Sojourner-Douglass won't hold classes this fall as it continues fight for accreditation

The Baltimore Sun
Sojourner-Douglass won't hold classes this fall as it continues fight for accreditation

Sojourner-Douglass College, waging a legal battle to regain its accreditation amid years of financial struggles, is not scheduling classes for the fall semester, its president said Wednesday.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education cited the school's money woes when it moved last year to revoke accreditation, and again when it denied an appeal this year. Without accreditation, the East Baltimore institution is ineligible to receive the federal funding it needs to stay open.

The school, which serves a predominantly black student population, is suing the commission, alleging racial discrimination and violations of due process. Lawyers are seeking an injunction that would restore accreditation, but a hearing on the request is scheduled to continue into next month, meaning a decision won't come before the start of the school year.

"There are no classes scheduled for the fall," President Charles W. Simmons wrote Wednesday in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "In the event that this matter is resolved successfully for the College, we will resume operations immediately."

Supporters of the college, which serves mainly adult students seeking skills in nursing, the health sciences and other professional fields, said the news is a loss for the community.

"This school provided the means for a working person to return to school," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. "They had the schedule and curriculum to upgrade their skills and get their degree and enhance their lives.

"We don't need to lose an educational institution that aims to uplift people."

The Middle States Commission voted last November to revoke the school's accreditation effective June 30 and rejected an appeal in February.

Sojourner-Douglass filed its lawsuit in June. Amid the uncertainty, enrollment fell from a recent peak of 1,400 students in 2010 to 400 at the end of the spring semester.

The Internal Revenue Service filed more than $5 million in tax liens against the college last year. Sojourner-Douglass officials closed a campus in Edgewood after the landlord sued to recover unpaid rent, and Baltimore school officials moved city students from a charter school facility run by the college over unpaid utility bills.

The college website could not be accessed Wednesday. Simmons said it has been down since the school lost accreditation.

The decision not to schedule classes for the fall affects campuses in East Baltimore, Owings Mills, Lanham, Cambridge, Salisbury and the Bahamas.

When the hearing on the injunction opened last week, Simmons said he was hopeful that Judge Ellen L. Hollander would order the commission to restore accreditation in time for the start of the fall semester, typically at the end of July.

No students were enrolled, Simmons said, but about 300 had expressed interest in returning. The school employs about 100 people.

But testimony from college officials and commission members has taken longer than expected, and final arguments aren't scheduled until Aug. 17.

Now college officials are hopeful of a decision that would allow the school to offer classes for the winter semester, which begins in November.

"Justice isn't instantaneous," said John H. Morris Jr., a lawyer for Sojourner-Douglass.

"We are fighting for our lives, and the issues are important ones that may take time to decide and they need to be decided correctly, which may take longer than we hoped," he said. "The school is ultimately fighting to reopen for semesters beyond the fall."

Kareem Aziz, director of institutional research and planning at Sojourner-Douglass, submitted documents to the court identifying nine schools that had lost $1 million or more in the past reporting cycle. He wrote that Sojourner-Douglass was the only school to lose its accreditation.

Middle States Commission members testified that race was not a factor in their decision.

"In this country and in this city, there are a lot of problems with race that need to be addressed. This is not one of them," said George Pruitt, the commission chair. "This is not about race. This is about finances and money."

The commission warned Sojourner-Douglass in 2011 that it was in danger of losing accreditation because it lacked adequate financial resources.

The commission gave the school three years — the standard period, plus a one-year extension — to resolve its challenges. But commission officials said the finances remain unstable, and the college officials had not satisfied the requirements they had set out.

The school told the court it has a plan to repay the IRS, and made an initial payment of $154,962.

Pruitt said it was not enough.

"The standard is not to have a plan to be in compliance," he said. "The standard is to be in compliance."

Supporters have rallied behind Sojourner-Douglass.

In a letter to Pruitt, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings wrote that the school "gave so many a renewed hope that they could rise above what others had determined they could be."

"Additionally, in these tough economic times, job creation and retention are priorities in all locales," the Baltimore Democrat wrote. "If Sojourner-Douglass loses its accreditation it would have devastating effects on the employment of current staff and faculty. It would also damage the employment and career prospects of many who plan to attend this non-traditional, independent College."

Sojourner-Douglass is the second school in Baltimore to lose its accreditation in four years. Baltimore International College, the downtown culinary and hospitality school, lost its accreditation in 2011. It was taken over by Stratford University, a for-profit institution based in Virginia.

Sojourner-Douglass signed a memorandum with Stratford in April that could have turned the school into the Sojourner-Douglass Center at Stratford University. But Simmons said the two institutions "just never negotiated the terms."

Stratford officials could not be reached for comment.

Sojourner-Douglass has agreements with Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Stratford and Florida Memorial University that allow Sojourner-Douglass students to transfer credits to the other institutions.

Theo Jones, who graduated from Sojourner-Douglass this year, counts himself lucky he was able to finish his nursing degree. The 26-year-old said his "heart goes out" to students who have not yet completed their studies.

"Graduating was bittersweet," said Jones, who now works at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "When people ask what school I went to, I'll have to say, 'Oh, it's the one that just closed.'

"Some people take pride in their schools, but if it's closed, there's no legacy to take pride in."

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