By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Saint Augustine’s University, the Episcopal Church’s oldest historically black university, will remain open and return to good standing with accreditors after a two-year probationary period raised the specter that financial woes might force the school to close.
“You can’t understand what this day means for me, having been born here 60 years ago in that very building,” President Everett Ward said, pointing to where St. Agnes Hospital once stood on campus, at a press conference on Dec. 11. “By God’s grace, I am here to today and can report to you that we have saved Saint Augustine’s University.”
Ward made his comments after learning the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges would restore Saint Augustine’s to good standing. His announcement drew 30 seconds of sustained cheers and applause from students, faculty, and staff.
With no compliance issues left to resolve, the university can now turn to rebuilding enrollments, which dropped by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2017 to fewer than 1,000 students. Saint Augustine’s needs more than 1,000 students to be sustainable, Ward said.
Established in Raleigh in 1867, Saint Augustine’s is one of only two remaining historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The other is Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C. Eight other Episcopal HBCUs have closed.
Since 2014, Saint Augustine’s has been scrambling to avoid the fate of St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., which closed in 2013 after losing accreditation. The loss of accreditation rendered St. Paul’s unable to attract enough students.
To show accreditors the financial stability they sought, Saint Augustine’s trimmed academic degree programs, expanded fundraising, and cut staff positions. Among the most important steps, Ward said, was a transition from manual record-keeping to a system run on financial software. Canon Lang Lowrey of the Diocese of Atlanta helped the university design and implement the software system.
The Episcopal Church also provided in-kind support for Saint Augustine’s by helping develop traditional fundraising systems. Fundraisers held at Christ Church in Raleigh and St. Paul’s in Atlanta combined to raise more than $90,000 for Saint Augustine’s. The university receives $548,333 annually from the Episcopal Church.
“The Episcopal Church, with the strong support of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, has provided exceptional and ongoing financial support to the university,” Ward said.
HBCUs don’t always fare as well as Saint Augustine’s in weathering this latest storm, said historian Bobby Lovett, author of America’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities: A Narrative History, 1837-2009. He noted via email that HBCU trustees often lack the ability to raise significant sums of money, and “unacceptable” turnover rates among presidents can also contribute to “catastrophic collapse of academic and institutional stability.” But not all have succumbed to such problems.
“Many of the weak ones commendably are dogmatically holding on and with bulldog grips,” Lovett said.
Limited public funding and grant program restrictions combine to create challenges for HBCUs, where low-income students are the majority, said the Rev. Canon James Callaway, general secretary of Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion. He underscored the need for church support to continue.
“Like all other HBCUs, Saint Augustine’s University is tuition-driven and must find donors to educate their students well,” Canon Callaway said via email. “The difficulties are basically financial. Fortunately, in the last several years, Episcopalians, starting with Bishop Curry, have given the university a significant edge of support and assistance to put their financial house back in order. But we have to keep doing it for these smart students to continue to succeed.”