By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Episcopal Church is mounting a full-court press to save St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, ahead of an autumn accreditation review that could make or break the 151-year-old, church-affiliated, historically black institution.

In a bid to satisfy accreditors who need to see much-improved financial stability this year, St. Augustine’s has raised about $3 million, President Everett Ward said. But that’s not enough. The school still needs to raise another $3 million before June 30, he told TLC in a March interview.

“It’s the final push, so we’re pushing real hard,” Ward said. “We have obtained strong support from the Episcopal Church, and we’re looking for even more support.”

St. Augustine’s has an annual budget of about $26 million and had a $1.7 million deficit last year, Ward said. The school has been tackling deferred maintenance on buildings dating to the 1970s and ’80s, but still aims to end the fiscal year with a surplus, which is what accreditors like to see.

“We have addressed the financial control issues,” Ward said. “Once those are completely eliminated, which they will be this year, we will be facing a continued very bright future here at St. Augustine’s.”

From fundraising tours to in-kind donations, the church’s campaign to rescue St. Augustine’s before it’s too late has been a pillar of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s racial reconciliation agenda for his episcopacy since his installation in 2015. It also marks an attempt, observers say, to learn from past mistakes, including costly indifference and neglect that preceded closure of other Episcopal-affiliated historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as recently as 2013.

Support has been welling up across the Episcopal landscape with encouragement from Curry, who preached at Ward’s installation in 2014 while serving as Bishop of North Carolina. At the time, his Raleigh office was located less than two miles from the campus, and Curry came to know the school’s history and challenges intimately.

To mobilize support, Curry has asked more than 15 diocesan bishops and other clergy to host forums at which Ward will address potential donors, said Tara Elgin Holley, the church’s director of development. Twenty-five parishes and dioceses (including Central Florida and Rochester) have helped raise funds for St. Augustine’s.

Parishes have proven instrumental in marshaling support. One fundraiser at Christ Church in Raleigh netted $65,000. Another $29,000 was raised at St. Paul’s Church in Atlanta to support scholarships at St. Augustine’s. At Bishop Curry’s initiative, a church-wide collection of the Blessed Absalom Jones offering garnered more than $10,000 for the school, and another $10,000 for Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina.

Curry has also supported assigning national church staff, including development officers, to work closely with St. Augustine’s. Among the goals: to shore up fundraising programs and otherwise help the school show accreditors what they need to see in order to lift sanctions. Canon Lang Lowrey of the Diocese of Atlanta has helped upgrade software at the school to enhance financial controls with a new system that goes live on May 1, Ward said.

“We’re pulling out all the stops,” Holley said. “We’re trying to build a more traditional fundraising model for the two schools,” she said, referring to St. Augustine’s and Voorhees College. Building relationships with bishops, foundations, and parishes is central to that approach.

St. Augustine’s and Voorhees are the only two remaining Episcopal-affiliated HBCUs. The Episcopal Church historically had ties to 10 HBCUs, but the other eight have closed, including St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, in 2013.

To save St. Augustine’s now would be to preserve the church’s oldest HBCU, founded in 1867 with a mission to educate former slaves. Preparing candidates for the priesthood was a goal from the early days, according to Ward, and is part of the school’s vision for reconnecting with its ecclesiastical roots.

An administrative shakeup in 2014 followed several disclosures of the school’s financial woes, including unpaid contractors and overtime pay owed to staffers. Since then, Ward has made closer ties to the church a central plank in his administration’s strategy to save the school.

For St. Augustine’s, the stakes now are sky-high, and time is quickly running out. Since December 2016, St. Augustine’s has been on probation after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) deemed the school to be lacking adequate funds, plans, and financial controls.

“Probation is the most serious public sanction imposed by SACSCOC’s board of trustees short of loss of accreditation,” the board wrote in its December 2017 report on St. Augustine’s. “The maximum consecutive time that an institution may be on probation is two years. In December 2018, Saint Augustine’s University will have been on probation for two years.”

At this critical moment, St. Augustine’s must either demonstrate financial soundness or lose accreditation. The latter would likely be a death knell for St. Augustine’s, observers say. As soon as schools become unaccredited, they struggle mightily to attract students and qualify for student loan financing. Enrollments then plunge and doors quickly close, said historian Bobby Lovett, author of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Narrative History, 1837-2009.

That happened to St. Paul’s College, which was shuttered one year after it lost accreditation for various financially related problems, including inadequate financial controls and not enough PhDs on the faculty.

St. Paul’s could have averted its fate if the Episcopal Church had stepped up in the manner now seen in the St. Augustine’s campaign, said Eric Williams, former vice chairman of St. Paul’s board of trustees. He said St. Paul’s asked for every type of support the church now provides for St. Augustine’s — in-kind guidance on fundraising, introductions to potential benefactors, diocesan partnerships, active support from the presiding bishop’s office.

“We asked the church for anything and everything that we needed in areas where they had the ability to assist,” Williams said. “The church could have done so much more; not just green-lighting the monies that were needed, but also directing students from their dioceses to say, Hey, you need an opportunity? St. Paul’s is a good place where you could go. … The help just wasn’t there at the end of the day.”

The money trail does show a decline in financial support from the Episcopal Church at the time. Three weeks after St. Paul’s lost its accreditation, General Convention in July 2012 slashed church support for all three HBCUs by 9.7 percent; each institution lost more than $70,000 in the cut.

On the diocesan level, the Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith, Bishop of Southern Virginia, told TLC he had researched how St. Paul’s might be saved but ultimately deemed the debt too large and the situation unfixable. He supported a proposal for St. Augustine’s to take over St. Paul’s campus, but St. Augustine’s rejected the idea.

“It’s always important for us to support our Episcopal institutions, but we also have to have some sense of whether those institutions are viable,” Hollerith said. With St. Paul’s, “never at any point did any workable strategy come to light, except for [the proposed merger with] St. Augustine’s.”

As the church aims to save St. Augustine’s, longtime champions of HBCUs are being heard. The Rev. Canon James Callaway, general secretary of Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, says Episcopalians routinely ask him: “Why do we need HBCUs?” He jumps at the opportunity to explain. They not only blend practical higher education and personal development, but also serve justice.

“What the HBCUs do is take smart kids that have been poorly prepared and put them on a fast track,” Callaway said.

All HBCUs struggled in the past decade, Callaway said, as federal loan formulas penalized students who took more than four years to graduate. Such formulas are being remedied, but only after a period when enrollments dropped across the board because unfunded students were forced to drop out.

To shore up support, the Episcopal Church now makes sure the needs of St. Augustine’s and Voorhees are never far from leadership’s radar. What began as an HBCU task force has become an HBCU Committee of Executive Council during this first triennium of Curry’s tenure as presiding bishop (2015-18). In effect, the panel establishes a permanent advocate within church governance, which can help connect the schools with resources and potential supporters around the church.

“The church is doing it now because it recognizes that we’re very blessed to have two outstanding HBCUs and we want to make sure that they survive,” said the Rev. Martini Shaw, chairman of Executive Council’s HBCU Committee. “And we have a presiding bishop now who certainly feels it is important to save these two HBCUs.”

At St. Augustine’s, the challenge remains one of demonstrating financial sustainability. (Unlike St. Paul’s, its faculty standards have not drawn criticism from accreditors). Enrollment is a key factor because the school has a tuition-based financial model. Enrollment dropped from 1,508 in 2010 to 945 in 2016, but has climbed back to 975 this year. Sustainability depends on enrollment exceeding 1,000, Ward said. He expects St. Augustine’s to reach that level next year with help from dioceses in raising the school’s visibility and recruiting students.

The strategy appears to be helping. By offering a 50-percent tuition discount for Episcopal students, St. Augustine’s has increased the Episcopal cohort in its student body from just one in 2016-17 to 60 in 2017-18, Ward said. After the discount, Episcopal students pay $8,500 per year in tuition plus another $8,500 for room, board, and fees. St. Augustine’s will need to cap enrollment in the Episcopal discount program at some point, but not yet, Ward said.

Accreditors will assess next fall whether all the newly mobilized church support has been sufficient to save St. Augustine’s accreditation. A decision is expected in December. Then the fate of St. Augustine’s will represent either an important battle won for Bishop Curry’s racial reconciliation agenda or a stinging defeat if the school does not survive.

“The church has provided administrative support and professional assistance that gives us a leg up,” Ward said. “That would have been a challenge for the institution [to afford] while we’re working on this turnaround strategy.”

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