Here’s one way to know you’re getting old: When one of your college classmates becomes president of the college.
That revelation came unto me a decade ago when John S. Wilson, who was in Professor Lutton’s English class at Morehouse College at the same time as I, was named president of the school.
Prior to that, Wilson had served as President Obama’s HBCU czar, tasked with finding ways to ensure the continued existence of historically black colleges and universities. At the time I spoke with him, I was working on a story about the problems facing one of our local HBCUs.
He, in his professional capacity, summed up the situation thusly: “Some of our HBCUs have issues.”
None, it seems, has had as many issues in recent years as St. Augustine’s University.
The school seemingly goes through presidents as frequently as the Carolina Panthers football team goes through head coaches.
Like the Panthers, the university is struggling to put a winning team on the field.
Unlike the Panthers, St. Aug’s has no billion-dollar TV contract or deep-pocketed owner willing to fund its erors in judgment indefinitely.
That’s one reason St. Aug’s has lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and as a result finds itself in the news for dubious reasons: Without accreditation and the federal monies that would make it eligible for, the school’s very survival is imperiled.
But SACS didn’t sack St. Augustine’s merely for its precarious financial situation. On its website, SACS also cited “failure to comply with Core Requirement 4.1 (Governing board characteristics).”
From the outside looking in, it appears the only governing board characteristic is the board of trustees’ quick trigger finger when it comes to shooting down yet another leader.
Here’s a tip to St. Aug’s’s board of trustees - and to the Panthers’ owner: if all of the leaders you hire fail, you’re the problem.
It’s no consolation, but some HBCUs are not the only schools facing dire circumstances right now.
“It’s not just HBCUs” whose survival is in doubt, Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of SACS assured me, “but all small, private institutions that don’t have large endowments.”
She cited one Predominately White Institution (PWI) that, she said, chose to voluntarily close rather than have its accreditation taken – which it sensed would invariably lead to its closing.
Voluntarily giving up the ghost is not something that’ll happen at St. Augustine’s, Gilbert Knowles said.
“We’ve been here since 1867, and we’ll be here” through this latest crisis, Knowles said recently.
Knowles was president of the Student Government Association during my cameo appearance as a student on campus, and was figuratively and literally the Big Man on Campus. He met his wife of 46 years, Carolyn Floyd, there, and he continues to be one of the school's great ambassadors.
“After the shock” of finding out the school might be stripped of its accreditation, he said, “I went into survival mode… St. Aug's changed my life, and it has changed a lot of others's lives, as well. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’ll survive this, and that St. Aug’s will flourish.”
Dr. Wheelan wasn't as optimistic when asked if St. Aug’s would survive this current cliffhanger.
“That’s a good question,” she said. “I’m not sure… This is nothing new for them.” She noted that the school in recent years has received warnings from SACS and been placed on probation “for good cause… We haven’t had an audit from them in four years.”
Asked if the constant changing of leadership is a sign of instability, she replied “We would say so.”
As I sat in a darkened movie theater recently watching the epic Napoleon, I wondered why the travails at St. Aug’s were uppermost in my mind – even moreso than the exploding cannonballs and horses onscreen.
Then it hit me: Napoleon said that it’s better to have one bad general than two good generals.
When it comes to St. Aug’s, one wonders, is it better to have one “bad” leader who can be "coached up" - in football terms - than to continue bringing in replacement leaders who, for whatever reason, don't work out?
St. Augustine’s University recently appointed Dr. Marcus Burgess, from Claflin College in South Carolina, as its interim president.
Psst, Dr. B: Don’t buy any green bananas: you might not be around long enough for them to ripen.
It would be a shame for such a proud institution to be banished to the dustbin of our memory. I attended St. Aug's, albeit for only about long enough to eat lunch: I transferred after one semester.
In that brief time, though, I developed a deep love and appreciation that persists even now for the school, and I hope the board can find a way to find a leader who can help put it on the good foot.
And leave her or him alone to do their job, because cliffhangers are fine onscreen, but not on campus.