Johnson C. Smith University was placed on probation last week by its accreditation agency. This week that agency released a bit more information about why it made that decision. It cited concerns about the school’s financial stability and control of its resources. But there are still a lot of questions. Smith officials are playing the probation down, saying they expect to clear it up soon. They, too, are not providing any specifics.
WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn talks to Alex Olgin about the latest developments.
ALEX OLGIN: Gwen, what do we know about why Johnson C. Smith was put on probation?
GWENDOLYN GLENN: We don’t know a lot. The school’s accreditor is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges or SACS. The report SACS released this week said the university quote “failed to demonstrate compliance” with SACS financial stability and control of finances rules. SACS has specific standards to gauge whether a school’s funds are in jeopardy and whether officials have appropriate control over financial resources, including financial aid but exactly which rules the school did not comply with was not revealed.
AO: What has been the response from school officials?
GG: School leaders haven’t said much and they’ve turned down all my requests for interviews. Through an email, the school’s director of communications blamed the problem on a sentence that auditors added to the school’s financial report for the first time. She would not reveal what that sentence was but said it contradicted an otherwise clean audit and prompted SACS officials to ask questions that they could not answer.
AO: So how big of a deal is it to be on probation?
GG: Short of having your accreditation pulled, it is SACS most serious sanction. Paul Gaston, a professor at Kent State University has written extensively about the accreditation process. He says, “It’s an indication of a serious concern that if left unaddressed might affect accreditation status. So it is above all a welcome mat for efforts to improve the institution with respect to the issues that have been identified. It is an opportunity to set those issues right and to find solutions for them.”
GG: Gaston says accrediting agencies need to be more transparent because students, alumni and others are often confused by what is released and want more detailed information about accreditation decisions.
AO: So, what do we know about Smith’s finances?
GG: Well, university officials say they are operating in the black, which is why the only board member who called me back, Astrid Chirinos, said she was surprised to learn of the probation. Although they wouldn’t talk about the probation, in a press release this week school officials said a fundraising campaign launched in 2010, netted almost $160 million. Also, the school has an endowment of $59 million.
A SACS officials said that paints a rosy picture, but she pointed out, in cases like this, you have to take into account how much of the fundraising dollars are restricted and how much the university is paying out in debt. Talmadge Fair, is a JCSU graduate who was kicked off Smith’s board of trustees after he raised questions about the school’s financial health two years ago. He said, “We just borrowed $26 million from the feds. We probably have every building except Biddle Hall up for collateral. We have a dwindling enrollment that’s going backwards. We say that it costs you a dollar to go to JCS but we’re letting so many people in who can only 25 cents so when you look at our cash flow problem we’re in bad shape.”
GG: Fair also said that when he was on the board, he was the only member who did not sign off on the federal loan because he did not think the university had the ability to make payments because of dwindling enrollment.
AO: Did Smith get any warning before it was placed it on probation.
GG: University officials say for the past two years Smith has been on the agency’s monitoring list, which means something at the school came to SACS’ attention that they wanted to watch to see if it got better. Also, two years ago JCSU was put on the U.S. Department of Education’s cash monitoring list. Reasons for this increased oversight of the school’s management of funds could range from late audits and administrative concerns to federal compliance and accreditation issues.
AO: Any idea how students are reacting to all of this?
GG: This probation notice came in the middle of finals week so this week most students had left. But I did talk to a couple of seniors. Trajuan Warren says he’d like more information on the problem and how the school is addressing it. But for now he said, “I’m focused on what I’m here for. As long as my financial aid is covered and I can get my degree so.”
GG: Landry Fison says the probation has him concerned not just about the school but his future as well.
“This will be my alma mater but not only that my degree comes from here so I want the best for the institution,” Fison said. “So finding out more details, just waiting to see what’s going to happen, we are on the path of being in good standing once the 12-month probation is going to end, how we’re getting clear through that situation, so just having a better understanding of what’s going to be taking place.”
GG: But he says he’s optimistic that the school will recover. In the fall, a SACS team will visit the campus and decide whether to remove the probation, continue it or revoke Smith’s accreditation. And remember, the school is getting a new president in January Clarence Armbrister. He has administrator experience at Johns Hopkins but right now he’s president of a K-12 boarding school in Philadelphia.