By Martel Sharpe & Marshall Latimore
Kevin James, a former CEO for the 100 Black Men of America Inc., has been appointed interim President of Morris Brown College by its board of trustees, effective today.
James’s tenure as president follows the departure of Stanley J. Pritchett, who resigned from the post in December after more than 10 years at the helm of the private historically black college that once was a part of the Atlanta University Center.
James, a Columbia, S.C. native who has resided in Atlanta since 2015, boasts a 20-year career in higher education as a senior-level administrator, with positions at Strayer University and Herzing University as a dean of academic affairs as well as a senior dissertation advisor at Grand Canyon University.
“I am honored to have been selected by the board to serve at the helm of Georgia’s oldest HBCU founded by black people,” James said. “I look forward to working with the board of trustees, alumni, staff, and other shareholders to resurrect this historic college back to prominence.”
“My first order of business is working to obtain accreditation, ensure financial stability, build a strong relationship with alumni, and enrollment growth,” he added. “Morris Brown will not die. We will restore this college. We will not let another HBCU go by the wayside. That is my commitment to Morris Brown.”
The Rev. Reginald Jackson, an African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop who serves as chairman of Morris Brown’s board of trustees, welcomed Dr. James’s appointment.
“We needed a leader who holds not only outstanding values and a passion for helping sustain HBCUs, but one who has vast experience in higher education, the accreditation process, and fundraising to take Morris Brown College to the next level,” Jackson said. “After an exhaustive search, we found these qualities in (James). He has served in various leadership capacities with enthusiasm, and I am confident that he will play the key role to resurrect Morris Brown College.”
James said he was inspired to apply for the position last month after seeing a news clip announcing Pritchett’s resignation.
“I was at my home, on the computer watching television, and saw a news clip about Dr. Pritchett, who was (Morris Brown’s former president) resign,” James said. “I thought for about five seconds, ‘He’s been there about 10-12 years and he resigned. I would love to throw my name in the hat for that position.’”
Immediately after seeing the report, James said that he contacted Morris Brown AME Church where he got in touch with the bishop’s assistant. “I sent my resume and cover letter in and the rest is history,” James said. “This has been my dream. For the past 20 years, I’ve had the vision of being an HBCU college president.”
Fighting for accreditation
The overall fate of Morris Brown College has been unclear ever since the institution lost its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) due to financial troubles in 2002, under the leadership of former president Dolores Cross.
Morris Brown was more than $23 million in debt and was on probation in 2001 with SACS for shoddy bookkeeping and a shortage of professors with advanced degrees. In December 2002, SACS revoked Morris Brown’s accreditation.
Almost eight years later, the college settled its nearly $10 million debt with the Department of Education.
Just last Friday, fellow historically black college Bennett College, also dug in its heels a fight for accreditation against SACS. Bennett, which has been fighting the accreditation battle since 2016 when it was put on probation due to a lack of financial resources, has struggled with declining enrollment.
As a private institution—like Morris Brown—the small, women’s only college in Greensboro, North Carolina, has been heavily dependent on incoming tuition.
Instead of taking Bennett off of probation in December 2018, SACS voted to remove Bennett’s accreditation. The school appealed the decision.
To strengthen its case, the college mounted a giant fundraising effort called “Stand With Bennett.” The campaign gained national attention and ultimately raised more than $9 million, well over the goal of $5 million. School officials also outlined other steps forward, including a five-year strategic plan.
On Feb. 22, a SACS committee decided against Bennett’s appeal. Within hours, Bennett officials revealed the college was filing a lawsuit against SACS. During these legal proceedings, Bennett will remain accredited.
“Our fight continues,” said Bennett College President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, during a news conference Friday.
“The negative decision to remove Bennett from membership will not interrupt the daily operations of the college. We urge everyone to keep the faith and know that Bennett College is standing strong.”
Dawkins also said to the Greensboro News & Record that Bennett has taken preliminary steps to seek accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). Representatives from TRACS are scheduled to visit Bennett on March 14. It’s possible, Dawkins said, that Bennett could end up being accredited by both agencies.
After losing its own accreditation, Morris Brown fell on tough times with talk of going into foreclosure, possibly being sold, and filling for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Last June, Pritchett told The Atlanta Voice, “(Morris Brown) had $32 million worth of debt that had been sitting on the books for about eight or nine years. In 2015, we came out of bankruptcy and had only $3 million worth of indebtedness. And that was to the AME church.”
Restoring Morris Brown’s “former glory”
After 17 years of constantly being in a state of crisis, Morris Brown has surprised many doubters who are baffled the college is still open and currently matriculates about 40 students.
With just a couple of days under his belt prior to officially taking on the role of interim President, James said he has already begun to craft a plan to restore Morris Brown to “its former glory.”
According to Atlanta Magazine, Morris Brown’s former glory days were many: the school produced a Rhodes scholar; was three times named the nation’s best black college football team; and graduated future Pulitzer winners, civil rights leaders, and NFL stars.
Its nationally known marching band attracted just as many people to Herndon Stadium, which hosted the 1996 Olympics field hockey competition, for halftime shows as did the football team itself.
James said that he and the board agree that accreditation and financial stability are the key issues they would like to achieve going before tackling anything else.
“My number one game plan is reaffirmation, getting our accreditation restored. That is the top priority for us to be able to continue as Morris Brown College,” said James. “We have to become accredited.”
Like Dawkins, James said he would like the school to try going through TRACS this time around due to Morris Brown’s affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.
However, before regaining accreditation can be achieved, the college must become financially solvent, he said.
“I have a goal of really raising some top dollars for this university so that we can become fiscally stable. That’s very important,” James said. “We’re not going to be able to earn our accreditation without having those dollars so that we can do the business that we need to do.”
James said he also hopes Morris Brown’s alumni will want to take part in rebuilding their Alma Mater.
“I want to work on alumni development and relationships. Building the trust with our alumni, that’s very important to me, James said. “Within 30 days, I intend on having a meet and greet which will be open to the alumni to meet me, shake my hand, ask me questions, and get to know me.”
“I want to rebrand this college,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t even know that we’re open for business. I want us to earn the trust of our shareholders again, our alumni.”
Currently, the school offers degrees in music, organization and leadership, and psychology. However, James would like to make room for the possibility of having Morris Brown become a center for entrepreneurship.
“I have a vision of this college being tied to business and entrepreneurship,” James said.
“Right across the street is the H.J. Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I would love to partner with them in some kind of way to see how we can become the hub for business and entrepreneurship on the Westside and Vine City area.”
James also says that he would like to create relationships between Morris Brown and some of the major corporations in Atlanta, not only to aid in fundraising, but also to provide opportunities for students to gain internships and possibly employment.
“Morris Brown is still here. We’re still vibrant,” James said. “We’re just reorganizing right now and we would like to petition the community, anyone who would like to work with, us please reach out to me.”
This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.