Morris Brown Faces Increased Pressure to Solve Financial Crisis, Pay Back Money
Morris Brown College’s financial crisis appears to be growing as recent newspapers report in addition to being $23 million in debt, things are so bad that the cafeteria sometimes runs out of food, computer labs carefully ration paper and laptop computers that cost students $1,500 each never arrived. In addition, the school has now been told that federal funding may be cut if it doesn’t repay money it owes the Department of Education.
The 117-year-old private college is accused of using millions in federal money marked for student financial aid to pay the bills. Federal officials may deny additional student aid dollars until Morris Brown repays the money or sets up a repayment plan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month, citing department officials.
The threat of federal funding cuts comes on the heels of a recently completed accreditation review. A team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools spent three days at the college last month talking to administrators and scrutinizing financial records.
Morris Brown has been on probation with the accrediting agency since December for sloppy bookkeeping and failing to have enough instructors with advanced degrees in some subjects. Members of the association are scheduled to vote on Morris Brown’s accreditation in December.
If Morris Brown’s accreditation is revoked, the school no longer would be eligible for federal aid. And more than 90 percent of Morris Brown’s students rely on financial aid to cover the $10,200-a-year tuition.
Many have blamed the crisis on the school’s former president Dr. Dolores Cross and her ambitious efforts to enlarge Morris Brown and raise its profile. Cross has acknowledged using more than $8 million in federal student financial aid to pay faculty salaries and other bills — which could be a violation of federal law (see Black Issues, Nov. 7).
Cross has said many of the financial problems began long before she arrived in 1998. She resigned in February and moved to Chicago to work in consulting and motivational speaking.
Among the alleged financial missteps under Cross was a decision to make more money and get more recognition by moving the athletic program from Division II to the bigger-school Division I. But Morris Brown’s teams had trouble finding opponents willing to travel to a school with such small facilities. The men’s basketball team had to crisscross the country, playing 21 of 30 games on the road.
“That was an extremely expensive undertaking,” said Jim Rogers, executive director of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. “We encouraged them not to move in that direction, but they went ahead and did it anyhow. When you give advice and people ignore it or don’t hear it, this is an example of what happens.”
Cross was also faulted for expanding enrollment without adding housing space. In 1998, the school had 588 freshmen. By 2000, freshman enrollment had swelled to 820. Last year, 400 students had to be put up in hotels around the city for lack of dorm space, and the college shouldered the costs of shuttling them to and from campus. College spokeswoman Veronica Shaw said no students are living in hotels this year.
Among other problems: Some students last year said they never got the laptops they paid for. It turned out Morris Brown never paid the company that supplied them. In December, the supplier sued the college for $4.2 million.
In a letter to Black Issues, Cross called reports of the college’s $23 million debt a “rush to judgement.”
“The $23 million debt now being reported reflects in large part the loss of financial aid income from the U.S. Department of Education for students whose applications remain to be documented as complete. As a consequence, the college has not received millions in financial aid income that it would normally have collected. The process is complicated by the financial strengths of families, employment uncertainties and improvements yet to be made in the Fiscal and Financial Aid Offices. These problems will take more time to resolve,” she wrote.
Cross also urged the public to remember what had been accomplished during her tenure as president, including a state-of-the-art technology infrastructure, an increase in the number of tenured faculty and student retention rates.
The school’s new president Dr. Charles Taylor and other school officials are working on a financial recovery plan for the school that could include tuition increases, job cuts and cutbacks in athletics and other programs.
In addition, Morris Brown College alumni pledged $2.5 million early this month to help pull the struggling school out of its $23 million debt.
Alumni will try to raise $50 million over the next year, said Alumni Association President Deloris Saunders.
“This is no glib commitment,” Saunders says. “This is a serious commitment to Morris Brown.”
Local ministers and politicians vowed the 117-year-old school wouldn’t close. “Morris Brown will not close, it will not stop,” said Michael Julian Bond, deputy director of the Atlanta NAACP.
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