Guest Commentary: At Paine, What Begins With Accreditation Must Continue With Innovation

Paine College was recently awarded “candidacy status” for accreditation through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) commission located in Forest, VA. This is huge news for the private, four-year, co-ed historically black college in Augusta, GA; students can continue to receive federal financial aid and their degrees will be recognized by other schools and employers.

The announcement comes after a years-long battle between Paine and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) which in September 2016 revoked Paine’s accreditation. Paine College sued SACSCOC and was granted an injunction from a Georgia court to keep its accreditation until the lawsuit was completed.

Since the time of the warning, probation, and the loss of SACS accreditation, Paine has had significant turnover in leadership. In September 2014, Dr. George C. Bradley resigned as president. Dr. Samuel Sullivan, then Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs was named acting president, then Interim President and given a one-year contract as president, until the Paine College Board of Trustees named Jerry Hardee Paine’s 16th president in July 2017.

Through these transitions, Paine continued to push the narrative that it would remain accredited. With its TRACS accreditation announcement on Nov. 1, that narrative coincided with the school’s 136th-anniversary celebration and affirmed the faith of thousands in the institution and its future.

Dr. Hardee has been at the forefront of transforming the institution. He has led the charge for recruiting students and gaining support from outside constituents with the slogan, “Paine is emerging anew.” However, recruiting students and raising awareness from outside constituents will not keep the school around, even with the new “candidacy status” from TRACS.

Paine needs to be innovative, and that comes with new academic programs, talented faculty, an aggressive fundraising campaign, persistence and retention initiatives for students, and a transformation of its student affairs division to develop and transform all students.

Paine is a traditional liberal arts institution that has not kept up with today’s trends in workforce development and degree alignment with regional and national industry. The college has not updated its academic offerings in over 20 years. Understanding the need to be innovative in teaching and training, Paine should assess how programs such as computer science, nursing, healthcare administration, athletic training, physical therapy, and cybersecurity can be incorporated into the college’s academic profile.

Across the country, these programs are proving to be good investments for students, post-graduation; and they can provide the boost in recruitment, grantmaking and corporate support to help in recruiting talented faculty to the college and increasing the overall narrative that Paine is in the community to stay.

When schools fight for accreditation, academic development is often the most critical battle casualty. To prove its financial solvency, Paine cut several programs that focused on student retention and persistence. The school eliminated its academic advisors for first-year students and eliminated several positions that helped students matriculate. It is an issue for any school to have a 16% graduation rate and a 48% retention rate. Paine must implement a sound first-year and second-year program that helps build retention and persistence rates, which will help stabilize the budget for the institution.

This is increasingly necessary when philanthropic and alumni giving is small. Retention and persistence go hand-in-hand with the need to develop students through a comprehensive student affairs division that is more than residence life, counseling and student activities. Programs must be designed to develop students’ skills that can transfer to jobs post-graduation. The school must invest more in career services, leadership development, and giving students the opportunity to civically engage in the community, nation, and the world.

Simply stated, hire people in the area that have experience and knowledge to move this area forward for the benefit of the students and do not take away the HBCU culture that has helped Paine College flourish over the years.

Many of the stories that have been shared about giving to Paine College have been about the history of the school. Philanthropists and alumni can look up the history. What cannot be easily researched is what alumni are doing post-graduation, how students are engaged on campus in leadership and research opportunities, faculty research to increase the positive narrative, and the institution’s plans to cultivate additional donor support.

Paine cannot operate on 1960 skills and expect anyone to support the school fight to survive a storm in 2018. The Paine narrative has to be focused on long-term goals and a capital campaign dsigned to support the long-term goals for the school’s growth.

Paine College has been given a lifeline with the TRACS accreditation. Yet, so many people are skeptical of the accreditation. Paul Quinn College in Dallas is TRACS accredited and is breaking down barriers because the school operates as a 21st century HBCU focused upon innovation and growth.

Paine College may be accredited, but it cannot survive without dynamic vision and support. It will be in the same position in five years if the leadership does not take this opportunity to give the college a new image beyond emerging anew.

Jabal M. Moss is a 2013 graduate and former Student Government Association President of Paine College, and a regular commentator on the Digest After Dark Podcast Series.