Education

St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh remains on probation

People walk across the main courtyard on campus at St. Augustine’s University. St. Augustine’s University will remain on probation for another year, its accrediting agency decided Tuesday.
People walk across the main courtyard on campus at St. Augustine’s University. St. Augustine’s University will remain on probation for another year, its accrediting agency decided Tuesday. 2014 News & Observer file photo

St. Augustine’s University will remain on probation for another year, its accrediting agency decided Tuesday.

The move was among several actions taken by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a regional agency that accredits schools, colleges and universities based on standards of integrity, governance, academic quality and financial health.

Also Tuesday, the agency affirmed accreditation for UNC-Chapel Hill and removed Elizabeth City State University from a warning over its admissions and financial practices. Last year, the commission placed ECSU on a warning following problems revealed in an internal audit by the UNC System. ECSU, which has struggled with enrollment and falling revenue, now has a clean bill of health from the commission.

Probation was continued for St. Aug’s for another year, based on two issues — financial problems and questions of institutional effectiveness, according to a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based commission. The decision was reached Tuesday by the commission’s board at a meeting in Dallas.

St. Aug’s, a historically black college near downtown Raleigh, has struggled with financial issues for years and its small size has made it especially vulnerable to enrollment declines.

The university’s president, Everett Ward, said the commission’s decision was expected and what he requested. In an interview late Tuesday, he said the university is on the right trajectory, with rising enrollment and donations, but needs another year to make improvements. He said the university’s accreditation remains intact, “for good cause.”

“They have an appreciation for the hard work that we’re doing and the turnaround strategy that we’ve put in place,” Ward said.

Enrollment this year stands between 970 and 980 – up from 945 last year, Ward said. Alumni giving has increased, he said, and the university has reduced its debt by $1 million.

“We’re very encouraged that we are in the right track and moving in the right direction, but we know we have some tough days ahead. ... We’re putting our shoulders to the wheel and doing what we have to do,” Ward said.

In the coming months, he said, St. Aug’s will work to automate some of its accounting systems and improve technology infrastructure, possibly implementing an online course registration system. “You’ve got to be automated in all aspects of the university,” Ward said.

Ward, a St. Aug’s alumnus, former state Department of Transportation administrator and executive director of the state Democratic Party, became president of the university in 2014 with a long to-do list. His predecessor, Dianne Boardley Suber, was forced out by the university’s board amid financial problems, enrollment declines, staff cuts and a construction lawsuit.

As president, Ward has strengthened ties with the Episcopal Church. This year, the university celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Trustee Chairman Rev. Hilton Smith issued a statement of support for Ward. “The Saint Augustine’s University Board of Trustees stands behind President Ward and is working hard in partnership with the institution’s administration to continue to make improvements,” he said, in an effort to take the university “to higher heights, while preserving the University’s history.”

St. Aug’s is not the only North Carolina university to be sanctioned Tuesday. In other actions, the SACS Commission on Colleges:

▪ kept Bennett College, in Greensboro, on probation for another year;

▪ put Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte, on probation;

▪ put Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, on probation.

The probation actions come at a time when many small private colleges are struggling to thrive in a competitive higher education market.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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