Florida will soon have a new figure in Washington D.C.’s statuary hall. Education advocate and Civil Rights Pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune will have a place among American founders, explorers, inventors and presidents. Bethune’s statue replaces that of Edmund Kirby Smith—a decision approved by the Florida legislature in 2018 and recently agreed to by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But as the changeover looms in D.C., the university that bears her name is fighting for its life.
Bethune Cookman University is one of four Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Florida. The common refrain is that Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune founded the school with five little girls and $1.50 to her name. Today, the campus is in Daytona Beach, and has about 4,000 students.
Last January, Bethune Cookman University was riding high. The Florida Legislature was on the verge of placing a statue of the school’s namesake in Washington D.C.’s Statuary Hall, replacing Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. School officials and students traveled to Tallahassee for their fifth “BCU Day” at the Capitol, with a pep rally on the steps.
A bill to put Bethune’s likeness in Statuary Hall had just cleared a key Senate vote before the pep rally. And flanked by the sound of the university’s marching band, choir and prayers and changes, then-interim President Hubert Grimes addressed the gathering, praising the school and the legislature’s move. But in June, Grimes posted a video announcement to BCU’s Facebook page to address an issue.
“Over the weekend, many of you may have learned that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools SACS placed Bethune Cookman on probation for up to two years,” he said. Grimes went on to note the school was waiting on more information, but that BCU’s Accreditation wasn’t being taken away and that the issues were largely related to financial matters, not academic.
The university was 114 years old. The Daytona Beach News Herald reports BCU had lost $28 million in two years, it’s nursing college was put on probation by the state, and it was embroiled in a lawsuit with another former president alleging fraud in a $305 million dormitory project—a figure is 500 percent greater than the school’s endowment.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS, accredits colleges and universities in the South. It questioned the university’s integrity, governing board, and most problematic, it’s control over finances. Since then, BCU has made a series of moves. It’s raised tuition, laid off workers and instituted summer furloughs. It also has a new president.
“You may have heard that past, poor decisions have left us with considerable debt,” BCU President E. LaBrent Crite noted in a series of Facebook videos. He’s been making the rounds to reassure the school’s stakeholders.
“The greatness to which we aspire will not be realized immediately. It will come to fruition over many weeks, months, years.”
The situation the university finds itself in is not unique. *SACS stripped Bennett College of its accreditation in February over financial woes. The school is still accreditated as a lawsuit over the ruling plays out in court. The demise of Morris Brown in 2003 remains one of the largest failures of an HBCU in recent history. SACS cut Morris Brown off due to financial mismanagement and others, such as Florida A&M University, Alabama State, St. Augustine and Johnson C. Smith are among the many HBCU’s that have run into accreditation woes with most of those problems relating to finances.
Most HBCU’s are private and their students are low-income. There’s greater competition in higher education and students can go anywhere they choose. Many HBCU’s were founded after the Civil War and during the rise of Jim Crow to educate African Americans, and for decades they were the only option for black students. Not anymore. Now HBCU’s are struggling to compete. Those that have shut down have done so because of finances. And those problems aren’t happening in a vacuum.
“Every HBCU has had their ups and downs because they’re underfunded, under-appreciated, and their always questioned by our lawmakers as to their relevancy,” said Fedrick Ingram, President of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. He’s an alum of BCU and has heard the arguments against them for years, arguments that often question their relevancy.
“They’re important to the 25% of people of color coming into this country,” he said. “They’re more significant than ever.”
In June, Bethune Cookman got a slight break. The accreditation board decided to extend its probation status for another year, giving it more time to address its issues. And earlier this month, on Mary McLeod Bethune’s birthday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent a letter to the architect of the U.S. Capitol to formally request the Bethune statue replace Kirby-Smith in Statuary Hall.
In his letter, DeSantis said Bethune’s statue will “represent the best of who we are as Floridians to visitors around the word in our nation’s Capital. Her legacy endures and will continue to inspire future generations.”
That’s Bethune Cookman University’s goal as well. To inspire and endure. It’s hoping to get a clean bill of health from SACS next year to keep that mission going.
*Clarification: The original version of this story stated that Bennett has lost its accreditation. The Southern Association of College’s and Schools agreed to a Preliminary Injunction that reinstated Bennett as a member on Probation, pending further Order of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Bennett’s accreditation remains intact as the lawsuit is considered. The school is seeking another accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or TRACS.