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Bethune Cookman University
Bethune-Cookman University, though troubled, is in much better shape than other similarly situated HBCUs, according to one commentator.

BY JARRETT CARTER SR.
HBCU DIGEST COMMENTARY

I texted a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) president, partially out of the need for executive context on the latest doomsday reporting on Bethune-Cookman University. The school had announced a goal of $8 million to help save its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) or face the risk of shuttering.

“Bennett asked for $5 million, B-CU looking for $8 million,” I texted. “If they can go through TRACCS (Transnational Association of Christian Colleges) why go through all of this?”

“Every leadership book will tell you, never waste a good crisis,” the president replied. The president called me shortly thereafter to explain the theory.

Different from the others

Bethune-Cookman is unlike any other HBCU which in recent or distant history has faced the loss of its accreditation. Schools like Morris Brown College, Knoxville College, Barber-Scotia
College, Saint Paul’s College, and Bennett College all faced crippling debt and drastic decreases in enrollment.

B-CU, for all of its bad financial dealings and leadership failures and negative publicity, has only one-half of that destructive equation. The university’s enrollment is above 2,700 students for the spring semester, suggesting that even with a shortfall, revenue is not an impossibility as it has been with other failing private HBCUs.

B-CU, according to this president, also has several assets that distinguish its fate from those of other defunct HBCUs. It fields a respectable Division I athletics program that plays annually in the Florida Classic, one of the largest and most recognized HB-CU football classics in the country.

Economic impact

Bethune-Cookman’s endowment has been raided in recent years to cover debt servicing and is currently locked in lawsuits over contract disputes based upon binding signatures for costly construction projects. But it is also one of the largest industrial players in the city of Daytona Beach for jobs, tourism, culture, and civic identity.

Bethune-Cookman could be among the first, if not the first, to lose its SACSCOC accreditation, gain membership with an organization like the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACCS), and virtually never miss a beat in its operational integrity. That’s a theory without knowing the status of B-CU’s engagement with SACSCOC leadership, its application status with TRACCS, or the true nature of its finances.

The first to leave?

But, if all of those things are at some levels of planning at the board and presidential level, Bethune-Cookman could have what schools like Bennett and Paine College do not have with their accreditation transitions; a running start with thousands of students to help pay bills.

This could pioneer a significant move of HBCUs, which have long been in the middle of financial and political realities pressed against accreditation standards, to abandon traditional accrediting bodies in favor of more lenient organizations.

There’s a political risk associated with a move like that because legislative or executive
branches of government could always tighten or remove accreditation standards at a moment’s notice and take federal student aid funding for hostage or victim with the action.

There’s a financial risk as well; losing accreditation is a powerful headline magnet that isn’t easily reversed with membership in another accrediting body. Once it is gone, for many people and especially Black folks, it is gone forever.

Emerging stronger

But even if these things are true, Bennett showcased a model for how a college can face accreditation loss, use the public crisis as a sublime call for fundraising, lose accreditation, sue to retain it, and have alumni and potential students still invested in the brand. It may yield a painful short term, but there is a path forward for a new, and perhaps stronger, reality.

It may not work for every school, and it may seem to be even a longshot for Bethune-Cookman, but there is a path forward. And it is worth this school and perhaps others trying hard to find it.

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