When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) placed Bethune-Cookman University on probation (pdf), the organization gave the school a deadline of March 25, 2019, to report its progress in fixing the numerous problems at the school. Following the commission’s review of that report, a special committee will visit the institution in spring 2019. In July, after an onsite visit, the organization will make one of three recommendations:
- Allow the college to continue as a fully accredited university;
- Extend the school’s probation period or;
- Remove Bethune-Cookman from SACSCOC’s list of accredited institutions.
SACSCOC is looking for B-CU to address the body’s core requirements which the commission found lacking when the institution was placed on probation. B-CU’s report and site visit will have to respond to these specific concerns:
- Integrity: Does the university “operate with integrity in all matters”?
- Board of trustees: Is Bethune-Cookman’s board of trustees characterized by “fundamental autonomy and [the] ultimate well-being of the institution” as stated in the commission’s “Principles of Accreditation (pdf)?”
- Trustee independence: SACSCOC will also have to determine if “both the presiding officer of the board and a majority of other voting members of the board are free of any contractual, employment, personal, or familial financial interest in the institution [and] is not controlled by a minority of board members or by organizations or institutions separate from it.”
Even if the college is able to convince the board that it has moved past its problems with ineptitude, infighting and internal subterfuge, there is still the question of whether the school has the financial resources to even remedy the final two standards that SACSCOC will investigate before accrediting the school:
- Financial resources: Does the institution have enough “financial resources and a demonstrated, stable financial base to support the mission of the institution and the scope of its programs and services”?
- Control of finances: Does B-CU exercise “appropriate control over all its financial resources”?
To satisfy the SACSCOC requirements, BC-U commissioned a financial audit. As a private university, the school had never had to make its finances public. Court documents and accountants who had previously reviewed the school’s financial records indicated that President Hubert Grimes had been kept in the dark about the B-CU’s finances for years. But on March 22, students, alumni, faculty and the public got an unfiltered, detailed look into Bethune-Cookman’s pockets for the first time ever.
It was even worse than anyone had imagined.
Before the audit (pdf) revealed the numbers behind Bethune-Cookman’s financial status, the accounting team foreshadowed the school’s dire financial straits with a foreboding spoiler alert, writing in the report’s preamble:
“... the University has suffered recurring, significant operational losses, is operating under a probationary accreditation status, and its borrowing arrangements are subject to acceleration by the creditors due to a technical default. These matters, among other things, raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”
“There’s no more sugar coating, there’s no more misleading, there’s no more lies, there’s no more deceit. It’s out there for the world to see,” National Alumni Association President Robert Delancy told the News-Journal. “So now it’s time for us to all work together to see what we can do to save our university because the board of trustees is damn sure not going to do it.”
The audit casts a shadow on almost every financial consideration that SACSCOC will scrutinize before making a decision on the historic college’s accreditation. Some of the most alarming details revealed by the audit include:
- B-CU’s liabilities climbed from $86 million in 2015 under former President Edison O. Jackson, to $97 million for the 2018 fiscal year.
- During the same time period (2015-2018) nearly half of the school’s assets (excluding buildings) disappeared, going from $39 million to $21 million.
- At the beginning of 2018, Bethune-Cookman had $7 million in cash. By the end of the 2018 fiscal year, the amount had dwindled to $2 million.
- Between 2017 and 2018, enrollment had declined by 9 percent.
- The report revealed that the university had been operating at a deficit and “has not executed operational changes necessary to generate positive cash flows.”
The specter of losing accreditation is forcing some students to have to make a hard choice between leaving their beloved HBCU or continuing to matriculate at a college that might not be an accredited institution next year. Perhaps the greatest consequence to losing accreditation is that the school would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid, which would be ruinous to the school, according to Bethune-Cookman faculty members, alumni and several higher education experts and who spoke to The Root. At a school where 94 percent of the student body receives some kind of financial aid, losing accreditation would essentially be a death sentence for the college.
“We are at the point now where we are not trying to fix the problems, we’re just focused on trying to get students to stay,” explained one BC-U faculty member. “If we lose students, then we lose the ability to pull ourselves out of this situation.”
Even in the face of all this turmoil and consternation, it must be noted that there are no reports that the quality of education and resources have declined at Bethune-Cookman.
“That’s the sad part,” Delancy told The Root. “By all accounts, Bethune-Cookman continues to uphold a tradition of educational excellence. This is not on the students or the faculty. They are the victims.”
Bethune-Cookman University is an extreme example of the state of the historically black college but by no means is this story unique.
In 2002, Morris Brown College, the only HBCU in Atlanta named for an African American, lost its accreditation due to financial aid fraud. The institution would eventually file for bankruptcy in 2012. This year, the school which once boasted a student body of 2,700, had 42 students enrolled.
Earlier this year, donors including Jussie Smollett raised $8.2 million in an attempt to keep Bennett College from losing its accreditation from SACSCOC. It did not work. The commission still revoked Bennett’s accreditation for lack of financial resources. The North Carolina school subsequently filed an injunction and SACSCOC agreed to a consent order (pdf) that reinstated Bennett College as an accredited member of SACSCOC while the lawsuit works its way through federal court.
Even HBCUs that are flourishing still encounter infighting and financial mismanagement. In 2018, Howard University, which has the largest endowment of any historically black college, was plagued by a financial aid scam and a housing crisis that led students and faculty to call for President Wayne A.I. Frederick’s resignation. Morehouse College, another member of the “Black Ivy League,” completely dismantled its leadership, including the board of trustees and its president, after a student lawsuit, a faculty outcry and SACSCOC warning the famed institution about the makeup of its trustee board.
“Three things separate the [historically black colleges] that barely survive from the ones who thrive,” explained John Wilson, Harvard University’s senior presidential adviser and former president of Morehouse College. “It’s about the school’s cultural infrastructure, their capital infrastructure, and the governance infrastructure ... And the greatest of the three is governance culture.”
Wilson has spent his life promoting and uplifting institutions of higher education dedicated to serving African Americans. Aside from returning to his alma mater to serve as its president, Wilson also led the Obama White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“In almost all of these cases, there is something about the culture that tolerated corruption and incompetence,” said Wilson. “I’m telling you, people know about this stuff. I know there’s corruption at a number of HBCUs and it has nothing to do with black culture. It’s the culture of familiarity. It’s a constant fight against ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ Even when they know that way is not the right way.”
Wilson says that the ultimate survival of HBCUs depends on whether or not they transform themselves in the same way that many other colleges are changing in the world of higher education.
“Let’s say you have a Kool-Aid stand,” Wilson explained. “There are two kinds of people: One person running the Kool-Aid stand would see a refrigerated Coca-Cola truck go by and turn around and tell his partners: ‘Put some more ice in those cups.’ Another person running a Kool-Aid stand would recognize when a refrigerated truck would go by that ‘I better change, I better start taking my product to the people, I better figure out how to keep it cold, because the industry is changing and I’m in the beverage business; I’m in the Kool-Aid stand business, not the Kool-Aid business.’
“Whether or not some HBCUs have to die is a question for National Geographic,” Wilson noted. “I think HBCU boards have to recognize—in this case—what has happened in the higher ed industry of late, and those that are able to approximate the best practices are the ones that are gonna surge. Those that are unable to approximate the best practices in the higher ed industry are going to shut down.
“We don’t see Kool-Aid stands around anymore, do we?”
Bethune-Cookman is part of a beautiful black empire that gave birth to doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers for generations. And then, one day, someone smelled something burning. But at Bethune-Cookman University, instead of looking for the fire extinguisher, they ignored the alarms. They hired arsonists to serve as firefighters. They pretended there was no smoke.
“I truly believe we cannot only survive these challenges but also thrive after we hold those accountable for their negligence, said Terrence Cribbs-Lorrant, an alumnus of Bethune-Cookman. “But it will take total accountability and a move toward forgiveness for this to happen.”
When SACSCOC announces its decision in July, there is a slight chance that Bethune-Cookman will keep its accreditation and emerge from this inferno even stronger. Belvin Perry, who replaced Michelle Carter-Scott as chairman of the board of trustees in January, is confident that the school will be granted a second year of probation. Perry told The Root that he has recommended that Bethune-Cookman open its board meetings to the public to increase transparency and trust. He has also suggested that all board members resign, reapply and allow an independent group to select a new board.
There is always room for a miracle and we are nothing if not survivors. Aside from the dorm deal, the accreditation, plummeting applications and mounting debt, incoming President LaBrent Chrite is also expected to address the school technically defaulting on $17.5 million in loans. Although the school never missed a payment, its debt violated the terms of the loan contract.
“The immediate challenge is our financial governance—and active management of this issue will primarily drive our reaccreditation process,” Chrite wrote in an open letter to B-CU stakeholders (pdf). “Though my term officially starts in July, I am already at work with our new CFO, trustees and other stakeholders to develop recovery plans. The path forward will not be an easy one. Our institution’s situation requires fierce urgency and clear-eyed action by trustees, leadership, faculty, and staff. Successfully navigating our reaccreditation will require a well-coordinated, disciplined and sustained effort.”
Chrite says he plans to install accountability measures, revising internal controls as well as finding ways to manage the fiscal troubles. And if this story were a fairy tale, it would end with Chrite saving the school. The uplifting, imaginary version of this story would conclude with a benediction hoping B-CU will one day rise like the parable the phoenix—the mythical bird that dies in a combustion of exploding fire only to be born again from the ashes.
According to legend, the phoenix builds its own funeral pyre and ignites it with a clap of its own wings. However, the wonder of the phoenix is not in its rebirth but in its demise. How does the phoenix know in advance that it will be reborn, that each fire won’t be the last? Is each death a smoldering suicide or a brand new resurrection?
Like the fictional phoenix, the story of Bethune-Cookman University is, at once, a fairy tale and a tragedy. It could also be the story of any HBCU.
“Despite our past, we will make it,” Perry said. “We have to return to doing things properly and in order. We have to return to Dr. Bethune’s vision.
“She wanted to take those diamonds in the rough and polish those diamonds—those diamonds that other people had cast aside and thrown away. But she saw the worth and the beauty in that. And that’s why she fought so hard and others fight so hard.”
Once upon a time, there was a radiant, shimmering thing that soared high enough to press itself against the sky. It symbolized renewal, hope and the “exceptional man.” Oh, how it was a thing of beauty!
... Until it set itself on fire.
*Note: A previous version of this story said SACSOC could “reinstate” Bethune-Cookman’s accreditation when, in fact, the college continues as a fully accredited university.