Historically Black College Fights To Stay Alive

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Morris Brown College may not open its doors to students in the spring. The historically black college in Atlanta faces mounting bills as students, parents and faculty weigh an uncertain future. Stanley Pritchet, the school's acting president, discusses the crisis at Morris Brown.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My thanks to Cheryl Corley for sitting in last week. Just ahead, we are going to look back. We'll review some of the year's top stories with a diverse panel of reporters and commentators.

But first, we want to talk about the kind of news you never want to receive over a holiday break. It's the news that the school you or your child attends may not be able to reopen next month for the spring semester. Last week, officials at Morris Brown College were forced to face this possibility after the City of Atlanta shut off the water supply to the 127-year-old historically black school because of nearly $400,000 in unpaid water bills. But the school doesn't have the money to pay virtually any of its operating expenses, including faculty or staff salaries without an immediate loan of $1.5 million, so school will not be able to open - to reopen next month.

Some of Morris Brown's financial troubles stem from serious mismanagement by past administrators, but it's not the only historically black school that's struggling. We're going to talk about why that might be with an expert on the finances of historically black colleges and universities and with the president of an historically black college who is also a noted economist. But joining us first is Stanley Pritchett. He is the acting president of Morris Brown. Welcome, sir. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. STANLEY PRITCHETT (Acting President, Morris Brown College): Thank you, Michel, for having me on your program.

MARTIN: Now, you've essentially put out a 911 call to alumni, business leaders. There was a rally over the weekend. What's your status right now? Is there any hope of getting the kind of short-term financing that you need to reopen for the spring, let alone for the long term?

Mr. PRITCHETT: Yes, Michel. We've been working on a business plan for the last three or four months, putting together a package that would show how the school, over a five-year period, would be able to revitalize itself. And a part of that included interim financing until a larger restructuring finance piece could be put in place for the recovery plans for the school. And all of this was about to be implemented near the end of the year when we came up with the issue with the work service being disconnected, and as a result, it put all of our emphasis and focus on getting the basic services back in place as we work on our interim financing.

So, the rally that we initiated over the weekend was called Morris Brown College Yes We Care, and it's a weeklong rally and three and half hours on Saturday. And mostly, true alumni of Morris Brown College that really believe in this institution, they came forward along with many members of the Atlanta community, and we raised over $70,000 in three and a half hours. Now, that is not $380,000 but it is certainly a great effort towards this most crucial issue that we are dealing with so that we can get the institution back into an operating mode.

MARTIN: So you think if you get the water turned back on, you'll be able to figure out the rest? Because you still don't have the money for the salaries, right?

Mr. PRITCHETT: Yes, and what we have done is we have been working with one of our local banks, the CEO of Capitol City Bank & Trust Company. George Andrews has been very helpful in working with us in partnership and sort of as an adviser, a financial adviser as we go through the development of our financial plan. We've also received the support of one of the premier business colleges in this country at Howard University, and members of their business school staff working with us and reviewing the documents that we have and moving towards the actual development of this plan that will allow for investors to make an investment into an educational institution and allow us to address some of the past issues that have been on the books now, in some cases, as long as seven years, probably past due balances of expenditures.

MARTIN: Sure. And of course, I think it has to be said that no institution winds up in a place like this, you know, overnight, and that Morris Brown has had many challenges that - former president pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges. And although I think it does have to be said that it doesn't appear that her attempt was to enrich herself but it seemed to have been a misguided attempt to actually get more money for the school. But be that as it may, many, many challenges.

This would be a very sad end for Morris Brown if it does close. It's 127 years old. As we said, it's the only institution of higher learning founded by African-Americans. But the question has to be asked, Mr. Pritchett, in the cople of minutes that we have left, is it possible that perhaps Morris Brown's day is simply done, that it no longer - there is no longer a need for an institution like this? Perhaps its mission is perhaps fulfilled - best fulfilled by other institutions. Is that possible?

Mr. PRITCHETT: I don't think it's possible. I really believe that this is going to be an opportunity to show this country and to show this world that even on the boroughs(ph) of being closed down by some of the challenges we've had with finances, this institution has never had a problem with the education of young people. It has had a very sound academic program of - throughout the history of this institution. And this gives us a chance now to allow for the dreams of so many students that could have been all - could be put on hold or in jeopardy to be able to give them an opportunity to come back and feel to rise from the ashes, just like the City of Atlanta had to do after the Civil War.

So, we look at this as an opportunity more than saying that this a time of - that Morris Brown is not relevant because when you say Morris Brown is not relevant, you're saying that other HBCUs all over this country are not relevant. They were founded at a time when young people could not get an education, and they now have the ability to allow for these students who are disenfranchised, many students who would not have an opportunity to go college anywhere else, but you've got to have some kind of post-secondary institutions to give our young people a chance to have - a hand up versus a handout.

MARTIN: Mr. Printchett, we surely do appreciate your giving us this time at a difficult time for you. We'd love it if you'd keep us posted.

Mr. PRITCHETT: We certainly will, and we certainly would like persons in the audience to go to our Web site. Please keep in touch with us in terms of how they can support this institution at a time when it's really needed.

MARTIN: Stanley Pritchett is the acting president of Morris Brown College in Atlanta. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his office. Thank you again, sir, and good luck to you.

Mr. PRITCHETT: Thank you, Michel.

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