Historically Black college with Episcopal roots loses appeal, faces loss of accreditation

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 27, 2024

The campus of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Courtesy photo

[Episcopal News Service] Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, has lost its appeal seeking to maintain accreditation, a decision that adds to concerns about the viability of the historically Black college, one of two such schools with Episcopal roots that receive financial support from the church.

Its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC, first ruled in December that Saint Augustine’s had failed to meet six of the agency’s requirements and standards, including those relating to the university’s governing board, its financial resources and financial documents. The agency said it planned to remove the university as an accredited member institution, but it gave Saint Augustine’s time to pursue an appeal.

On Feb. 27, the SACSCOC announced that it had denied that appeal. University officials have vowed to fight that decision in court. In a written statement reacting to the appeal denial, they said they would pursue an injunction allowing the university to remain an accredited institution while it pursues legal remedies.

“We disagree with the decision made by SACSCOC and plan to appeal to a higher authority with evidence supporting the institution’s progress in resolving non-compliance,” interim President Marcus Burgess said in the university’s news release.

Saint Augustine’s and the much smaller Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, are the two remaining historically Black institutions with Episcopal roots. The pair of colleges have received several million dollars from The Episcopal Church in recent years while also accepting the church’s guidance on administrative and fundraising matters.

The Rev. Martini Shaw, a Pennsylvania priest who chairs Executive Council’s Committee on HBCU, called the denial of Saint Augustine’s appeal “such disappointing and sad news.”

“The Episcopal Church has and will continue its support of the values of the university, which has and hopefully will continue to play an important role within higher education,” Shaw said in a written statement to Episcopal News Service. “And we urge the university to continue its strong commitment to academic excellence. Our prayers and support remain strong.”

Saint Augustine’s leaders have spent the past three months struggling to shore up confidence in their ability to keep the university open while addressing a range of financial challenges. On Feb. 8, the university announced a new Falcon Pride Initiative Fundraising Campaign citing the “critical need to showcase Saint Augustine’s University as financially solvent” to its accrediting agency.

Less than a week later, however, Burgess released a statement to the campus community seeking to dispel any notion that classes had been canceled. “I encourage all students to continue actively engaging in their studies,” Burgess said in the Feb. 14 message. “Our commitment to academic excellence remains unwavering, and we look forward to your continued diligence and dedication to your educational pursuits.”

Local news reports paint a troubling picture of the university’s financial conditions. ABC16 cited documents it obtained showing that Saint Augustine’s was behind on payments to its insurance company and was struggling to borrow the money it needs. Documents filed this month by the IRS indicated the university had not paid its federal taxes since 2020, according to a CBS17 report.

In addition to financial pressures, Saint Augustine’s is in the middle of a contentious leadership transition. In early December, its board of trustees fired President Christine McPhail, and McPhail is pursuing a discrimination claim against Saint Augustine’s – raising gender- and race-based discrimination allegations that the board said are unfounded.

Saint Augustine’s history dates to 1867, when it was established by Episcopalians in the Diocese of North Carolina. Though still rooted in the Episcopal tradition, it now operates as an independent institution. Its enrollment in fall 2021 was 1,261 students, according to the latest data compiled and released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The church once was connected to 11 historically Black colleges in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. By 1976, only three remained. The last to fold was Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, which closed in 2013.

Saint Augustine’s University had previously faced financial struggles and enrollment decline, but by December 2018, it appeared to be turning a corner when it announced that it had been taken off probation by SACSCOC.

Now, the university is at even greater threat of losing accreditation, a potentially devastating blow to the institution’s survival. Under federal guidelines, colleges and universities seek accreditation by an approved governmental or non-governmental agency like SACSCOC to ensure they meet “acceptable levels of quality,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Accreditation, for example, is a minimum standard typically verified by managers when assessing graduates for potential employment. An academic institution that fails to retain accreditation also could be disqualified from federal grants and student aid programs, potentially jeopardizing the school’s ability to remain open.

Despite the accrediting agency’s Feb. 27 ruling, the university stood by its “outstanding academic programs and services,” saying in its written statement that it would “continue to strengthen its financial processes and fiscal resources.” By seeking a court injunction, the university “looks forward to making the case for full compliance with all of the SACSCOC standards.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.