Atlanta's Morris Brown College charts a new course
Morris Brown College is making a comeback. The school recently regained accreditation after almost 20 years without it. Enrollment is up and expected to keep growing. It has a new Esports program. The school also has plans to build a hotel on campus to train students to work in the hospitality and service industries. School President Kevin James has created the hashtag #thehardreset to engage people on social media.
A storied history
Morris Brown is the first Georgia college that was owned and operated by Black people for Black people. It was founded by Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and opened in 1881. The college thrived for more than a century but hit hard times in 2003.
“Morris Brown lost its accreditation due to financial mismanagement, but now it’s under a new regime,” said James, who stepped up to lead the college in 2019.
Financial mismanagement is an understatement. Two school administrators were indicted for fraud and Morris Brown filed for bankruptcy.
The college had to give up its membership in the Atlanta University Center. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) revoked Morris Brown’s accreditation, which meant the school couldn’t accept federal money, including financial aid. Enrollment dwindled to dozens of students.
The school stayed alive due to alumni donations and the AME Church. The students who attended usually needed a diploma, according to R. Candy Tate.
“Because they had a degree they could get a promotion or raise,” she said. “So sometimes it wasn’t the fact that it was accredited, but just that some folks could go.”
Tate is helping Morris Brown fundraise to restore one of its most historic buildings, Fountain Hall. The college secured a $2.9 million federal grant in January, part of which will go toward the restoration.
‘The Cornell for hospitality’
When James was hired to lead Morris Brown, some people were skeptical he’d be able to fundraise. Marybeth Gasman wasn’t one of them. She’s an expert on historically Black colleges and has consulted for Morris Brown. She’s also known James for a long time.
“Even when people shut a door in his face, he just decided to go down the chimney, through the back door, in a window,” she said. “He was going to crawl through the root cellar. He was going to get in, and I think people underestimated him.”
She said James also has a strong leadership team.
“He’s just spent time bringing in good people,” Gasman said.
In addition to regaining accreditation and boosting fundraising, James has developed partnerships with public and private entities. The school offers a handful of degrees now, but James expects to offer more. He wants Morris Brown to be the go-to college for hospitality and service degrees.
“It is my goal that Morris Brown is the Cornell University for hospitality for HBCUs,” he said. “We’re building a $40 million hotel on the campus where students get hands-on learning both in the restaurant, as well as the hotel. They’re going to go out into the workforce with all the skills that they need to be able to compete.”
A private school, Morris Brown is more affordable than other Atlanta HBCUs and private colleges. Enrollment is just under 300 students, but James expects more than 400 next fall. He wants to get enrollment back up to its peak of around 2,500 students eventually. Marybeth Gasman thinks he can get there.
“He’s not going to reach it tomorrow,” she said. “But I think if that’s a goal, he’ll reach it. He’s met every other goal.”