HBCU, helped by Jamal Bryant’s church and Kanye West, resurrecting after financial scandal

Kevin James, Ed.D., gives the presidential address at Morris Brown College's virtual homecoming. The African Methodist Episcopal Church-affiliated school beat its event fundraising goal and has wiped away tens of millions of dollars in debt as it seeks reaccreditation.
Kevin James, Ed.D., gives the presidential address at Morris Brown College's virtual homecoming. The African Methodist Episcopal Church-affiliated school beat its event fundraising goal and has wiped away tens of millions of dollars in debt as it seeks reaccreditation. | Morris Brown College

Morris Brown College, which made headlines when Jamal Bryant’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church established scholarships there from a gift by Kanye West, is close to reaccreditation 17 years after a financial scandal cost it millions in federal aid and almost all its students.

President Kevin James said his job has been “to bring this institution out of the grave."

"We’re now walking and breathing again," James said Tuesday. "Now it’s time to go to the next level.”

West donated to the Georgia church in October 2019 shortly after announcing he had become a born-again Christian. In turn, Pastor Bryant redirected part of it to MBC for scholarships in the names of the rapper’s mother, Donda, and Vanessa Long, widow of the church’s late shepherd, Eddie Long.

MBC started in 1881 as a resolution by the African Methodist Episcopal Church — America’s first African-American denomination — to establish an educational institution in Atlanta. Morris Brown Colored College opened in 1885 as the first school in Georgia owned and operated independently by black people.

The college had 2,500 students when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked its accreditation due to the institution’s shaky finances.

In 2004, a U.S. attorney filed a 34-count indictment against former President Dolores Cross and ex-financial aid director Parvesh Singh for submitting falsified enrollment reports to gain federal money for covering shortfalls in other areas of the school.

Since their wrongdoing benefited the college, not themselves, the two did not go to jail but served several years of probation and house arrest as well as making some restitution.

Without federal loan and grant dollars, MBC enrollment steadily fell to a low of 25, James said Tuesday in an online news availability hosted by The Christian Recorder, the AME’s official news outlet.

But there are now 53 students enrolled at the Atlanta-based school, he said, all taking classes on the internet this fall due to COVID-19.

Not only has the school secured full operating authority from the state, but it is also targeting federally approved accreditation in April 2021 from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.

TRACS is an evangelical agency that holds to the verbal inspiration of Scripture. It began in 1979 “to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions whose mission is characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose,” according to its website.

TRACS will conduct a site visit in early January to see whether the school is meeting standards and receive its self-study. The agency will vote three months later on whether to grant “candidate” status, which gives MBC five years to achieve full accreditation but allows students to immediately start receiving federal aid.

“Without accreditation, you will not be able to survive,” James explained.

Not only has a lack of accreditation cost student aid, it also resulted in the federal government denying Morris Brown any of the $1.3 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act set aside for historically black colleges and universities.

In December 2019, President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill that restored $85 million in permanent federal funding for HBCUs.

The college president added that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris promised HBCUs an additional $70 billion in funding, and he and other officials of those schools need to make sure they keep their word.  

One of the top priorities in office for James, 42, is to shore up MBC finances.

The school’s fiscal year ending June 30 showed an infusion of cash of nearly $1.2 million, boosted greatly by nearly $2 million in private donations.

He also said $555,000 came in during the college’s virtual homecoming last month, a record for the event and 11% over its goal.

Most of the funds came in large gifts, such as $100,000 from a medical doctor who graduated from Morris Brown more than 40 years ago. New Birth’s Bryant hosted a web-based worship service during homecoming.

TRACS will examine MBC’s curriculum, faculty qualifications, staffing and enrollment in majors, school administration, finances and overall stability.

Without an endowment and having lost 36 acres of real estate in settling $35 million in debt, James is betting on showcasing the ability to bring in donations and secure grants as well as attract students once federal financial aid is restored.

James already has secured state permission to offer an eSports concentration in MBC’s business degree program. He also hopes to bolster its bachelor’s degree in hospitality management by luring investors or an established company to operate a hotel on campus, which is close to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Warned of difficult relations with MBC’s mother denomination, the college president said he has been very appreciative of the denomination forgiving millions in school debt and continuing to sow into the education ministry.

“My first week on the job, the AME Church handed me a check for $50,000,” he said, adding that its Council of Bishops “forgave over $4 million in debt [for] Morris Brown College to help us get in a position to be accredited, to save this institution from closing.”

James, who holds a doctorate in higher education leadership, disclosed that officials of two closed black colleges have contacted him with questions about how MBC has been able to resurrect. The schools now have new interim presidents and revived boards, he said.

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