BY DR. SHEILA FLEMMING-HUNTER / GUEST COMMENTARY
I write this letter because I do not want Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) to be a political ball thrown to those who may take advantage of its current crisis, or bounced back and forth like a political party ball.
I do not know Michael Cantu. I am not aware of the intricacies of the local and state politics of Florida. Therefore, I am at a disadvantage and decline to respond to his proposal from the political perspective. I would, however, like to respond to his Facebook comments about B-CU as an alum.
A hard choice
When Dr. Bethune ran into financial difficulty with then-Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls at the turn of the 20th century, she prayed long and hard about the life of her institution once she could no longer sing herself or depend on the largess of White philanthropists she knew at the time.
She and members of the institution’s board of trustees like James Gamble and Cynthia Ranslow, considered several options for more stable and lasting support.
The Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodist Episcopal Churches were all considered. She did not think fondly of the idea of politicians taking over her school, so she and her board immediately dismissed that idea and began to work to make sure the institution remained private.
We know now that the decision was to turn her school over to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Thus, in 1923 Dr. Bethune – at the crossroads of her dream – decided to place her fate in the hands of the Methodists for financial support.
Where are they now?
Today, the obvious question could be where does the United Methodist Church (UMC) stand on the possibilities for B-CU’s future? What do the bishop of the Florida Annual Conference and leaders of the University Senate and Black College Fund have to say about the leadership crisis that has now become a financial crisis at B-CU? What role did they play in this quagmire?
As we await the response of the United Methodist, let me, as a graduate, respond to Cantu’s well-developed argument.
When I first learned how troubled my alma mater was and who or what would be a “cavalry” for us, I immediately thought of the UMC and reached out to them, but to no sensible avail. I had a fleeting thought –like Dr. Bethune in the past –regarding a state takeover. I immediately dismissed the idea because I knew how Dr. Bethune felt about politicians being the ultimate authority for her school.
I don’t think Dr. Bethune had any dislike for politicians, for she was very much a political being and had many friends who were politicians.
Dr. Bethune understood that there is a difference in political leadership and servant leadership. She, herself a servant leader, knew that politicians have access to resources; but to continue to have that access, they must win elections. Thus, they necessarily must be self-centered and they change their priorities, even if it’s only during campaigns.
I admit that Cantu’s proposal is based on good facts.
Because of B-CU, Daytona Beach and Florida have stronger growth and stronger communities. A study by the United Negro College Fund and University of Georgia in 2014 indicated that B-CU generated 1,469 jobs with $136 million in total economic impact in that year alone.
Since we know that a college degree opens doors to economic prosperity, the 509 graduates of B-CU in 2014 are expected to have total earnings of $1.3 billion over their lifetimes. This represents 71 percent more than they could expect to earn without their college credentials.
In the future, billions (and eventually trillions) more will be earned with thousands of graduates, many of whom will be Florida residents.
In addition, the social, spiritual and cultural impact of the university is enormous. The past leaders of the institution, like Dr. Richard V. Moore, ensured a close link of “town and gown” in all these areas – so much so that it is difficult to speak about education, faith, diversity, and the arts in Daytona Beach and Florida without the mention of B-CU.
‘On the map’
Dr. Bethune placed her institution on the national map as a creative center of teaching and learning. We are blessed that Dr. Moore, Dr. James Colston and later Dr. Oswald P. Bronson, used her foundation to springboard the university to greatness through the support and commitment of the residents of the community and donors throughout the nation.
I agree with Cantu that the state should step in to help B-CU during this period of crisis. But I disagree with Cantu’s proposed methodology.
First, why would the state sit idly by and “Bethune-Cookman University be forced to close its doors….”? The resources Cantu contemplates using at that time could be accessed now to save it as a private entity.
Second, we have seen many examples where public/private ventures are implemented to ensure the best for the people who would be most affected. The state of Florida could develop a new model, like what was done to save the insurance companies and the automobile industry not long ago in our country.
The model would not be about “takeover.” Rather, it would offer resources to allow the institution to be shepherded back to health. And as Cantu points out, “the people of the Daytona area would benefit …keeping a rather large pillar of the…. local economy from collapsing…”
I therefore propose the following:
Michael Cantu commits to assisting B-CU to remain private, regardless of the outcome of his campaign for House Seat 26;
The state of Florida call for the immediate resignation of all current members of the Board of Trustees who served on the Executive Committee during former President Edison Jackson’s tenure (2012-2017);
The state of Florida assist the new Board of Trustees, as Cantu proposes, in restructuring its debt and provide guidance on “securing reasonable concessions from the aggrieved creditors”;
The state of Florida be committed to assisting B-CU to remain a private institution so that young people will have a private faith-based choice for a first-class education in the state.
Sheila Flemming-Hunter, Ph.D., is a member of Bethune-Cookman’s Class of 1971. She is co-chair of Concerned Constituents Committee for Bethune-Cookman University.