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Blue New Year at Morris Brown

College's uncertain future worries alumni

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The indictments three weeks ago that accused former Morris Brown President Dolores Cross and one of her lackeys of fraudulently misspending millions of dollars was just the capper on an enervating 18 months for the embattled black college. Since losing its accreditation in 2003, enrollment at the school has plummeted from the thousands to a measly 150. Morris Brown's endowment is virtually nonexistent. Its debt has reached $27 million.

Amid the successes of its brethren in the Atlanta University Center -- Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta -- Morris Brown has taken on the pallor of the terminally ill.

On his nationally syndicated radio show, Tom Joyner reiterated in November an offer to buy the college outright. Joyner, a graduate of Tuskegee in Alabama, runs an eponymous foundation that supports historically black colleges and universities across the country. Joyner also co-founded Reach Media, a company that operates his morning show, which is broadcast on more than 100 radio stations nationwide. After recently selling Reach Media for $56 million in cash and stock, Joyner said on his show that he wanted to purchase the school to "put it in a profitable situation."

Morris Brown's reaction to Joyner's offer was, at least initially, polite but surprisingly firm: We're not for sale.

But Joyner isn't out of the picture. While school officials won't comment and Joyner was unavailable for an interview, a spokesman for him says Joyner is "continuing to have discussions with the school about his interests."

What form those interests may take is up in the air. But the need is urgent. The school's loss of accreditation means it is no longer eligible for federal dollars, and even the United Negro College Fund has dropped the school from its roster. Without a prompt and hefty influx of cash, Morris Brown's days are numbered.

Such grim realities have both depressed and energized alumni such as Rhea Watson. Watson is secretary for Morris Brown's national alumni association. In 2003, she and a fellow graduate set up www.mbclegacy.com, a rudimentary website that acts as a sort of clearinghouse for information about the college. So far, the site has registered 500 alumni. For Watson, who now lives in Las Vegas, the goal was to quash erroneous gossip about the place, including rumors of the school's demise. In fact, "Morris Brown College is still open!" is the first message on the site's home page.

Although she graduated from Morris Brown more than seven years ago, Watson's love for the place hasn't diminished. She recalls transferring there as a 19-year-old from a college she declines to identify -- a place where, in the midst of sexism and racism, she saw her GPA fall to 1.2.

"Morris Brown College was like the homeboy school. It gave people a chance. You'd see alums working in the office, and it wasn't because they couldn't find other jobs. It was because they didn't want to leave, and they had so much they wanted to give back."

To Watson, the salvation of Morris Brown lies not in just the thousand-dollar donations from places such as Big Bethel, in whose basement the school was founded in 1881.

"Thousands of dollars is just not gonna do it," Watson says. "You need millions of dollars." Watson wants school officials to solicit big contributions from Fortune 500 companies.

Besides Joyner, however, there isn't exactly a line of millionaires at the school's door. In fact, ever since Morris Brown's troubles began in 2003, some have said the school should just throw in the towel.

Others say it can -- and should -- be saved.

"If this were a predominantly white institution, would we just let it go? Yes, we probably would," says Marybeth Gasman, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on historically black colleges. "But Morris Brown has a legacy that most institutions don't have. It was created by African-Americans for African-Americans. It's a culturally rich place."

Gasman believes Morris Brown can try to build back up to what it was -- or can refashion itself as a junior college to its neighboring black colleges, such as Clark Atlanta.

Wole Ralph, a 1999 Morris Brown graduate who came to the college as a top high school graduate and who won a seat on the Clayton County commission last fall, says the school is worth preserving. The 27-year-old points to Morris Brown's contributions to the community.

"Morris Brown has been able to graduate some outstanding alumni who've been able to assume various leadership roles," Ralph says. "You find that the community is calling for Morris Brown graduates to support them and lead them."

steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com

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