Leadership training grounds 

Philander Smith isn't the only historically black college in town.

click to enlarge 'ZEST': Ark. Baptist's Fitz Hill.
  • 'ZEST': Ark. Baptist's Fitz Hill.

Thanks to both good news and bad, Philander Smith College has gotten no shortage of ink over the past few years: a high-profile but polarizing president, an aggressive building program, financial difficulties and controversial firings, then a change of leadership that brought “hip-hop” President Walter Kimbrough in to try to repair the damage.

Meanwhile, Pulaski County’s two other historically black colleges — yes, there are two others — have been limping along in relative obscurity, quietly dealing with their own leadership changes and continuing struggles to hold on to not just relevance but existence. It’s safe to say most people in the area couldn’t call both colleges’ names, but the schools’ leaders insist that even though today’s black students don’t lack for choices, they still fill an essential niche.

Shorter College in North Little Rock and Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock were both founded in the 1880s by church organizations seeking to provide post-grade-school education for the children of former slaves, particularly those who planned to become ministers.

The schools thrived as long as segregation did, and there are still legions of successful alumni across Arkansas. But the decades since full integration have brought a gradual decline in enrollment, and both schools have gone through difficult times.

That’s particularly true of Shorter.

“There was a misperception for years that Shorter College was closed,” said Cora McHenry, president of the school since 2001. It was all but true for much of that time.

Enrollment at the two-year North Little Rock college had dwindled to under 100 in the 1980s, but rebounded to about 300 by 1997, said Katherine Mitchell, the Little Rock school board member and Philander Smith professor who was Shorter’s president from 1990 until 1997. The school’s educators had revamped the curriculum to make it more relevant, she said, and finally started to get long-standing financial problems under control.

But things fell apart in ’97. The school lost its accreditation — there were problems with some of the academic programs, the qualifications of staff members, money, and the degree of influence the school’s board of directors exerted — and Mitchell lost her job. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff stepped in to offer classes at Shorter long enough for the school’s existing students to finish their degrees, but by the end of 1998, there was virtually no one left, McHenry said. The loss of accreditation meant classes from Shorter wouldn’t transfer to other schools, and students couldn’t get financial aid through government-sponsored programs like the Pell grant.

The school clung to survival by developing a career education program — offering certificates, not degrees, in areas like child development. Certificate programs don’t go through accreditation like degree programs do, McHenry said. Instead, they’re “approved” by the organization that regulates the profession involved. The school also opened its doors to North Little Rock’s alternative school, allowing the program to meet at Shorter free of charge, and operated an adult education program for GED seekers as well.

McHenry said when she took over as the school’s president, a lot of her staff members were “paralyzed” by the accreditation loss. But they began working slowly to revive the two-year general studies program, and rally the area’s A.M.E. churches and Shorter alumni to help. The program officially started two years ago with four students and this year has grown to 72 students (another 20 are in the career education program, and a couple hundred went through the GED graduation ceremony last spring). Competitive basketball and choral programs were also reinstituted this year.

Reaccreditation isn’t realistic yet, McHenry said, but the school is working with individual four-year colleges to get “articulation agreements,” meaning Shorter’s classes would be accepted for transfer. So far Henderson State University at Arkadelphia is the only one to sign on, but McHenry said a few others are in the works.

Even so, it’s hard to understand exactly why a student would choose a tiny, struggling, unaccredited two-year college over, say, Pulaski Technical College, which is nearby, a little cheaper and eligible for government financial aid programs.

That’s partly the point, McHenry said. The students they’ve targeted to recruit are those who don’t have many choices — “who had promise but might not be able to go to other institutions for various reasons,” she said.

“We have open admissions,” McHenry said. “We do an assessment once they’re here, and we have a strong tutorial — we don’t call it remedial — program here to support those students who really need to back up a little before they can get into the mainstream.”

But the school remains stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation, she said. No accreditation means no financial aid programs for students, which means fewer students and less money to pay qualified faculty. But the school can’t get accreditation back without a stable enrollment and a minimum level of faculty qualifications.

McHenry’s learned to look in unusual places for answers — including, she said, the ranks of retired educators. She found Russell Hawkins literally pushing a broom along the hallway. Hawkins, a retired principal with a master’s degree in mathematics, owns his own janitorial service. He’s now back in the classroom at Shorter as well.

“At this point I see Shorter on the rise,” Hawkins said. “… I see the college kind of moving forward, trying to get back on track toward the realization of what a college should be doing.”

On the rise is where Fitz Hill hopes Arkansas Baptist College will be shortly as well. Best known in Arkansas as a former assistant Razorback football coach, the 41-year-old Hill was installed Wednesday, Feb. 1, as Arkansas Baptist’s new president.

“We want to move from a sustaining mode to an advancement mode,” Hill said.

The school’s enrollment is three times Shorter’s, but at 220 it’s still less than half what it was in 1965, the year Mary Jarrett, the school’s long-time vice president for academic affairs, arrived as a student. She never left.

“I’ve seen it at its lowest ebbs and I’ve seen it at its peaks,” she said. “It hasn’t had many peaks, but I’ve seen them anyhow.”

Right now, she said, the school’s in between. “We certainly could benefit from a shot in the arm, but we are optimistic that shot in the arm is Dr. Hill,” she said. “He brings a zest and a zeal that had kind of waned.”

And Hill’s most recent job, as head of the development arm at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, his alma mater, gave him a crash course in raising money — something he said the college absolutely must do if it wants to grow.

“One of the major things we will do initially is branding,” Hill said. “Many people don’t know about Arkansas Baptist College, particularly in the younger generation. Usually when that happens it’s because you’ve kind of disappeared.”

The college, affiliated with the Consolidated Missionary Baptist Convention of Arkansas, occupies a small campus at 16th Street and Martin Luther King Drive. It offers both four-year and two-year degrees in a limited number of majors, including criminal justice and theology. Like Shorter, it’s an open-admissions school with programs to help prepare students for college work if they need it. Traditional students outnumber nontraditional, but not by much, Jarrett said.

Arkansas Baptist also sees its mission as nurturing students who might not otherwise make it at college, Hill said.

The school’s size and its Christian mission make it possible to act as a surrogate family to students, to get them help if they have problems, he said.

Most other colleges now offer a lot of the same kind of help, but Hill said historically black colleges still have an advantage.

“African-American colleges have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference for the kid who needs that father figure, to have a culture that’s very supportive of him from what he knows.”

Hill said his background in athletic recruiting gave him the desire and the skills to help students who want to move forward but haven’t gotten the academic or other preparation they need.

“As I read the history of Arkansas Baptist College the thing that appealed to me about the job was a quote from one of the former presidents: ‘Many colleges reach out to get students, but Arkansas Baptist College reaches down.’ ”



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