reinstated the football program, which had been eliminated for 15 years as part of steep spending cuts in the late 1980s.
Football is an expensive sport for a small school, Pond says. He suggested to a school official that the school should “try soccer — a couple of balls and some shorts, and you’re good to go.”
At nearby Brunswick High School, where Saint Paul’s plays basketball because its own gym is in poor condition, the decision to cut athletics was a disappointment to students and staff.
“Their kids and my kids forged a good relationship,” says Brunswick athletics director Bryant Stith, a University of Virginia alumnus who played in the NBA. With not many social outlets in the area, his students appreciated Saint Paul’s athletics.
“They were looking forward to seeing Saint Paul’s play,” he says. Sports brought alumni back for visits and “a lot of foot traffic back through Lawrenceville.”
But the athletics program is also a key part of the operational costs of the college, says University of Richmond Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman, who spoke at Saint Paul’s May 8 commencement.
Heilman, whose son Timothy is Saint Paul’s vice president for institutional advancement, will head to New York this week with college officials to help make the case for more money from the Episcopal Church, which is affiliated with the school.
He can’t speak for the college, he emphasized, but “as one interested in the school and its heritage” he understands the need to terminate costly programs for the sake of accreditation.
Heilman is the retired president of UR — a school at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of cost and selectivity. He says Saint Paul’s serves students with “many dimensions of qualifications.”
Those students are “no less important than the brightest, ablest, wealthiest students going to any other school,” he says.
A lifelong educator, Heilman says he had to go to a junior college after high school because of his grades.
“If that little college hadn’t existed for me, I couldn’t have gotten an education,” he says. “I see this as a little bit of my past. Here’s a school that draws a circle and takes in young people, where others draw a circle and circle them out.”