Over the past few weeks – since the Atlanta Journal and Constitution announced that Morris Brown College couldn’t pay its water bill – several of my friends in the Black college community have called to talk about the historic institution. The first question thrown out for contemplation is “Do we really need all 103 HBCUs?” My usual response to this question is “well, wait a minute…we need to remember that all of these HBCUs are different and although they are all committed to educating African American students (as well as many others), each institution has its own unique situation, successes and problems.”
What my friends are actually asking is “do we really need the weaker HBCUs?” Or more specifically, “are the Morris Browns in the HBCU community – those institutions that seem to not make it despite infusions of support decade after decade – still needed?”
Although rarely talked about outside of the HBCU community, questions often surface about the impact of Morris Brown’s failure on other HBCUs. Because the mainstream media, the general public, and many within the higher education community see all HBCUs as being the same, Morris Brown’s failure can shine a negative spotlight on HBCUs as a whole.
When Morris Brown came under fire in early 2000, I was a staunch supporter of the institution. In fact, I wrote a long article about the media’s unfair treatment of the college and HBCUs in general. Given Morris Brown’s venerable history and commitment to educating African Americans (which I have never doubted) as well as its status as one of a few HBCUs created by African Americans (former slaves, in fact), I could see no reason why the institution should close. When anyone would say, “Morris Brown is over” or “Morris Brown is dead,” I kept hoping that the institution would survive. Why? First, I have had the privilege of working with several Morris Brown College graduates who eventually pursued Ph.D.s in higher education. These students were wonderful and spoke very highly of their experiences at the historic institution. Of course, they laughed about the long financial aid lines and the lack of modern residence halls, but they made no jokes about the education they received. They had been empowered, motivated, pushed, cared for, and celebrated by the faculty and staff at the institution and I had all of the evidence right in front of me. These were students who excelled in their doctoral programs – young people with dreams of becoming faculty members who would empower their own students.
But, as Morris Brown College faces yet another crisis, I am not sure that the institution should continue in its current state. Once it leaps this next financial hurdle (another water payment of $200,000 due February 17th), what will be next? The institution’s acting president Stanley Pritchett Jr. believes that Morris Brown will survive. But, will it and is mere survival enough? Perhaps it would be wiser for Morris Brown to merge with Clark-Atlanta University? Or conceivably, it could become the junior college of the Atlanta University Center, with transfer agreements to the other HBCUs in the consortium? Or maybe the institution could start an affiliation with Georgia State University – a growing institution that produces more Black undergraduate degree holders than any other historically White institution and boasts no majority population among its student body? I realize that my suggestions will make some people angry. But, wouldn’t we rather see the dreams and visions of the Morris Brown founders further realized rather than limping along trying to avoid the next pothole in the road. Mergers are hard and someone always loses – but someone also wins and in this case it might be the 240 currently-enrolled students – who would be able to attend an accredited institution, offering a solid and committed curriculum, with long-term financial stability.
The leaders, alumni, and supporters of Morris Brown College need to think long and hard about the institution’s future – thinking creatively about either how to save it (which means really committing to supporting the institution year after year – not just when a crisis arises) or how to maintain its legacy in another form.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).