Driving around the Atlanta University Center one sunny afternoon, Dr. Kevin E. James, Morris Brown College’s interim president, had a lot on his mind. Only hired a few months ago, James has a laundry list of media requests, meet-and-greets, public meetings, and administrative duties on his schedule. He is the latest to take on the task of restoring Morris Brown’s accreditation, which among other benefits would give students the crucial ability to receive financial aid. It’s quite the task, but James, the former interim CEO of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, Inc., feels he’s up to it.
Morris Brown College, the first Georgia higher learning institution founded by black people, for black people, was once famous for being a place where African American students from all over the country could go to get a quality education, most of whom would be the first in their families to attend and graduate from college. The school once housed over 2,700 full-time students and Division I basketball and football programs, not to mention one of the most famous bands in all of collegiate sports in the Marching Wolverines. But massive debt lead to the school losing its accreditation status in 2002—and most of its students and faculty. But Morris Brown remains focused on its mission, despite having just 42 full-time students and working adults on campus at the moment.
James took time to answer a few questions on his vision for the historically black college, which is located just blocks from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena.
What’s so great about Morris Brown College?
Our history, legacy, tradition and alumni. This is the first HBCU in Georgia founded by black Americans, and it would be a travesty to lose Morris Brown College. This institution has had an economic and social impact on Georgia, and in Atlanta in particular.
How are you approaching your new role?
In the same way I approach leadership in general—you have to connect to people, and I go where the people are. They don’t have to come to me.
How important is it to personally connect with the alumni, especially those living in Atlanta?
I want to build trust with the alumni and let them know I am leading from a place of integrity, so it’s very important to be very transparent with them in order to properly tell the Morris Brown College story. So far the alumni have been very receptive, I recently met with an alumnus that dropped off a $3,000 donation check. When I connect with alumni and tell the our story, both good and bad, they are more likely to respond in that way.
What’s the current plan to restore Morris Brown’s full accreditation?
We have switched accreditation agencies and are now in the process of working with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). Our ties to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) tradition makes us a perfect candidate to be affiliated with TRACS, which focuses on getting Christian colleges and universities their accreditation. I will be making a trip to TRACS headquarters in Forest, Virginia early next month to begin the orientation process.
Along with accreditation, what else sits atop the to-do list?
I believe the major component of this process is rebuilding our financial credentials. The first step would be to regain our accreditation. We are also putting on a number of fundraisers as well. Nine times out of 10, the reason schools close is because of finances and the lack of fiscal stability. Morris Brown College has never closed, and we are still working on building trust within the community again in order to continue that legacy.
Fountain Hall, a 137-year old National Historic Landmark, is the oldest building directly associated with the Atlanta University Center still standing. Are there any plans to restore it?
My immediate focus is regaining accreditation and fiscal stability, but we have written a grant for the restoration of Fountain Hall and will be submitting it very soon.
What, if anything, are you taking from former President Dr. Stanley J. Pritchett’s plan to slowly get back to the traditional four-year university structure by focusing on things like a mix of online classes, vocational courses, and liberal arts classes, etc.?
As we continue to go through the process, we are going to be evaluating our three main courses of study: music, psychology and organizational management. We don’t have the traditional campus that we once had, so we are very much interested in the use of technology in evaluating educational options for our students.