Executives, consultants and staff members at Saint Augustine’s University (SAU) have growing concern about the future of the school, privately fearing that it is unlikely to pass an upcoming accreditation site visit from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), and that its third negative review in three years may close the 151-year-old institution for good.
Internal documents anonymously forwarded to the HBCU Digest reveal an institution divided by financial hardship and differences held by members at the highest levels of school leadership over the management of the school, and the capacity of its current administration to report and resolve issues honestly with stakeholders. Chief among those issues are questions about the school’s enrollment management strategy.
Since 2009, enrollment at the university has decreased by about 64% from 1,529 students to 974 in the fall 2017 semester. The last two years have produced an enrollment increase from a nine-year low of 810 students in 2015, but records indicate that SAU has confirmed attendance for just 122 paid first-time and transfer students as of July 20, 2018 for the upcoming fall semester out of 2,871 admitted students.
This figure is well short of its internal goal of an incoming class of 600 new students for the beginning of the school year.
FINANCIAL FUTURE UNCLEAR
Last month, Saint Augustine’s was one of several historically black colleges awarded debt relief in a federal Department of Education capital debt loan deferment program. The initiative will excuse the school from interest-bearing loan payments and penalties for the next six years and will return more than $1 million to SAU for its 2017-18 payment.
The debt relief alone, however, may not be enough to salvage the university’s challenges with revenue. In addition to its negative outlook on student enrollment income, budget proposal documents from the last two academic years reveal that the university increased revenues between its 2016 and 2017 fiscal years (FY), but increased spending as well, resulting in a net zero budget for the 2016 fiscal year, and a $1.2 million shortfall last year.
These losses parallel financial difficulties cited by SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan in her notice of probation letter to SAU President Everett Ward in January of 2018.
“Significant enrollment declines through 2015 with increases in fall 2016 and fall 2017, but net tuition and fee revenue decreased from $14.6M to $10.6M in FY 2016. Net tuition and fees only increased $100,000 with the enrollment increase in fall 2017. Net operating results were negative $700,000 in FY 2016 and $1,700.000 in FY 2017.”
According to Wheelan, total net assets declined by $8.1 million between 2014 and 2017, and operational unrestricted net income over the last three years has averaged $1.8 million.
The university, which has made headlines in recent years for staff layoffs and sales of campus property, has laid off more than 90 full-time or temporary employees, furloughed remaining staff members, and has yielded extraordinary turnover since the appointment of former SAU board member and alumnus Everett Ward as interim president in April 2014, and permanent president one year later.
PERSONNEL TURNOVER, EXECUTIVE STRIFE
In the last four years, the school has hired five chief financial officers, three vice-presidents for marketing, three vice presidents for student success, four different police chiefs and two provosts. The turnover was a point of dissension in a recent board evaluation of Dr. Ward in July 2018, in which trustees in job performance ratings and in written narratives showed a wide gap in its desire to fire or to keep him in the position.
According to documents, trustees rated Dr. Ward’s performance in several leadership areas (relationship with board of trustees, community relations, personnel relations, finance, personal qualities, physical plant, curricula, and student services) as a 70 out of a possible 100 percent rating, with Dr. Ward receiving highest marks in community and personnel relations and the lowest in finance and physical plant categories.
Personal narratives submitted by some trustees underscored the low rating.
“The president has continuously refused to follow the bylaws and the procedures/policies of the board of trustees,” wrote one board member. “He does not provide the board with the necessary reports so that informed decisions can be made for the greater good of the university. He does not provide follow-up for tasks that are given. He acts as if the board of trustees reports to him.”
Others expressed full confidence in Dr. Ward’s leadership.
“ [the] President has a difficult board with some members going beyond board authority and taking on administrative duties,” wrote another trustee. “President works well with who he has.”
Some trustee consensus focused on Dr. Ward’s frequent absence from campus and his dual role as general president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Dr. Ward has been featured nationally in conversations regarding the impact of fraternities and sororities on black communities, and the value of supporting historically black colleges and universities.
Updates from Dr. Ward and statements on national issues and fraternity happenings have been regular since his installation in July 2016, but regular administrative updates and presidential statements from the campus have been sparing since beginning his tenure as Alpha Phi Alpha general president over the last two years — and according to the university’s website, administrative updates have not been published since 2016.
In June, Dr. Ward issued statements on behalf of Alpha Phi Alpha condemning the NFL’s participation mandate for players to stand during the playing of the national anthem, and the federally-authorized separation of families in illegal immigration prohibition policies along the United States’ southern border.
Fraternity officials say that their organizational bylaws allow for the proper balance of both roles, and in a statement, said that Dr. Ward has the full support of its membership and leadership.
“Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. fully supports our 35th general president Dr. Everett B. Ward. The administrative structure of our fraternity has always lent itself to our elected leaders ability to excel in both their professional roles and their positions within our brotherhood. The strategic vision of Alpha Phi Alpha is competently set and perpetuated by our general president but ably executed by our executive director and chief operating officer who manages the staff and the day to day operations of the Fraternity.”
Trustees also cited the high number of firings and concern about unqualified persons holding key positions. These comments were echoed by reports compiled by higher education consultants, which indicated in both letters and memos to the president, that the school is likely to close without immediate and substantial changes.
“I am formally informing you and the Board of Trustees that in my expert opinion, I do not feel that St. Augustine’s University is ready or prepared for the upcoming accreditation site visit, and unless drastic measures are taken immediately, the institution will lose its accreditation and be closed,” wrote one consultant to Dr. Ward in a July 2018 letter.
The comments echoed statements in a consultant’s memo written to Dr. Ward following a March 2018 meeting with SAU officials.
“(The consultant) shared that time was of the essence and that SACSCOC would be less than willing to extend the time unless there was absolute and complete progress,” the memo reads. “That progress should be a balanced budget with a surplus, addressing reoccurring findings, addressing the current findings, having no findings in the most recent audit and an increase in enrollment.”
Both consultants recommended that SAU develop strategic plans for enrollment management, fundraising and financial management, while appointing qualified personnel to key administrative positions and increasing focus on the accreditation monitoring report.
Since issuing a ‘First 100 Days’ status report in 2014, the university has not published a strategic plan or made drafts or previous versions of a plan available on its website.
In December 2017, SACSCOC kept Saint Augustine’s on probation for continuing non-compliance in standards of financial resources and stability, institutional effectiveness in educational programs, and control of finances. According to officials, the institution is required to submit its fourth accreditation monitoring report before a Sept. 7, 2018 deadline, when a special committee will visit the campus to report on improvements in the areas of non-compliance.
In an emailed statement, Dr. Ward said that he remained committed to transparency concerning the university’s improvements and excited about its potential.
“It is a fact that since January, this administration, in total transparency, has made our internal and external stakeholders fully aware of all aspects of the accreditation process. As we communicated then, Saint Augustine’s University remains committed to serving our students with the highest academic standards possible and being in full compliance with the regional accrediting body, The Commission on Colleges of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. As President of Saint Augustine’s University, I remain excited and extremely optimistic about the students of this university and the future and viability of this 151-year-old institution of higher learning.”
SAU Board of Trustees Vice Chairman James E.C. Perry said that Dr. Ward has the full support of its members.
“The board of trustees fully support Dr. Ward and the administration. As a board, we are committed to resolving accreditation compliance issues and remain confident that each issue will be in compliance with SACSCOC standards. The board continues to be engaged with the administration in the accreditation process and looks forward to Saint Augustine’s University being removed from probationary status.”
Accreditation officials, however, were less than optimistic.
“With its upcoming review in December 2018, your institution will have exhausted its probationary status and its period of continued accreditation for good cause,” Dr. Wheelan wrote. “At that time, your institution must demonstrate compliance with all the requirements and standards of the Principles of Accreditation, or be removed from membership. The commission calls your attention to the enclosed policy entitled “Sanctions, Denial of Reaffirmation, and Removal from Membership.”