The Unfinished Race

Remember Dolores E. Cross? During her more than 30-year academic career, she advocated for multicultural education, championed equal education access for all students, and blazed trails as the first African-American female president of Chicago State University and the first female president of Morris Brown College.

“Today, I’m considered a felon,” says Cross, 73.

That daunting reality is still raw, sometimes festers and bars her from her life’s work as an educator and advocate for disadvantaged students. For Cross, the college president, life as she knew it ended four years ago. In a “cold Atlanta courtroom,” Cross listened in dismay as she was fined and sentenced to a year of house arrest, 500 hours of community service, and five years of probation on charges related to financial irregularities at Morris Brown. As Cross would come to realize, that life began its ebb in 1998, when she said “yes” to leading the historically Black college.

“I came to assume the position of leadership at Morris Brown College not knowing that my journey there, after being a professor, department head, administrator, and a university president was leading me to what would become my crucible,” writes Cross in a thoughtful and sometimes haunting new memoir, Beyond the Wall.

As Cross tells the tale of her impoverished youth in Newark, N.J., the unrelenting pursuit to educate herself, her ascent to university administration and eventual descent, the veteran marathoner takes refuge in a runner’s vocabulary. “Marathons” serve as metaphors for Cross’ constant race against the clock to fix Morris Brown, but she would eventually “hit the wall” — the place she says runners never want to find themselves — when she was indicted on 27 counts of fraud.

Beyond the Wall is Cross’ side of the story and her attempt to quell the rumors and dismantle “media misinformation … that would suggest I lost my way and dishonored my roots.” In a telephone interview from her Chicago condo, frustration still fills Cross’ voice as she recounts the myriad news stories and outlets that “wrongly reported” that she embezzled student financial aid funds and conspired to commit fraud while at Morris Brown.

Still, in “Beyond the Wall” most of the finger pointing about Cross’ tenure and downfall at Morris Brown is at herself.

Getting to the Wall

In 1990, Cross¸ who began her academic career 20 years earlier as an assistant professor of education at Northwestern University, dove head first into her role as president of Chicago State University. She inherited a commuter school on Chicago’s South Side that was struggling with low student retention and graduation rates. By the time she left CSU seven years later, she had boosted those numbers and reinvigorated the pride of CSU’s mostly economically and educationally disadvantaged students.

Two years later, following a stint as president of the General Electric Fund, Cross was ready to take on another higher education fixer-upper — Morris Brown. In 1998, Cross stepped up and heeded the college’s call for a president the same way that she had approached her other life and professional challenges — with fervor, boundless confidence and a firm belief in her ability to turn around a tough situation.

But this time was different. Cross, a Baptist from the North who had never attended an HBCU, was an imperfect fit for the historically rich but “woefully neglected” campus sponsored by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She remembers with a chuckle how her longtime friend William “Buddy” Blakey, an attorney and proponent of historically Black colleges and universities, called her crazy for wanting to assume the helm of a college that “has had four changes in presidencies in a 10-year period.” Blakey would later tell Cross that she had been Morris Brown’s scapegoat.

Still, she came to the Atlanta campus. “While I didn’t realize how financially fragile things were there until later, I came because I saw a challenge and the opportunity to implement a vision,” Cross tells Diverse.

Cross brought with her an arsenal of academic and corporate credentials and even came with her own grant money to pay her salary for 20 months because the college could not. Yet, she was unfamiliar with HBCU culture and traditions, aspects of campus life that proved important to her staff, alumni and students. As she admits in her book, she didn’t take the time to learn those things.

The century-old college Cross inherited in 1998 had lost its accreditation and was sinking under the burden of heavy debt when she arrived. There was a $3.2 million structural budget deficit and longstanding U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and external audit recommendations that hadn’t been satisfied. There were outdated accounting systems that required staff to manually enter transactions; and, as the year 2000 neared, the rush was on to respond to the federal government’s mandate for all colleges to be able to transmit data electronically, even when a technology system was virtually nonexistent at Morris Brown.

Eventually, DOE sent a searing letter detailing the problems plaguing Morris Brown’s financial aid and fiscal affairs offices. Among the issues: The college was not refunding all the student loan funds it was legally required to return. The revelation rocked Cross, who was then about two years into her presidency. Cross responded with a plan for corrective action that included hiring outside consultants, firing and demoting some senior staff, bringing DOE auditors to train financial aid administrators, and instituting checks and balances for disbursement of financial aid to students who filled dorms but weren’t registered for classes. Meanwhile, calls from angry vendors demanding outstanding payment for such things as garbage collection and elevator repairs were being forwarded to the president’s office from the office of fiscal affairs.

In the midst of these crises, Cross fought to “keep up appearances” of a situation under control. As she struggled to hold the school together, she wasn’t looking at the internal storms bubbling over in the Offices of Fiscal Affairs and Student Financial Aid or at the external and internal detractors swirling around and beside her. She took her eye off the beleaguered offices tasked with managing aspects of the student financial aid process, a mistake she calls one of the most critical missteps of her presidency. Cross also writes that she naively relied “on the college’s external auditors and DOE auditors to alert me to illegal and fraudulent activities in the management of student financial aid at the college.”

In the end, “the buck stopped with the president,” Cross says. “In court, I owned up to the serious problems happening under my watch. I took administrative action and put in place a corrective plan, but nothing was enough.”

That, Cross says, is how she ended up a felon doing time under house arrest. “I was not aware of the fact that the vice president of fiscal affairs had not been monitoring the office of student accounts to ensure that the students had registered. This was supposed to happen before funds were disbursed from the fiscal affairs office.” The result was a single guilty plea — to misapplying approximately $26,000 in student financial aid in late 2001 to cover some of the college’s operating expenses. The court dismissed the other charges.

“I did not plead guilty to embezzlement,” notes Cross. “I admitted in the plea to not exercising due diligence.”

Living Beyond the Wall

These days, Cross rises early in the spacious six-room, North Shore condo she shares with her dog, Cassie. She moves freely about the Windy City, actively volunteering and delivering food to those in need for organizations where she once had to clock hundreds of hours of community service.

The woman who once oversaw the multimillion-dollar GE Fund says she can now better relate to the plight of those on the street and to other felons. Like many of them, she knows what it means to “do a urine drop” and be fingerprinted. “These are things I wouldn’t have known before,” says Cross. Gone are her corporate connections and national higher education boards and panels. Serving on the board of her church keeps her busy these days, as does sharing her memoir in the hope of helping others move beyond the walls in their lives.

Cross expected that her colleagues, those at institutions she headed or who served with her on professional higher education boards, would come to her aid in the courtroom. They didn’t. With the exception of a handful of her “sister presidents,” Cross’ once-large circle of professional contacts has been virtually silent since her indictment and subsequent conviction.

“I’ve been treated like a pariah,” Cross says.

The longtime educator is still brimming with ideas — like a framework for a national education stimulus plan she crafted — but no longer has a voice or platform.

“I’m an educator,” she says. While she wishes people would ask her for help, she doubts that will happen now. In the meantime, with a 21st marathon in the near future, Cross is readying for another race.