Once again, bad news struck Paine College this week.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. of the Northern District of Georgia ruled that the claims in a lawsuit made by Augusta’s historically African-American college trying to prevent its loss of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS, did not show any material fact.
Therefore, the judge dismissed Paine College’s request for a partial summary judgment in its quest to keep its accreditation.
So, where does this put Paine?
Honestly, pretty much back to where it was about two years ago, which is not a good position for Paine.
While Paine College President Jerry Hardee might be still trying to insist that Paine’s accreditation “remains intact” while the injunction is in place, that’s a good way of saying, “Time is ticking, but we’re still all right… for now.”
Paine College has bought a lot of extra time in this matter, but time is no longer on its side.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has packed its bags and left the building.
Now, Paine’s only real option is to seek accreditation through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, otherwise known as TRACS.
Some hope that TRACS will mean the same as SACS.
Well, that’s wishful thinking.
Current students of Paine College who continue to take classes at the university after SACS pulls out will most likely have a difficult time transferring some of their class credits.
Sure, those classes taken while the SACS accreditation is still in place are safe, but any classes taken after SACS pulls out of Paine will be an entirely different story.
Students need to fully understand that.
If they plan on staying in the Augusta area in the long-term, the change in accreditation might not be a problem. But if they leave the area and still plan to pursue a degree elsewhere, all their hard work and grades might not transfer to other colleges.
It just depends.
And when it comes to students’ education, the word “depends” should concern them.
Now, let’s talk about Paine’s accomplishments.
Just last year, Paine celebrated 135 years of existence in Augusta.
That’s no small feat for any university.
And many students, faculty members and alumni of Augusta’s historically African-American college insist that Paine College will stand for another 135 years despite the recent challenges that the university has faced.
Many students and faculty members have embraced the battle cry, “Paine College is here to stay.”
But Paine has battled SACS for years, and it’s clearly not winning.
Paine is basically back to the drawing board.
This all began back in 2016, when SACS rescinded Paine’s accreditation after determining that the college still did not meet three major financial standards. The historic college had already been on probation since 2014.
But the historic college has continuously fought back.
Back when Dr. Samuel Sullivan was president of Paine, he stood proudly and discussed openly the university’s decision to file a federal lawsuit seeking declaratory, monetary and injunctive relief from SACS’s actions.
“We get knocked down many times in our lifetime, but we always get up and we always stand up and stand for something,” Sullivan said in 2016. “And that is what we are about here at Paine: Standing for something.”
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, Judge Thrash entered an injunction reinstating Paine College as a member of SACS and restoring its accreditation.
Back then, the judge ruled that Paine College would 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 in 2016.
“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 in 2017.
But that is all about to change and the university is at another crossroads.
For too many years, Paine College has been turned upside down, and it’s not fair for students’ future to constantly be in question.
So, now what?
Well, 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 last year. “We are religiously affiliated, so it’s a good fit.”
It might be a good fit, but it’s time for Paine College President Jerry Hardee to get real with students.
There will be a difference in the degrees the students earn at Paine College without the SACS accreditation.
Those who say that’s not true aren’t being honest.
Why else would Paine fight so hard to keep its SACS accreditation if there wasn’t a difference between SACS and TRACS?
Just because they rhyme, doesn’t make them the same.
Also, students should know that their financial aid might change under TRACS.
They also might have difficulty transferring any credit hours earned at Paine College to other colleges.
Those are realities that need to be discussed with students, parents and faculty.
Paine College will be changing, whether people like it or not.