The Case For, and Against, Paine College

How industrial change and institutional negligence is killing our most vulnerable HBCUs.

How industrial change and institutional negligence is killing our most vulnerable HBCUs.

Officials at Paine College will file a federal lawsuit against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, just hours after the association’s recent denial of an accreditation appeal for the school.

The commission cited Paine’s failure to demonstrate a plan for future financial solvency as the root of its decision.

“Upon review of additional financial information submitted by the institution, the Appeals Committee found that Paine College, removed from accreditation solely for financial reasons, failed to produce evidence that the financial information presented since June 16, 2016, was new and verifiable and that it was material to the Board’s adverse decision,” the statement read in part.

“The Appeals Committee also stated that “…even if same information had been verifiable, Paine College did not provide material information to demonstrate a sound financial base and recent history of financial stability.”

Paine officials, in a message posted yesterday to the school’s website, denounced the SACSCOC denial, and accused the association of a violation of the school’s due process.

“This was not a review process that was governed by standards of due process,” Paine College President Dr. Samuel Sullivan. “Although we presented abundant evidence that we had satisfied the issues SACSCOC identified, SACSCOC chose to ignore such evidence. Fortunately, SACSCOC does not have the last word. We believe that a court of law, following standards of due process which are guaranteed by federal law but completely absent from our proceedings before SACSCOC, will vindicate our position and ultimately order our SACSCOC accreditation restored.”

It is not out of the ordinary for a school to sue and gain the support of a federal court in defense of its accreditation; in 2002, a district court sided with Auburn University in its lawsuit against SACS for violation of due process, and appointed a special investigator to oversee some matters in SACS investigation, but not those relative to management and meeting SACS Principles of Accreditation.

Auburn dropped the lawsuit two years later, citing more than $1 million in legal spending and the necessity to work with SACS in the future to keep its standing as a nationally-recognized institution of higher education. That move led to a local editorial in the Opelika-Auburn news that sums up how useless the fight with SACS turned out to be.

“Instead of addressing the long-standing, underlying problems that led to the complaints, Auburn sued to try to block the investigation, alleging that SACS was violating the university’s due process rights…Auburn must mend fences with SACS, and dropping the lawsuit is a good place to start. For one thing, it would partially address one of the shortcomings at Auburn cited by SACS: the university’s failure to demonstrate a commitment to accreditation and to cooperate with SACS.”

When It’s Over

Paine is taking a necessary course of action, but sadly, not one that will help to the school to thrive even with the restoration of accreditation. To its credit, this version of Paine’s board in partnership with the city of Augusta, has done an extraordinary job of working to save the campus and its economic impact on the region.

But where was this concern when the school canceled football after just one year, the same accreditation loss precursor that essentially killed Morris Brown College in 2002, and Saint Paul’s College in 2011, two years before the school finally closed in 2013?

Where was this coalition when the school was initially placed on probation in 2014, when audits revealed that the school was operating at financial losses exceeding $300,000?

Where was the urgency when the website The Paine Project, debuted in 2014 and revealed documentation, timelines and projections of the scandal draining the institution’s coffers, workforce, enrollment and morale?

An HBCU doesn’t just close suddenly and by happenstance. Like accreditation revocation, it literally requires years of unchecked spending, maintenance of bad recruitment and enrollment practices, and the complete failure of an institution’s board of trustees to avoid running the school into the ground.

Stakeholders have raised more than $4 million to keep the school open, and more than 500 students remain enrolled there. Has anyone from Paine told those donors or those students that even if they spend enough in legal fees to keep accreditation, the federal government could at any point, deny the school’s eligibility for its students to receive financial aid as a result of its history of trouble?

Asking the city of Augusta, and Paine faculty and students to rise to an occasion slaughtered by university leadership over the last five years, is morally criminal. It is not fair to have brought the best out of this community for a fight it lost years ago, and to ask people to give money, prayers, time and fortitude on the essence of HBCU, when leaders abused that notion for so long.

If Paine had been serious about survival, it would have sought merger with another black college two years ago. If it were serious about financial solvency, it would have begun serious fundraising five years ago.

And if Paine is serious about its community today, it will use the $4 million it has raised not to finance a federal lawsuit, but to help students find and fund transfer options, and to give its faculty and staff reasonable severance as they prepare to find other jobs.

Paine as an idea must survive. Paine as a community entity was once worthy of good leadership and community investment.

But in its last days, Paine, like so many other HBCUs which have been and are currently being decimated by low resources, ego, and unfamiliarity with industrial trends, has not earned the right to survival, or the fight for the same.