The Oregon College of Art and Craft, Hampshire College and Green Mountain College are three of a growing group of colleges and universities nationwide which have closed or will be closing in the next year. All three are part of a shared institutional DNA: small liberal arts schools with falling enrollment, rising debts and few partnerships or academic prospects which can easily reverse the trends of their demise.
Trustees at Green Mountain have been up front about the challenges leading to the school’s inoperability. They took the extra step of addressing how closure meets the moral obligation of serving their students, faculty and alumni.
School trustees have said they can’t in good conscience continue to operate and collect future tuition payments knowing that they can’t pay their bills. The group trying to save the school has raised about $200,000, but keeping the doors open would require quadrupling all the donations that have come in during the last two years.
And then there’s Morris Brown College (MBC), which this week announced Kevin James as its interim president. (Editor’s note: This is not the Rev. Kevin James, who is a well-known Floridabased minister.) There is a line between Black defiance and defrauding Black people. While it is difficult to pinpoint which year that MBC transitioned from one to the other, the school is firmly engaged in the latter.
MBC, Knoxville College, Barber-Scotia College attract support with the currency of a comeback story, knowing well that there will be no reclamation of sustainability for either of these campuses. And then there’s Rutgers University Professor Marybeth Gasman, whose habit of providing bad advice, incomplete insight and sparse research on HBCUs leads her to an unsurprising endorsement of Black hope exploitation for the sake of saying, “We won’t give up.”
But while we aren’t ‘giving up,’ other Black people and organizations who could potentially invest in the land and facilities of these ghost HBCU campuses are being blocked from recreating jobs and learning opportunities for Black people, while international businesses yield the short-sale benefits. In the last two years, Saint Paul’s College and Concordia College of Selma’s properties and assets were respectively sold to Chinese and Korean companies, with neither offering plans to extend their use as educational assets to Black communities.
The actions of White colleges and White people are not the standard for how Black institutions and Black people should conduct business, but all are part of a shared ecosystem of higher education as an industry. They all face similar challenges in enrollment and finance and have but a few options in addressing these challenges.
We look to schools like Paul Quinn College (PQC) as the model for a school that can grow out of the depths of financial despair. But what is missing from the narrative is how much latitude was given to the PQC President Michael Sorrell in the early days of his tenure to do the tough things which today position the school as “America’s HBCU.”
Few boards will allow a president to cancel football, convert athletic space into agriculture space, and kick out underperforming students by the dozens. Few presidents are willing serve as campus CEO, director of admissions and recruitment, director of development, athletic director and dean of students for years until the college reaches a point of self-sustaining operation.
Exception, not rule
Paul Quinn is not the example. It is the exception. Other schools should not point to it to bolster false narratives of their own survival, particularly when they know they are not able or willing to do even a portion of what Sorrell and the Quinnite Nation was willing to do to build the school’s brand and functionality.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges around the country are facing closure. But three of the most vulnerable in the HBCU sector ‒ three percent of the sector at large ‒ are hanging on literally for the sake of showing people “we’re hanging on.” There are many other HBCUs which are about one to three years away from being the next Morris Brown. They too will likely mislead the public about their institutional end-of-life strategic planning.
Do we want to be misled about the certain demise of some of our HBCUs, or are we willing to do the hard work of rebirthing our once-proud HBCUs into something we can again develop for our own racial and economic autonomy?