It's Time to Just Believe in Morris Brown's Big Lie

Morris Brown College to regain accreditation after nearly 20 years

In 2019, the New York Times profiled the collapse of a chain of for-profit colleges that, before being laid to waste by policies from the U.S. Department of Education four years prior, had allegedly defrauded hundreds of thousands of students out of millions of dollars they paid for non-transferable college credits and useless degrees.

The Dream Center, a faith-based nonprofit had purchased several flailing for-profit institutions which had built their brands on recruiting veterans and working adults with the promises of accessible training and career mobility. Instead, the organization withheld funds from students and hoarded funds to maintain the schools’ operations.

Many of the schools the Dream Center bought would shutter or be sold to other companies, while learners from Argosy University, South University, and the Art Institutes were out of money, luck, and years away from relief from the Department of Education for loans they took out to finance their goals for a better life.

The Biden Administration has picked up where the Obama Administration left off, attempting to stamp out the for-profit industry while streamlining policies for students to claim negligence and fraud on the part of colleges, centered around faulty and misleading data.

The message is simple: America will help its people pay for colleges that legitimately educate and train students, and will take down colleges doing anything less than that.

That’s why the story about Morris Brown College and its purported return to greatness is so heartbreaking. The school and its leaders are today in the exact same position as for-profits were less than seven years ago, consistently misrepresenting value in the workforce marketplace, and selling false bills of hope about partnerships and development.

At least one former student has noticed the swindling tendencies of the institution, but MBC is pushing ahead with offering students admission for unaccredited courses this fall. The same way that for-profits seemingly defrauded Black students for years, Morris Brown is playing dozens of students on the strength of hope and the weakness of naïveté; unlike for-profits, MBC is shielded by the banner of the HBCU label and actively aided by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the federal government in their great caper.

Morris Brown President Kevin James has twice allowed in the last six months for local and national media to inaccurately report the college as having gained accreditation. Both instances were the school applying for and receiving candidate status with TRACS, a practice that the association itself brands as behavior commonly associated with degree mill institutions.

The media should be blamed for inaccurate information, but the school should also be blamed for its misleading language. What other conclusion can be drawn from a “THEY ARE BACK! HISTORY MADE!” headline?

The same was true with the school’s recent announcement of a Hilton hotel development deal on the campus ground, which the school announced as a $30 million investment but was actually an agreement to lease space to the hospitality conglomerate with an agreement to support hospitality training programming at the school.

TRACS has been a life-saving entity for HBCUs over the last decade. Paul Quinn College earned membership in 2011 after a year of candidate status, and Paine College in 2020 after a two-year process. Bennett College is currently in candidate status and the last among the three to lose membership with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges for chronic financial issues.

Morris Brown has had more than $4 million in debt forgiven by the AME Church, more than $20 million by the U.S. Department of Education, and has received federal grants in excess of $3 million to support public health outreach and facility renovations on the campus.

With all of that public and private support, tax filings as of 2018 reveal that the school posted a negative fund balance of more than $1.7 million. But Morris Brown continues to represent that “they’re back.”

If Morris Brown were to open its doors tomorrow with debt cleared and accreditation earned, it would essentially be a school starting from scratch. They would need millions in gifts and revenues to pay faculty and staff, to insure and modernize facilities, to market programs — all to undo generations of supporters growing up believing that the school is closed, and to correct the last few years of disinformation created by the institution itself.

Of the four most recent schools to absorb the death knell of accreditation loss, three of them have found or started to find a new way of doing business. They never falsified their successes or the milestones achieved along the way. The mightiest among them, Paul Quinn, is still just below 600 students more than a decade after reclaiming accreditation in spite of national attention, millions in public and private support, and complete campus revitalization.

With all of its successes, PQC continues to grind for brand awareness in a city where it is the only HBCU and relatively separated from competition forged by local public institutions — none of the advantages Morris Brown could ever enjoy in Atlanta.

That’s how tough a “hard reset” can really be. Meanwhile, Morris Brown’s president is touting the imminent return of the school’s marching band.

Saving Morris Brown has become a mantra for the HBCU community over the last generation, built up by the worthy idea of Black folks having educational autonomy and avoiding the indignity of losing institutions that have survived worse for more than 100 years. But this is a new, more financially perilous era of higher education and HBCU culture. Predominantly white schools in metropolitan Atlanta and beyond are actively working to attract Black students and to push HBCUs completely off the map while HBCU enrollment nationwide continues to drop to dangerous levels.

Fewer people want to attend college and of that number, a dramatically small percentage can actually afford it. Instead of marshaling resources to steel existing HBCUs against these threats, money and coverage are being afforded to a long-defunct HBCU in the hopes of creating folklore that rises to the narrative of “we are unbreakable.”

But this is what faith is made of; not belief in the absence of evidence but optimism that overtakes reason and interpretation. We never wanted Morris Brown to die so we have determined that it will not die. Much in the way that college officials are willing to stretch the truth, our community is willing to stretch logic and make this reclamation project a serious factor in the formula of overall HBCU survival.

It’s time to stop approaching the Morris Brown question with logic and strategy, and just believe. Because if politicians see it as a political victory, accreditors see it is as a standard-bearer for academic integrity, the church sees it as an article of divine intervention and the media sees it as clickbait, why allow wisdom to stand in the way of wishes?