Morris Brown Tries to Rebuild; Debt-Ridden Historically Black College Struggles Forward

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Basinger, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- Surrounded by homecoming decorations and autumn-hued trees, Marlon Pugh walked the campus of Morris Brown College last week with few classmates in sight.

Pugh is one of 73 students who returned this fall to the debt-ridden school in downtown Atlanta, six months after the historically black institution unsuccessfully appealed to regain its accreditation.

Pugh said his faith in the college is unfazed, even in the wake of the accreditation loss -- which makes Morris Brown students ineligible for federal and state financial aid.

"I like the school," said the 19-year-old biology major from Augusta. "It's real family-oriented here. You feel the teacher-student connection."

But many others didn't see things the same as Pugh.

Morris Brown's enrollment dropped from nearly 2,700 students in fall 2002 to 1,300 in January, as the public learned more details about the school's multi-million-dollar debt.

After the April appeal failed, most students transferred to other schools, such as Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and other historically black schools nearby.

Now, fewer than 40 students live on Morris Brown's campus. This year's freshman class is eight students.

All classrooms and instructor offices have been consolidated into one building, while much of the athletic programs have been shut down.

A skeleton crew of faithful administrators, teachers and students remain. They say they are devoted to restoring the reputation of a school known for educating anyone willing to work hard.

Linda Myler, a 1969 Morris Brown graduate, had retired from her job at BellSouth last year, just as her alma mater began hemorrhaging students and staff.

Myler came back to Morris Brown, bringing her business experience from the private sector to her new role as the college's vice president of enrollment services.

"A lot of people thought we weren't even going to open the doors," she said. "But Morris Brown is at a good place to start over. We will grow our strengths and our traditions."

Adam Gibbs, a member of the transition team guiding Morris Brown's administration, said officials haven't decided when they will reapply for accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools.

"The first thing we have to do is get our ducks in a row," Gibbs said.

The school's primary tasks, Gibbs said, are to eliminate short-term debt, pay off long-term debt and find a new president to head the school.

Among the steps already taken is a new rule requiring all students to fully fund the current semester of education before they are enrolled for any future term. …