Paine College President Samuel Sullivan and Chairman-Elect of the Board of Trustees Michael Thurmond sat down with The Augusta Chronicle to talk about the college’s appeal process, the response from the city and what the future might hold for the college.
Paine is appealing its removal by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges for not meeting financial standards after two years on probation. The school is still accredited while it is on appeal. That appeal will be held in mid-August. While acknowledging the dire consequences should it lose, school officials are also trying to focus on the future should the college prevail. Part of that could be using the school’s historic emphasis on racial unity to address some of the divisive issues of race relations now even as the school itself becomes more diversified to reflect a changing society. The questions have been edited for clarity, the responses have been edited for brevity.
Q: At least one other school, Brewton-Parker College, has successfully appealed its removal for financial issues and had its membership in commission restored. Have you talked to them and where are you in terms of your preparation for the appeal?
Thurmond: We’ve been in contact with many officials, including Brewton-Parker. The president asked me to reach out and gain as much information as possible so that we can be better prepared to make our case.
Sullivan: Things are going well. One of the reasons we’re reached out to those who have gone through this is to get a sense of what happened with them, can they help us as far as preparing ourselves, what are the hurdles we have to watch for. People have been extremely helpful in trying to help us get prepared. We have to do everything we have to do in order to ensure this school survives.
Q: At one point you spoke to the Augusta Commission about potentially getting help from the city. Where do things stand with that?
Sullivan: I’ve had conversations with our mayor (Hardie Davis), our institutional advancement area has had a conversation with (City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson). We’ve had a number of people who have heard the mayor speak on our behalf or commissioners who have spoken on our behalf. Money is coming in. We got a $30,000 check (Friday) from that same kind of networking and people hearing good things about our school.
Q: So funding would not be coming from the city itself but from donors you are reaching through city officials?
Sullivan: (acknowledging the opposition by some commissioners to giving Paine money) My sense is we are not going to win that battle right now if we’re trying to argue that because of our position in this city it doesn’t matter whether we are public or private, you ought to give us money. It’s going to take too long for us to have to fight that and whether we come out victorious or not I don’t know. A lot of businesses that come to this city are private. We find a way to help them, whether it is parking or lower tax rates or whatever it is. I understand. We need those businesses in our city, we need the jobs that they bring and we need all of the stuff that is associated with them. I look at Paine the same way.
Thurmond: We’re going to have to leverage the economic impact of Paine College. The private sector businesses are often viewed for their impact to the CSRA economy. When you look at Paine College, we are major player relatively speaking in terms of jobs and economic impact. That is a narrative that we are going to work to develop to help our elected officials and business leaders understand the relevance and the importance of the college as a historical institute of higher learning but also as a significant economic component of the broader economy here in the CSRA.
Q: We know what can happen if you lose the accreditation, you lose the ability to get financial aid. You wouldn’t have a lot of recourse at that point.
Q: But if you are successful, if you get through this crisis, can you focus on the future as well?
Sullivan: Absolutely. The school has a five-year strategic plan that was approved by the board some time ago. The fact is, however, when you are facing probation status, when you’re confronted with the possibility of going out of business, you’ve got to look at priorities and figure out, OK, how do we handle now this new situation? Now we understand that, but that doesn’t keep us from dreaming, that doesn’t keep us from preparing for the future because we think there is going to be a future and we think it is going to be a bright one. We will be part of what our mission says we are about in terms of new jobs, new careers, new program offerings, online stuff, evening courses, executive courses. We have, as a part of our strategic plan, possibilities in a variety of areas. (The city of Augusta) would like to see us help them
with continuing education-type of programs, (or) programs that deal with race relations as far as police and community members. Is this school equipped to deal with how we can better relationships and be a leader in trying to make sure this community does not explode and evolve into some sort of area where people are at each other, where we see things happening around the country?
Q: That would go back to the school’s founding and to the Paine College Ideal? (One of the ideals is to “work diligently for a better understanding of the white and black races.”)
Thurmond: It is the prime directive historically for this institution. We will look back at this (accreditation fight) as a blessing in disguise and we will emerge wiser and stronger as a result of it. All institutions go through challenging times. I don’t know any that haven’t. It’s not whether or not you are going to see these challenges. It is how you manage them. And then do you take advantage of them to create something that is true to the mission but also takes advantage of a changing environment? I see that our student population will become more diversified. One thing that will need to be update in our College Ideal: It’s not just about black and white people any more. We live in a much more diverse society. And you are going to see a student population, a growing number of Hispanic and Latino students, of Asian students because this whole notion of racial cooperation during Reconstruction was all about black and white but in the early part of the 21st century it is about a population that is welcoming and encouraging to all races and colors and creeds and religions.