Ten years ago, Morris Brown College was one of four vibrant HBCU’s in the Atlanta University Center, and held an enrollment of a few thousand students. The small close-knit community on the 21-acre campus was home to a variety of student activities, sororities and fraternities, NCAA Division 1 sports, and the Marching Wolverines, the school’s marching band.
Today, the school has 50 students enrolled and, as of Saturday, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This has bought the school the time it needs to rebuild its funds, and protects it from foreclosure and being placed on the auction block, as it originally faced for September.
Last week, investors called out the school for $13 million worth of debt.
However, many alumni recount when the school’s now boarded up facilities were filled with spirited students and faculty, and are desperately holding on to what is left of the 131-year-old HBCU founded by former slaves affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The school is named after the second bishop of the AME church.
“I met my husband there,” said Ayana Price, who graduated from Morris Brown this past spring. “I just remember it being — because it was a small school — it was such a family atmosphere.”
Price, from New York City, and now lives in Atlanta, enrolled in Morris Brown in 1998 and returned recently to finish her studies.
“I was there before they lost accreditation and I could have taken my credits anywhere. But I made a conscious choice to go back, because that’s my school,” Price explained.
In 2003, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked accreditation from the college. Without this stamp, the federal government and the United Negro College Fund cut financial aid and grants.
Former president of Morris Brown, Dolores Cross, who served from 1998-2003, applied for financial aid under students’ names without their knowledge and used the funds to pay operating costs. Cross and former financial aid director, Parvesh Singh, pleaded guilty to the accusations of mismanagement in 2006.
Last July, the school was able to raise $500,000 to settle a $9.9 million debt with the Department of Education, however it was also reported that the school owed several investors more than $30 million.
Now in this current crisis, members of the Morris Brown alumni community are taking to Facebook and Twitter to spread awareness using the hashtag “#savemorrisbrown.”
Some have speculated that current donations are being pocketed by the school’s administration. But Jeffery Miller, 2011-2012 student government association president, says this is completely false and the current administration is doing everything in it’s power to find solutions.
“Misinformed people thought the administration made a mistake and they didn’t,” he said.
Miller began Morris Brown in 1988, left due to financial limitations, and returned and graduated, like Price, this past spring.
He says external forces, who in his opinion stopped the school from receiving $50 million to $60 million dollars from Chick-Fil-A last year, were close to home.
“There’s something called the reversionary clause. That means if Morris Brown ever closes its doors, the property would go back to [Clark] Atlanta University. Chick-Fil-A asked Morris Brown to resolve that in a way that Chick-Fil-A could go forward with the agreement with Morris Brown,” said Miller.
Though Miller claims that an issue on Clark’s end led to the end of the possible Chick-Fil-A partnership, the University says this is simply not true.
[UPDATE] Clark Atlanta University has issued the following response:
“First, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College, as well as the AME Church, began negotiations in 2011 that resulted in the signing of a memorandum of understanding, the sole purpose of which was to enable Morris Brown and Chick-Fil-A to negotiate directly on a project Chick-Fil-A wanted to pursue. Once the MOU was signed, Clark Atlanta played no further role in the matter.
Second, the College has acknowledged Clark Atlanta’s reversionary rights, and Clark Atlanta considers the matter a non-issue.”
With no current major benefactors, the future of the school is uncertain. Despite the struggles, alumni like Olivia Almagro and Kimberly Brock, who formed a lifelong friendship while attending Morris Brown, feel the school must be saved because it’s helped students in the black community who weren’t academically welcomed elsewhere.
“I have quite a few classmates and friends that, probably, had they not gone to Morris Brown, would not have the life that they are living now,” said Olivia Almagro who graduated in 1994.
“Morris Brown took students that other colleges would look away from and turn down,” said Brock who was on academic probation at a community college in Los Angeles when she applied and was accepted. She eventually went on to Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The school called for a “National Day of Prayer” on Saturday where their bankruptcy and plans for moving forward were announced.
Price who attended the meeting this weekend is hoping for the best: “What I would love to see in a perfect world is we pay off the debt.”
Her feelings for the future of her alma mater were stung with dismay when the foreclosure was first announced.
“We don’t go to a Harvard or a Yale that has big name alumni so I don’t know. I hope that we can. But I’m not sure that we can.”