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March 18, 2013 - Students in Dr. Marybeth Gasman’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) class are doing their best to change the future of higher education—especially the future of Morris Brown College in Atlanta. And along the way they’re writing a book about the contemporary issues facing these institutions.
Morris Brown, founded in 1881 under the auspices of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, boasts a proud heritage as one of the few colleges created by African Americans for African Americans. Among its alumni are such luminaries as civil rights leader Hosea Williams and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James A. McPherson. The college continues to trumpet its dedication to preparing its students for a lifetime of learning and achievement in a global society.
Yet in spite of its ambitions and rich history, Morris Brown’s situation is dire. The institution lost its accreditation in 2002 because of financial problems. With a debt exceeding $30 million, the college filed for bankruptcy last August. The student body is down to 55 intrepid souls and the few remaining faculty and staff stay because they love the institution. Now the college is desperately seeking a way forward.
This is where Marybeth Gasman’s hands-on course on the history, context, and contemporary issues of HBCUs comes in. Armed with information about the inner workings of Morris Brown and guided by Dr. Gasman, her students are serving as volunteer consultants. At the end of the term, they will deliver comprehensive recommendations for solving the college’s problems to Dr. Stanley Pritchett, President of Morris Brown. They will address regaining accreditation; fundraising; public relations; the board of trustees; alumni involvement; relationships with the surrounding community; and the college’s connection with the AME Church, which controls it but does not provide all of its financial resources.
Dr. Gasman, Professor of Higher Education at GSE, brings to this class her expertise as an historian of higher education, her deep understanding of HBCUs, and her knowledge as a pro bono consultant to Morris Brown College.
“This can be a life-changing course,” says master’s student Matt Nelson. “The experience we’re getting as consultants for Morris Brown, combined with the opportunity to write for publication, will be invaluable in our careers as professionals in higher education. The course reinforces how powerful our voices are and how important it is that we use them.”
The class is unusual in that it requires a commitment longer than a single term. For the final assignment for the course, each student is writing a book chapter addressing contemporary issues at HBCUs. “I’m turning my students into authors,” Dr. Gasman says. “I had to get buy-in from them at the beginning of the course because there’ll be a lot of work over the summer as we edit their papers for publication.” Dr. Gasman will co-edit the resulting book with Teaching Assistant Felicia Commodore, a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at GSE.
What is the future of Morris Brown College? “It’s like a house into which people have put a lot of sweat equity, which is why they won’t give up,” says Dr. Gasman. “I understand that. I want to see the legacy continue, but what form it will take I don’t know. While I’d like to see it move forward as a four-year liberal arts college, it might be that embracing a new future is the best strategy. I believe my students will come up with some innovative ideas that might just help Morris Brown get back on track.”
Photos: Tommy Leonardi