Julian Ross did not need to think twice about his decision. The lure of an education in a music department led by Sharon Willis, the first Black woman to own her own opera company, is what attracted the Baltimore native to Morris Brown College.
When he enrolled for his freshman year in 2019, Ross, the current student government association president, was considered a non-traditional student. He was already 23, but that didn’t deter him from fully immersing himself in life at Morris Brown despite the fact the storied institution lost its accreditation in 2002.
By the time Ross arrived on campus, the college had three buildings and a few dozen students. Still, Ross said there was an undeniable sense of community.
“There was love and there was understanding of people’s situations,” he said. “There’s a lot of different types of people who were at Morris Brown at the time, but that didn’t change the fact that we were all on the same mission to get our education.”
In April 2022, after 20 years in limbo, Morris Brown — Georgia’s first educational institution owned and operated by Black Americans — regained its accreditation. Morris Brown received accreditation by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. In August, the school kicked off its first accredited semester in over two decades.
The momentum for Morris Brown didn’t stop there.
Last month, the school received a federal grant for $2.9 million to go toward growing the student body. In a statement, Morris Brown said the funds — their largest grant in 20 years — will help fund the curriculum, refurbish campus buildings, and invest in career resource opportunities.
For Morris Brown, the path back to redemption was led by current students, faculty, staff, and a vast alumni network. Developing a coherent plan, and getting buy-in (and marketing help) from past scholars was crucial to steering the 141-year-old HBCU back on track.
A man with a plan
Back in 2002, when a former president and financial aid director were found to be misappropriating federal funds, Morris Brown’s accreditation — official recognition that a college provides a quality of education that the public has the right to expect and that the educational community recognizes — was revoked by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. On a fiscal level, without accreditation, colleges and universities are unable to participate in federal and state financial aid programs.
Before things took a turn for the worse in the early 2000s, Morris Brown was a proud fixture at the Atlanta University Center alongside Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.
After losing its accreditation, it was clear that Morris Brown was down, but it was not out. Things changed when Kevin James took over as interim president in 2019 before making it full time in 2020.
James, a native of Columbia, South Carolina, was an educator by trade and had been in Atlanta for only three years when he first learned that there was vacancy for the presidency at Morris Brown. At the time, he was working as the interim CEO for 100 Black Men of America and, despite the pedigree of his career, he felt like applying for the role would be an uphill battle since he lacked an affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which first founded Morris Brown.
So, James called the AME office in hopes of learning more about the position from the chairman. Instead, he ended up chatting with the latter’s assistant over the phone about his interest in the job for 45 minutes. “At the end of that conversation, she said, ‘Send me your resume. I’ll put it directly in the chairman’s hands.’”
That initial conversation and four interviews later, James walked into his first day of work as the president of Morris Brown on March 1, 2019. He recognized early the need for a team willing to work together as he moved forward with the tough and intricate process of “right-sizing the ship,” which included making major adjustments to staffing. He also says that he understood, then, that he would need to regain the trust of those who had stayed on board, particularly a vast alumni network with whom he would eventually leverage relationships with in his rebuilding efforts.
“Having no affiliation with Morris Brown and having no affiliation with the AME Church, I knew that I was going to have to earn everyone’s trust,” he said. “I said in one of my very first meetings with the alums that I was gonna be the most transparent president that they had ever had.”
All hands on deck
In the effort of transparency, James called on alumni to volunteer helping with day-to-day operations. More than 150 alumni, many of whom hold master’s and doctorate degrees, applied to become professors, offering their services for free, as James focused on spearheading the school’s re-accreditation efforts.
“For these professionals to say, ‘We’ll do this, to help you get back on your feet’ as a volunteer is literally God’s work,” James said.
The process and timeline for reestablishing accreditation, which is subject to progress made by the applicant school, includes performance appraisals, continuous self-assessment, and extensive reviews of future operational planning processes.
DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox was one of the hundreds of alumni motivated by her love for her alma mater who reached out to lend a helping hand in recruiting others to get involved.
That gesture, Maddox said, was based on her own experience as a student. A 24-year-old single mother when she first registered to take classes, she graduated in 1995 with a degree in psychology. Despite the challenges of her situation, Maddox said Morris Brown’s community was built for students like her, who didn’t technically fit the mold of what traditional scholars looked like.
“Everybody’s not the 4.0 student, but that doesn’t mean we’re not smart,” Maddox said. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t have talents. We just need an opportunity to showcase that we can do. And Morris Brown was that school.”
When Maddox first learned that Morris Brown lost its accreditation in 2002, she was devastated.
“It was emotional for me,” she said. “It was years before I would even ride by the school, and when I finally rode by the school, I was just crushed. My daughter wanted to go to Morris Brown College, but at that time, Morris Brown was not accredited. And she wanted to be just like her mom. My daughter wanted to follow in those footsteps, but unfortunately she couldn’t.”
Maddox said what she and other alumni found encouraging about a new president with no ties to the school was that James and his team provided a plan of transparency. They were openly communicating the fact that they were all on the same team about getting Morris Brown back where they felt the school belonged.
“They believed in Morris Brown, and they did not want to see Morris Brown die out,” Maddox said. “It was kind of like Morris Brown was on a ventilator, but we were being kept alive by these individuals. Now that we’ve gotten our energy back up, we’re now off of the ventilator.”
So when James called on alumni to not only teach at Morris Brown for free but to use their networks to recruit, Maddox said she hopped on the opportunity, even enrolling as a full-time student last year to receive a second bachelor’s degree, studying organizational leadership.
“We may not have all the buildings that we had before. We don’t have all the dorms, we don’t have our gym, we don’t have our football team,” Maddox said. “But the good thing about that, Morris Brown has now shown everybody that we are resilient. And that’s what I love about it. It’s like, you thought you were gonna hold this down, but we never closed our doors, our students never gave up. You can do it. Morris Brown did it.”
‘Why not come to Morris Brown?’
According to information provided by Morris Brown in its strategic plan, when the school lost its re-accreditation in 2002, enrollment over the next six years dropped from almost 3,000 students to under 200. At the time of Morris Brown’s re-accreditation, fewer than 50 undergraduate scholars were enrolled.
The $2.9 million financial boost should help James’ initial plan to recruit 300 new students from 2019 to 2024. To help with that, James organized an executive administrative team of leaders, some Morris Brown alumni, to help guide the school in six core areas of institutional sustainability, strategic enrollment, market responsive institution, organizational excellence, creating technology, and integrated learning spaces, as well as maximizing strategic partnerships.
It also doesn’t hurt that Morris Brown is more affordable than its AUC neighbors, Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta, with an average tuition of just $4,250 per semester. James says he and his team were working behind the scene to develop partnerships and offer unique programs to attract students of all socioeconomic backgrounds as the school was undergoing a quiet renaissance.
A partnership with CGI Merchant Group LLC led to the future construction of a 150-bed-room, $30 million hotel on the Morris Brown campus.
Morris Brown’s accreditation period is for four years and will be reviewed again in 2027. James says he will continue to champion innovation as the college enters a new chapter, a chapter he never doubted was possible from the beginning.
“Why not come to Morris Brown where you can get a bigger bank for your buck because we’re the most affordable?” he asked. “Morris Brown is back.”
And for current students like Ross and Maddox, Morris Brown never left.
For Maddox, her organizational leadership studies are giving her ideas for what’s next in her career after she retires as sheriff. She wants to launch an effort to bring a police department to campus and serve as its first chief.
Ross is set to graduate in a few months, and he’s excited to join the alumni side of Morris Brown’s resilient community, he says. As far as enrollment, he says he isn’t too worried about more students wanting to come to campus because of what’s been organically built over the course of the past four years.
“We’re gaining more opportunity, more traction, and more attention. We get to build things in a unique way,” he said. “If I had to go back and do it again, I would choose Morris Brown every time.”