Professor Suggests Survival of the Fittest Strategy for AME Colleges

By Frazier, Herb | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

Professor Suggests Survival of the Fittest Strategy for AME Colleges


Frazier, Herb, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Closing some campuses and reallocating funds to others could be best option for struggling institutions.

CHARLESTON, S.C.

Like Morris Brown in Atlanta, a number of African Methodist Episcopal Church-sponsored colleges are in financial trouble. A College of Charleston history professor says AME could improve its colleges if it dosed weak campuses and moved resources to stronger ones.

Dr. Bernard E. Powers Jr. says the church should recapture the post-Civil War vision of AME Bishop Daniel A. Payne, a founder of Wilberforce University in Ohio and its first Black president It was Payne's dream for the church to have a college to train ministers and newly freed slaves.

But as the need to educate preachers in the pulpit and church members in the pews expanded across the South, so did the number of AME campuses.

At one point in its history, the AME church supported 12 junior and four-year colleges and seminaries in 10 states. Today, the number of AME-affiliated campuses has been reduced to eight schools in six states, mostly in the South. All of them have struggled financially.

"The church needs to look at whether it has too many schools, and it may very well find that we have too many," says Powers, who grew up attending St. James AME Church in Chicago. He is now a member of the steward board at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, Payne's birthplace. "Some may need to be closed or consolidated with an eye toward strengthening those that remain.

"Leaders of the church think it is prestigious to have a college in their district, but we don't just want to have a college," he continues. "We want to have colleges that turn out quality students."

AME Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson Jr. says Powers's idea "is not a new one in the least. It is something we have rehearsed again and again. But there are issues that have to be addressed when you talk about consolidation."

Initially, AME schools were an outlet for oppressed Blacks, says Richardson, chairman of the church's Commission on Seminary, Universities, Colleges and Schools and the presiding prelate of the second Episcopal District in Washington, D.C. "The schools were our contribution to the liberation of Black people. We hired people, and we gave stature to the professors. The colleges were the economic engine for communities."

The schools were originally founded by the annual conferences. But as they evolved, the school trustees gained stewardship of the campuses, holding them in trust for the annual conferences. The AME church contributes more than $4 million to the eight campuses, he says.

"At this point it would be difficult for the denomination to say 'shutdown,'" Richardson says. "The only thing the denomination could say is that we would withdraw our support But they are just not going to do that. Perhaps, we could better utilize our resources to help one or two institutions. But I don't see that happening. The AME church, as a denomination, only votes to give schools money. It does not say we have the authority to close you. That is the function of the trustees of the institutions."

Therefore, Richardson says, the question of who can shut down a campus is a legal issue. Only the trustees of each of the campuses can make that call, he says.

In recent years, the academic record of the eight campuses have given the church little to boast about. The campuses are open to anyone, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and all of them - including Wilberforce, the flagship institution - have experienced their share of problems. Morris Brown is the most recent example.

The college has lost its accreditation, and its former president, Dr. …

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