During its recent Founders’ Day Convocation, Paine College celebrated 135 years of existence in Augusta.
That’s no small feat for any university.
But this year’s celebration had an even deeper meaning.
Many students, faculty members and alumni of Augusta’s historically African-American college have embraced the battle cry, “Paine College is here to stay.”
They insist that Paine College will stand for another 135 years despite the recent challenges that the university has faced.
Just last fall, Paine College was in danger of losing its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges or SACS.
In fact, SACS rescinded Paine’s accreditation in September after determining that the college still did not meet three financial standards after being on probation since 2014.
But the historic college fought back.
The university filed a federal lawsuit seeking declaratory, monetary and injunctive relief from SACS’s actions.
In a 90-page federal lawsuit, Paine College clearly spelled out its “unfair treatment” by the SACS commission and the “viciousness of this process.”
The lawsuit also suggested that many of the historically African-American colleges in this region were also being treated unfairly by SACS.
As a result, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. entered an injunction reinstating Paine College as a member of SACS and restoring its accreditation.
According to the judge’s decision, Paine College will remain accredited “until further notice,” and enrolled students will be allowed to continue to receive financial aid.
Those three words “until further notice” were crucial in keeping Paine College’s doors open and the university on track last year, said Dr. Samuel Sullivan, president of Paine College.
“That was key for us because, in essence, what that means is until SACS is working with us and presents a solution that we can agree to and a judge can agree to, nothing changes,” Sullivan said, sitting in his office in Haygood-Holsey Hall. “And that’s where we are today.”
However, the university was at another crossroads earlier this year.
Paine College’s board of trustees had to decide whether it wanted to continue its lawsuit against SACS, look into another accrediting body besides SACS or consider merging with an existing accredited college.
“Our board of trustees voted to continue with the lawsuit,” Sullivan said. “What we voted to do is not to accept the SACS recommendation to us that we agree to give up our membership after a certain point of time or particular date. That decision allows us to pursue accreditation by a different accrediting body.”
Currently, Paine College is considering applying for accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools or TRACS, which is also recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Sullivan believes Paine College stands a good chance of being accepted by TRACS because of the university’s affiliation with the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church and the United Methodist Church.
“The criteria is very similar to SACS except for TRACS there needs to be a clearly defined mission that reflects the Christian values of the institution,” Sullivan said. “We are religiously affiliated, so it’s a good fit.”
For several months, there was a lot of speculation about whether Paine College would consider merging with Augusta University.
While Sullivan acknowledged that Paine College considered a variety of options, merging with Augusta University just wasn’t a viable solution.
“We can’t do that. That is not something we think would be good for our school,” Sullivan said. “We are religiously affiliated with both the United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church.”
“For us to develop an entirely different mission and be a part of Augusta University, for example, it is unlikely to work.”
But the reality is that Paine College is still on probation by SACS and that is a challenge that the university must deal with each and every day, he said.
Sullivan also discovered soon after taking over as president that Paine College had accounts receivable of $2.3 million that was owed for tuition by students from previous years.
As a result, Sullivan said Paine College had to “draw a line in the sand” and tell students that they needed to either pay the amount they owed or leave the university.
“Many students could not afford to come back to Paine,” Sullivan said. “We were left with a sizable amount of accounts receivables and some of it we had to write off.”
Over the past several years, Sullivan said that the university has worked extremely hard to try to prove to SACS and the community that Paine College is financially stable.
But after last year’s controversy over the university’s accreditation, Sullivan admits that student recruitment at Paine College has become more difficult.
“We are upfront with everyone considering coming to Paine College. We want them to know exactly what we are facing,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want anybody to come here and be surprised at where we are and what is happening. We don’t want to fool anybody.”
Students considering enrolling at Paine College need to thoroughly understand that, while the university remains accredited, it is still on probation and the lawsuit is pending.
While Sullivan is confident that Paine College’s doors will remain open, it’s no secret that local and regional students have a variety of choices in colleges and university that are not currently on probation.
“It is important for our students to know what we are facing because they do have options,” Sullivan. “And while I want them to stay at Paine or decide to come to Paine, I want them to know what we are up against. I want them to know that this thing is not for certain. It is not absolutely a sure bet that we are going to be successful.”
At times, that honest approach has hurt the student enrollment at Paine, but Sullivan said he couldn’t stomach any other way.
“The fact that we are accredited, but on probation, has caused a number of students to consider leaving us,” Sullivan said. “Some of who were recruited to come to Paine that we thought we had a fair shot of getting, are not coming. That is just one of the consequences of being on probation. But we have to be honest with people.”
The board of trustees also recently requested that the university try to increase its fall enrollment by a net gain of about 50 students, Sullivan said.
“We are a little bit short of that, but I think all and all we are pretty close,” Sullivan said, adding that he has been amazed by the outpour of local support for the university and its mission this past year.
“We are rekindling the fire that people used to have for Paine.”
And, at the same time, the university is tightening its belt, he said.
“We made some tough decisions,” Sullivan said. “We reduced the salaries of faculty and staff by 10 percent. Administrators as well. And we curtailed expenditures, reducing the salaries and freezing vacant positions until we were sure that we could afford to fill them. That has allowed us to balance the budget for the rest of the year.”
These cuts along with the fact that the university was able to raise more than $4 million over the past year has provided the college a great deal of financial stability, Sullivan said.
But Sullivan said the university is closely monitoring its budget and receipt of revenue in order to make proper adjustments throughout the year.
“We are extremely mindful of what we spend,” Sullivan said, adding that there are still a number of vendors that are owed money by the college for services they have provided over the years. “I know when I first came here and looked at the list of vendors we owed while I was sitting at my computer, it was a long list.”
Early on in his tenure, Sullivan decided these vendors deserved much better.
“I lined up these vendors in a list from who we owed the most to and who we owed the least to,” Sullivan said. “And I would look at this list and say, ‘We should be able to pay this mom-and-pop store where we bought socks for the baseball team.’ It was a little bit of money, but we needed to pay these people. It just wasn’t right.”
Sullivan said he contacted some members of the alumni association and a few local friends for support.
“I told them, ‘I need you to help me. I have to pay these people. I’ve got to show people that we are not a deadbeat institution,’” Sullivan said.
“We were able to collect some funds and I wrote a nice letter thanking the vendors for their patience and thanking them for what they’re doing for our school. I put the check and letter in the envelope and mailed it off.”
The response was incredible, Sullivan said.
“Some people even said, ‘Keep it, Sam. I’ll write it off.’ Others would call or write and say, ‘Thank you. We really appreciate it,’” Sullivan said. “That is the reward that you get from this job. You recognize the responsibility you have to the students, to the faculty, to the staff and to the people. You show them that you are doing your best to be fair and honest with them and let them know what you’re trying to do to fix the issues that we are facing.”
Having the ability to pay the bills from vendors is a constant struggle because the unpredictable always happens, like a chiller or boiler needing to be repaired or replaced, Sullivan said.
“Do we still owe money?” Sullivan asked. “In many instances, we still owe some vendors money. Not as much as we once did, but we certainly still owe some of them. But the way that they have agreed to work with us has been tremendous and we sincerely appreciate it.”
“I know we can’t pay everybody at one time all that we owe them, but I decided I’ve got to know who we owe, how much we owe and I have to let the people we owe money to, know that I know,” Sullivan said.
“I’m not trying to duck you. I am not trying shuck and jive you. I just want you to know what we are facing and I hope you can understand and work with me.”
With more than 50 years of experience in higher education, Sullivan said he has learned a great deal about the importance of treating people fairly and addressing issues head-on.
After Sullivan earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from North Carolina Central University, he went on to receive his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Howard University.
Not long after graduating, Sullivan began teaching at Federal City College in Washington, D.C.
“My name got around the school as someone you couldn’t tell no,” Sullivan said, chuckling. “I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
By the late 1970s, Federal City College merged with Washington Technical Institute and the District of Columbia Teachers College to become the University of the District of Columbia, Sullivan said.
“I later became part of the team to merge those colleges,” Sullivan said, shaking his head. “You can’t believe the experience you gain from working on a merger like that. There are at least three of everything and making the decisions of how to purge that to a core faculty and staff is extremely challenging. Everything is constantly changing. You can get a notice that you have to cut $13 million out of a budget that minute, right now. So I learned a lot.”
After working in several senior administrative positions at the University of the District of Columbia, he eventually joined the staff at then-Augusta State University.
He served as both a professor and vice president of academic affairs at Augusta State.
“I worked at Augusta State for nine years and was retired for about three years before I got the call to come to Paine,” Sullivan said, smiling. “For three years, I was retired, doing whatever I wanted to do.”
Sullivan’s life was full. He was the deacon of his church and was involved in several local organizations such as the United Way of the CSRA, the Augusta Museum of History, the Augusta Biomedical Research Corporation, the Ike and Justine Washington Foundation, Inc. and the Rachel Longstreet Foundation, Inc.
“I was also playing golf three times a week,” Sullivan wistfully said with a smile. “I played in a group. We had a tour through Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Myrtle Beach and Tampa.”
But then in 2013, he got a call from Paine College’s former president, Dr. George Bradley.
“He asked me to have breakfast with him at the IHOP on Washington Road before it was torn down,” Sullivan said, laughing. “We met there and had breakfast and he asked me to come and help him out a little bit. I did. And then he left and I stayed.”
Ironically, many students and alumni believe that the majority of the university’s financial problems began while Bradley served as president.
It was under Bradley’s leadership that Paine College was first placed on probation by the SACS because the university was found to be in violation of several standards including fiscal stability, control of finances and the handling of federal student financial aid programs.
While Bradley eventually resigned in the summer of 2014, claiming he wished to “spend more time with his family,” the former president had been under fire.
In fact, a website called The Paine Project was created in early 2014 that demanded Bradley step down as president.
The website, thepaineproject.net, claimed Bradley brought “unprecedented mismanagement to the college’s financial and fiscal affairs, and intimidation and threats to faculty, staff, and students.”
But despite some of those past troubles, Sullivan says he just wants to concentrate on Paine College’s future and show the entire community how important the university is to the Augusta area.
“We can’t afford to go backwards,” Sullivan said. “We believe in the principles of accreditation. We pride ourselves in the alumni who have come here as students and who have walked across the stage with their degree in hand. They are proud and we are proud of them because this school has a rich history that cannot be forgotten.”
Over the past year, Sullivan has met with the Augusta Commission, City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson and some members of the local legislative delegation to discuss Paine College’s financial future.
While Sullivan appreciates their time, he realizes that he must drive the train to turn Paine College around.
“Everybody says the right things,” Sullivan said, smiling. “Everybody talks about the need for Paine College and everybody talks about the economic impact of what it would mean if this school disappeared.”
But that’s about as far as those discussions have gone, Sullivan said.
“In fact, some people want me to be not so naive,” Sullivan said, chuckling. “Personally, I don’t think I’m naive, but some people suggest that there are various folks who have their sights on the campus called Paine College.”
Sullivan simply paused and smiled.
“Nobody would dare want to do something like that,” Sullivan said.
Paine College not only provides a quality education to its students, but it also helps bring young adults into maturity, he said.
“We just want to make it clear that this historically black institution has a place in this city and in this state and in this country,” Sullivan said.
“It is not easy sometimes to explain that to folks. When they ask me, ‘Why do you need these black schools? Kids can go wherever they want.’ In some cases, that’s true. But one shoe doesn’t fit everybody. In a lot of cases, these students need something that historically black colleges are known for and that’s giving and caring.”
Sullivan said he had the same experience while attending the historically black college, North Carolina Central University, as an undergraduate.
“I remember walking down the hall and I was pledging a fraternity and the lady who was my calculus teacher came out of her room,” Sullivan said, laughing. “She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. I was walking down the hall wearing a purple and gold leotard carrying a purple sack with my bricks and my sand.”
His calculus teacher walked up to him and bluntly said, “You are not going to get what you think you are going to get out of here.”
Sullivan said he was surprised because he excelled in math and was considered a good student.
“What it meant to me was that this lady cared about me,” Sullivan said. “She really cared about what I was doing and how it was potentially going to impact my performance in her class. That’s what happens to many of us who’ve attended historically black institutions. That is what happens here at Paine College.”
“There is a feeling of caring,” Sullivan added. “I want these students to know, ‘I care for you. I care for all of you. I am trying to do the best I can to help you achieve what you’ve come here for.’ That’s the difference. That’s what historically black schools offer.”