Facing daunting days, St. Aug's must adjust

April 8, 2014 

Dianne Boardley Suber was president of St. Augustine’s University for 14 years, and her departure could not be what she had imagined. Hit by a financial crisis and apparently angry because a vice president had gone directly to trustees with problems, Suber couldn’t avoid the tumult. She announced her retirement Friday but was then dismissed by trustees.

Suber found herself inside a whirlwind of problems. A drop in enrollment resulted in a $3 million decrease in tuition revenue. And the consequences of an ill-considered decision to push for a football team ultimately came to roost with a suit from a stadium contractor for $675,000 in overdue payments.

Unfortunately, that isn’t all. The school may face accreditation questions, and the U.S. Department of Labor found that the university had failed to pay some employees for overtime work.

Universal problems

Despite clear financial problems, university officials last year toyed with buying St. Paul’s College in Virginia that, like St. Aug’s, is a small historically black institution. That seemed a strange contemplation at the time. Now it seems just fanciful.

Was Suber a president in turmoil who did not like dissenting views from subordinates? It’s impossible to say. She was most certainly devoted to the institution and doubtless was scrambling to find ways for it not just to survive but to prosper.

But St. Aug’s has the problems that most historically black colleges and universities have these days: Federal money isn’t what it used to be; minority students, fortunately, have more choices of colleges and universities to attend now that they aren’t excluded because of their race from large, established institutions; the competition for the best students is keen; expenses are up.

And fundraising is difficult. Alumni simply are going to have to dig deeper than they have been, not just at St. Aug’s but at all private HBCUs.

As Suber’s departure was being announced, a stark contrast between public and private HBCUs was also being spotlighted. At N.C. Central University, an HBCU in Durham, a new chancellor was being formally installed.

Daunting days ahead

Debra Saunders-White has many ambitious hopes for her school, and she’ll have a chance to achieve them. The school is part of the University of North Carolina System and therefore enjoys public support. That is vital to NCCU’s future because N.C. Central is facing the same challenges that St. Aug’s and other HBCUs must confront in terms of competing for students.

For St. Aug’s, some daunting days are ahead. The university must do whatever is needed to ensure it maintains accreditation, and that’s likely to be priority one for any new chancellor. If a school has accreditation problems, the very best students won’t even look at it because that status is key to a degree leading to the workplace or to graduate school.

The university will have to look perhaps at curtailing some programs to focus on building a solid core. Downsizing is not something any university wants to contemplate, but it appears that’s an option St. Aug’s will have to look at. Might it also consider combining some programs with other universities nearby, including other private HBCUs in North Carolina?

Trustees and members of the alumni corps, many of whom credit St. Aug’s with giving them that inspirational leg up toward success, now must push alums to come to the aid of the school that provided them an education and raised their horizons. Big increases in federal money are unlikely. The university must do more for itself.

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