Last month, Bethune-Cookman University officials published a framework outlining the steps they will take to save the institution through better fiscal practices and having its probationary status lifted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges.
Of the 20-page document, the first nine pages are dedicated to underscoring the importance of, and steps necessary for salvaging the school’s accreditation. Accreditation management has been a historically tall order for many HBCUs, but schools like Saint Augustine’s University and Cheyney University prove that even in financial crisis, it is possible to demonstrate operable compliance with standards of accreditation.
But it is the next 11 pages where people who care about the future of Bethune-Cookman should focus. This section outlines BCU executives’ view of what it will take to keep the school open, operating at sustainable levels, and eligible to receive federal student financial aid.
These pages matter a lot, because they don’t say a lot. And that says a great deal about how frightening a situation this is for an invaluable university in the HBCU landscape.
Here are a few slides for Wildcats and BCU supporters to consider.
Put plainly, BCU is looking to cut costs, make better investments with its endowment, and implement systems to monitor spending on human resources, facilities management, paying off debts and operations.
The plan does not mention it directly, but the pathways laid out in these slides are designed to help pay off money owed in a dorm construction debacle, which without substantial gains in enrollment or fundraising, could sink the institution. The deal has already led to Bethune-Cookman’s credit rating being downgraded to below junk status last month, and lingering questions about how it will satisfy legal costs for multiple lawsuits and countersuits while maintaining business as usual.
Other slides show BCU’s need for cash as a lifeline for sustainability.
To an outsider, these pages suggest that Bethune-Cookman may be preparing for a potential Heightened Cash Monitoring sanction from the U.S. Department of Education, which could require the school to take on student financial aid disbursement and to be repaid by the feds. The school may also be looking to strengthen tuition collection efforts and auxiliary business activity to generate more cash-on-hand to better deal with what some reports suggest may be a third consecutive year of multi-million dollar deficits.
With all of this, it is the last two pages of the document which should yield the most concern.
More than three years after the dorm deal was approved by the BCU Board of Trustees, just over a year and a half after former president Edison Jackson resigned in disgrace as a result and more than four months after several trustees followed in departure, the university admits in writing that it still has no substantive plan to address its own survival, or at least one that the public deserves to see.
Many of the details about the university’s perilous financial situation, missteps in leadership and dwindling confidence among stakeholders have come from whistleblowers and media reports; not from the institution itself. And while this document outlines how much BCU’s survival will depend on confident students, alumni, donors, and banks, BCU leaders still refuse to reveal the full picture of how the school dug its own burial site, who held the shovels, how many of those people are still at the institution, and how close the institution is from falling in the hole for good.
This document may read solidly for accreditation reviewers who are not financial analysts, and whose sole interest is in ensuring that a school is moving towards good standing, even if the destination seems far off. It does nothing for any parent or student considering writing a check for tuition to the university, or any potential donor looking for a glimmer of honesty out of a historically sordid HBCU mess. These final two slides show how desperate the Board of Trustees is to cling to a fabricated vision of respect and authority, all while its members know that they are the private and public face of the university’s darkest hour.
These details and final thoughts show more than the others that Bethune-Cookman leadership at the board and cabinet levels simply do not get it. The board and its decisions mattered until the balance sheet said they no longer did. With no plan, no transparency and little time left on the clock, everyone running Bethune-Cookman University continues to prove that same point, and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.