Augusta officials reacted with shock and uncertainty about news of the city’s lone historically black college being recommended to lose its accreditation.
Many of Augusta’s black leaders attended Paine at some point or earned degrees there, including former mayor Ed McIntyre and former commissioners Betty Beard, Henry Brigham and J.R. Hatney. Current commissioners Bill Fennoy and Bill Lockett completed undergraduate degrees there.
“Lord have mercy. I didn’t think that was going to happen,” Lockett said. “Things must have been much more severe than was indicated.”
Lockett recalled Paine educators encouraging him as an active duty Army soldier to get caught up on his studies and later graduate magna cum laude in 1981.
“Paine was willing to take the time with you, to encourage you,” Lockett said. If it closes, “it would potentially deny other young students an opportunity to complete a degree... It is so difficult in the early days for many of them to make it and they get discouraged and drop out.”
Historically black colleges and universities “don’t have the endowments that the white colleges have,” Lockett said. “This is why so many of these schools over the years have suffered. At the same time they have graduated some students that have gone on to do great things in society.”
Fennoy said he wanted to hear what Paine President Samuel Sullivan said about the college before making a comment. While he, Lockett and other commissioners have rallied the community to donate to Paine and made donations themselves, none had any direct involvement with its management.
Commissioner Dennis Williams reacted with surprise.
“Paine is a big part of our city’s history,” Williams said. “I was so sure that they were going to be able to correct the deficiencies. I thought with Dr. Sullivan being named president and the new board of trustees it would really make a difference.”
Williams said he hopes the college gets “additional time” to address its problems.
“I really hate to hear that,” Commissioner Marion Williams said. “The traditionally black colleges have always struggled but we thought they could get back on their feet... I hate to see the institution close down but I just don’t know the answer.”
Mayor Hardie Davis issued a statement in support of Paine.
“ We had hoped for full reaffirmation from SACS today, but the Paine College story continues to be told,” he said. “We support Paine College through the appeal process. We continue to share the message of hope and higher learning that Paine College provides. We continue to be champions for our college in the continued press toward full resolution of their immediate and long term financial goals. Paine College is an Augusta institution and together we must commit to the promise of a brighter future for Paine College and the students it will serve.”
A 2009 city sales tax allocation largely built Paine’s HEAL athletics complex but the school wasn’t included in the sales tax package that passed last year. After Sullivan addressed the commission earlier this year, members asked City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson to work with the college.
Jackson said talks with school officials led to the city speaking to the Community Foundation of the CSRA on Paine’s behalf. She has said the talks were not about the city helping the school financially.
If the college closes “it’s a tremendous loss for the community and the community’s residents,” including more than 200 employees, Jackson said. “There are so many that benefit from a strong Paine College.”