By Ernie Suggs
Morris Brown College’s decade-long financial and academic struggle has largely been a solitary fight, with little impact on the city’s other historically black colleges. But now, the neighboring Interdenominational Theological Center is feeling burned after an attempt to help the struggling school.
ITC, as it is called, recently spent $400,000 improving Morris Brown’s student center, planning to move classes there while the religious school underwent major renovations.
ITC officials were blindsided by the news that creditors holding $13 million in bonds secured by Morris Brown were set to foreclose on the college today — two days before ITC’s fall term begins. They expressed their chagrin in a letter to the campus community obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“The move has been placed on hold until we can find out what the situation is on Morris Brown’s campus,” ITC President Ronald Peters told the AJC Friday.
“I have not had an opportunity to talk to [Morris Brown] President] Stanley Pritchett or [Board Chairman Bishop] Preston Williams. Our lawyers have reached out to their lawyers. We would prefer to have the agreement, which we sought and established in good faith, honored.”
Friday, Pritchett cancelled a scheduled meeting with the AJC on Morris Brown’s campus. College officials said Morris Brown will no longer make statements or answer questions from the media.
Peters said nearly 6,000-square-feet of Morris Brown’s Hickman Center would have been used for classroom and office space. But with Morris Brown’s recent bankruptcy filing and the threat of foreclosure, ITC finds itself in limbo.
“That was quite an investment for us, but we can’t move forward until we have something in writing,” Peters said. “We delayed the opening of our school for this. We amended our schedule and we are still not able to get into the building. But we remain hopeful that we will be able to bring this to a successful conclusion.”
After several weeks of mounting problems for Morris Brown, today could have been the worst. Parts of the school — the only college in Georgia founded by freed slaves — were headed to the auction block, to be parceled out on the steps of the Fulton County Courthouse.
Then on Aug. 25, college officials filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which delays the foreclosure for at least 120 days while the school regroups. During that time Morris Brown officials hope to find a steady flow of income with which to begin repaying bond holders and others to whom it owes money, including several faculty and staff members.
Last week, in an appearance on the Rob Redding Show, Pritchett said donors have recently shown interest in investing in the school. He said it will take at least $100,000 a month to keep Morris Brown, which is unaccredited and is down to 50 students, operating.
Pritchett also revealed that he has not been paid by the school in three years and is owed $275,000.
Gregory Worthy, an attorney whose firm represents the investors seeking the $13 million settlement, said he was not surprised the school filed for bankruptcy.
“It is not uncommon for debtors to file bankruptcy to the extent that they are trying to develop a restructuring plan,” Worthy said. “That is the purpose of it, for those who have the resources and the ability to do it. Obviously, the question now is whether the college has the ability to reorganize.”
While Morris Brown searches for money, ITC is left scrambling.
Peters said the original plan was to move key operations to Morris Brown while ITC’s administration building, classroom building and chapel were closed for repairs, including cleaning out asbestos and installing new infrastructure.
“We were planning substantial renovations to our own facilities,” Peters said. “So we had to move and we were anxious to take advantage of the close proximity to Morris Brown.”
Since ITC was chartered in 1958, it has always had a close relationship with Morris Brown. ITC is a consortium of six theological seminaries, including Turner Theological Seminary, which was founded as a department of Morris Brown in 1894 to train those entering the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Although Morris Brown has had its problems, we have always recognized the historical connection with the AME Church,” Peters said. “We were helping a sister school out.”
In the meantime, classes are set to start at ITC this week. The much-needed repairs are on hold, but Peters is hopeful that Morris Brown will come through with a solution that will eventually allow the move to happen as planned.