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TV remarks sound false alarm for two black colleges

2/21/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

A UMNS Report By Linda Green* By Linda Green*

A seminary professor speaking on a recent television show mistakenly told viewers that two United Methodist colleges were on the verge of closing and asked all African Americans to send $5 each by the end of March to save them.

Carolyn Knight, an assistant professor at the Interdenominational Theological School in Atlanta, appearing Feb. 8 on C-SPAN, named Paine College, Augusta, Ga., and Bennett College, Greensboro, N.C., as two of five historically black colleges that were "on the ropes" and "about to go under in a matter of weeks." Her remarks were made on the "State of the Black Church," an annual program of Tavis Smiley, a popular African-American television and radio personality and commentator.

In her remarks, Knight said that if black America is serious about saving its schools, then each of the nation's 32 million African Americans should write a $5 check, "between now and the end of March ... to Bennett, or Paine College, and it will save our schools. We cannot afford to lose another historically black institution." Another panelist on the show urged all African Americans to get their churches involved by sending donations to the United Negro College Fund.

While some traditionally black colleges are in dire straits, and most need donations for their coffers, neither United Methodist-related Bennett nor Paine is about to close.

"Dr. Knight was incorrect about Paine College," said Paine College President Shirley A.R. Lewis. "The information is simply untrue. The truth is that Paine College is not 'on the ropes." She said the 121-year-old school has a balanced budget, stable enrollment and an endowment of more than $10 million. It is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities.

Officials at Bennett College, one of two U.S. colleges for black women, expressed gratitude that the Smiley show emphasized the need for supporting historically black schools. The college has received a number of donations, and letters of appreciation have been sent to each donor. "We wish to say that we are truly thankful for every dollar that we received in support of Bennett College," said Johnnetta B. Cole, president, in an open-letter response to the television program.

However, she said it was "unfortunate" that Bennett was mischaracterized on the show as "about to go under." "Bennett College is one of the schools that was incorrectly portrayed as on the brink of closing because of financial circumstances," she said.

She acknowledged that while the school has been placed on a 12-month probation by its accrediting body for financial reasons, "we are working diligently to address the issues raised by the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools." The 130-year-old school receives strong support, including help from the United Negro College Fund, she said, and it invites "all our sisters and brothers in African American churches and communities to join in this support."

The alarm generated by Knight's comments among African-Americans compelled Smiley to issue an apology during his commentary Feb. 18 on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," which is heard on more than 100 urban radio stations throughout the United States.

Joyner, also a participant on the Feb. 8 show, is an advocate for black colleges and a champion of the United Negro College Fund. Through his foundation, a college is chosen each month to assist students with scholarships and internships. In his remarks, he said that black colleges and universities "need your money, they need your children and they need the tuition to stay alive."

The Rev. Joreathea Capers, executive director of the United Methodist Church's Black College Fund, called Knight's comments "completely unfounded." "No historically black college or university related to the United Methodist Church is 'about to go under in a matter of weeks,'" Capers said.

Eleven historically black colleges are related to United Methodist Church, and all are fully accredited, Capers said. The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which oversees the Black College Fund, emphasizes credibility, accountability and integrity on the part of the colleges, she said. "We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Black College Fund … in ensuring the viability of these institutions related to the United Methodist Church."

Knight issued a personal apology for the "great disservice" her remarks did to Paine College. In a letter to President Lewis, she expressed remorse for any damage that she may have caused the college and stated that she had intended to refer to another institution that has a similar name. She said she attempted to "state a specific action that the African-American church and community could do with its vast financial resources, specifically given the great challenge that Morris Brown College (Atlanta) is facing. Again, I apologize that I was not clear and therefore misunderstood," she wrote.

Morris Brown College, a historically black institution related to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, lost its accreditation in late 2002, but it has appealed to the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities. Pending resolution of the appeal, the association said that Morris Brown has been returned to the status it held before the Dec. 9 vote to terminate its accreditation.
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*Green is news director of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based office of United Methodist News Service.

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