As he works to encourage new students to come to Paine College and wealthy donors to give to the school, new President Jerry Hardee is trying to get them to buy into his optimistic plans for the future. And for that, he is the school’s best salesman.
The Augusta Chronicle sat down with Hardee last week after he had been in office a little more than a month to talk about where the school stands and what his plans are for its future, including a new fundraising campaign.
The questions and answers were edited for length.
Q: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools tried to remove Paine from accreditation for failing to meet three financial standards after two years on probation. That has been put on hold by a court injunction. Coming in, is the financial condition now what you expected, a little better, a little worse?
A: I’ve been around higher education for a long time. So it didn’t take me long to size up this situation. I was in a similar situation in Spartanburg, S.C. a few years ago (at Sherman College of Chiropractic). At the top of that list always in private institutions like this is finance. Next is enrollment. But one literally drives the other. If you are financially stable, then you can recruit students. If you’ve got a lot of students, then you can find finances because students’ tuition is the greatest fundraiser for private institutions. People want to invest in sure things. What you have to do when you are having financial problems is prove to people that if they were to put money into it, they are not throwing good money after bad activities. My job is to sell prospective donors on the fact that Paine is a great investment.
Q. When you spoke recently to the Augusta Commission, you said enrollment was 500. Previous President Samuel Sullivan said it was 400-something.
A. It’s between 450 and 500. Part of my responsibility is going to be to get it above that and hopefully double it within the next year. I have already taken some steps to move ahead with recruiting. We had a wonderful meeting with (Richmond County Superintendent) Dr. (Angela) Pringle. She set up a situation where we could talk to a number of students and we were able to sign several of them up. I want to do that. I want to repeat that in every county around here because there are so many prospective students who think that college is not a possibility for them. That is the gap that Paine has been filling since its inception in 1882.
Q. Marybeth Gasman at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions said one of the challenges for Historically Black Colleges and Universities is that students have so many choices and that HBCUs have to make their case about why they are the best choice. How do you make the case for Paine with students?
A. All they have to bring is a good attitude and a desire to learn. And if they have the natural acumen for learning, Paine College will take them and help them. The other side of that is if all those young people have to look forward to is a fast-food job or a low-paying job somewhere, where they can’t make ends meet, then what are they going to do? They are going to do things that you and I would not want them to do but they are going to do them anyway in order to get by - whether it is falling into the drug culture, standing on the corners all day, knocking folks in the head. Institutions like Paine College stand in the gap for those who have the ability to learn but for various reasons many not have been able to get to the point where they could pick and choose whatever institution they want to go to.
Q. How do you convince those who do have other options that they should come to Paine College?
A. Easy. We take you one-on-one. We learn your name and you remain a person and not a number. There are so many people especially from the African American community. I happen to have been one at one time, that need, the one-on-one contact with people who understand me in such a way that they are going to go the extra mile for me. And that is what Paine College tries to do with every student.
Q. What is the financial picture right now? Is it at a point where you can go back to SACS for reinstatement?
A. This is going to be a year where I am going to have to get out and increase fundraising. We are one or two large donations from being where we need to be in order to get past SACS. I’m just optimistic that this year I’m going to be able to find a couple of those donors. Yes, we’re getting the small donations every day. But we need two or three of those $1-5 million donations to get us over the hump. And we’re not far away. There is a small difference between being hand-to-mouth and being able to get all of the bills paid every month, get everyone situated in terms of the things they need to do an excellent job teaching.
Q. How far away are you?
A. If I had to put a number on it, I would say we are only $2 million away. To a lot of people that is a small amount of money. To Paine College, that is quite a bit.
Q. You have talked about pursuing accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) as well as keeping accreditation with SACS. What would be the advantage of that?
A. They don’t require as much. It is mostly for Christian education institutions. They are not nearly as demanding in certain areas, especially financial, as SACS. But I’m arrogant enough to think that we can do it both ways. The Board of Trustees has ordered us to take care of applying for TRACS but to do the best we can as far as SACS. What I said to them is we are going to do it both ways and we are going to be successful. I want us to satisfy all of the requirements of SACS while we are getting TRACS. We can also get TRACS almost as we are now.
Q. Anything else you would like to add?
A. I am going to try to ask a thousand people to devote $1,000 to Paine. I ask for it at that level so everyone can get involved. I want to find 100 people who might be willing to give us $10,000. I want to find five people who might be willing to give us $1 million or more. The other part of it, just from a recruiting and PR standpoint, I want to visit 200 high school junior and senior classes this year. It would be good for any student but especially African American students to see one who in many respects grew up far more deprived of the material things than they and were able to overcome that. Suppose I incentivize them to say, ‘I can do that, too.’ Whether they come to Paine College or not, it’s good for them to hear that.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org