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School's Out

LeMoyne-Owen College struggles to stay open.



At LeMoyne-Owen College, school is out for the summer. But unless the college can raise $3 million by the end of June, Memphis' only HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) may be out for good.

At a meeting last week, the City Council agreed to give $3 million to the college over the next three years. The pledge has not yet been approved by the full council but seems likely to pass. Robert Lipscomb, Memphis chief financial officer and chairman of the college's board of trustees, says that he is hopeful that the state will match funds raised by the city and county governments.

Since the 1990s, the college has suffered a series of financial setbacks. In 2002, the school's $12 million endowment decreased to roughly $10 million, forcing it to cut corners to meet its $11 million annual operating costs. Due to its million-dollar debt, the college was placed on probation in 2005 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, putting it in danger of losing academic accreditation. Since then, enrollment has dropped.

But interim president Johnnie B. Watson remains optimistic. "The accreditation will [almost certainly] be reaffirmed," he said. "We have received a commitment from the city ... and have asked the county and state level for similar commitments."

Councilman Myron Lowery asked the college to provide documents proving that it will use the city funding to cover pre-existing debt. "LeMoyne has had some great managers in the past, but some of them haven't been good," he said. "I just want accountability."

Small HBCUs have been struggling in the past few years, with many people questioning their value.

"We serve a specific niche in the community," Watson said. "Low-income students, students who wouldn't be able to go to school otherwise because of low test scores or low grades, come here and leave with college degrees. Inner-city students feel more comfortable here. They go on to be successful, to serve the community. Without LeMoyne-Owen, what will happen to those kids?"

Though Shelby County is roughly 50 percent African American, almost 85 percent of inmates at the Shelby County Jail and the Correction Center are black.

"With numbers like that," said Lipscomb, "the college must stay open. The cost to society is too great. We have the power to intervene in bad situations and provide direction and support."

New Olivet Baptist Church is holding a carnival on the college campus on June 2nd to raise money for the struggling college. All proceeds from the carnival will go directly to the school.

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