Saint Augustine’s University at risk of losing accreditation; fired president accuses board of discrimination

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 18, 2024

The campus of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Saint Augustine’s

[Episcopal News Service] Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, one of two historically Black colleges that are affiliated with and supported by The Episcopal Church, is poised to lose its accreditation unless it wins an appeal, putting the school’s continued viability in doubt.

The university’s latest accreditation crisis coincides with renewed leadership upheaval at Saint Augustine’s. In early December, its board of trustees fired President Christine McPhail, and McPhail is pursuing a discrimination claim against Saint Augustine’s – raising gender- and race-based discrimination allegations that the board said are unfounded.

The university’s Board of Trustees reportedly fired McPhail on Dec. 3. She told local media that the board had not given her a reason, though the termination occurred the same day that its accrediting agency had voted to remove Saint Augustine’s as an accredited member institution. The agency cited problems with the university’s governance and finances.

Saint Augustine’s remains an accredited university but on probation while it makes an appeal with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC.

Saint Augustine’s and the much smaller Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, have received several million dollars from The Episcopal Church in recent years while also accepting the church’s guidance on administrative and fundraising matters. Church leaders remain committed to the two schools and plan to assist Saint Augustine’s in its appeal, according to the Rev. Martini Shaw, a Pennsylvania priest who chairs Executive Council’s Committee on HBCU.

“As the church continues to look at racial and social injustices that exist in our country, I think we have to, we must, support those institutions that are mainly geared toward people of color,” Shaw said in an interview this week with Episcopal News Service.

The HBCU committee held its October meeting on Saint Augustine’s campus. Last week, on Jan. 10, it gathered online for a special meeting to discuss ways the church might respond to the possibility of Saint Augustine’s losing accreditation, which certifies that colleges and universities meet certain academic, financial and operational standards.

The accrediting agency’s Dec. 5 disclosure statement doesn’t detail how Saint Augustine’s fell short other than to say it failed to meet six of the agency’s requirements and standards, including those relating to the university’s governing board, its financial resources and financial documents.

The university is behind on financial audits, which it already has pledged to catch up on its, Shaw said, and he expressed hope that the appeal would be successful.

“We as a committee, and the church, will be working with them as much as we can to see how we can assist them in that appeal process,” Shaw said.

Saint Augustine’s, Voorhees and other historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were founded after the Civil War to provide educational opportunities to Black men and women who were excluded from white institutions of higher learning because of segregation.

Saint Augustine’s dates back to 1867, when it was established by Episcopalians in the Diocese of North Carolina. Though still rooted in the Episcopal tradition, it now operates as an independent institution. Its enrollment in fall 2021 was 1,261 students, according to the latest data compiled and released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The school that later would become Voorhees College was founded in 1897, and The Episcopal Church has supported it since 1924. It reported 402 students enrolled as of fall 2021.

The church once was connected to 11 historically Black colleges in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. By 1976, only three remained. In 2013, Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, folded, leaving just Saint Augustine’s and Voorhees.

Saint Augustine’s University had previously faced financial struggles and enrollment decline, but by December 2018, it appeared to be turning a corner when it announced that it had been taken off probation by SACSCOC.

“We have saved Saint Augustine’s University,” the university’s then-President Everett Ward said at the time. He cited The Episcopal Church’s longtime financial and advisory support in helping restore the university to full accreditation.

A month later, Ward announced he was retiring after five years leading the university, sometimes referred to as SAU. Ward’s successor, Irving Pressley McPhail, died in October 2020 from COVID-19 just months into his tenure, and his widow, Christine McPhail, was appointed to take his place in February 2021.

Christine McPhail served as president of Saint Augustine’s University from February 2021 to December 2023. Photo: Saint Augustine’s University

“Our agenda at SAU involves student success and university sustainability,” McPhail said in an April 2022 news release promoting the university’s spring commencement ceremony. “Our graduates are the evidence of our institution’s effectiveness.”

In October 2023, McPhail filed an internal complaint with the university accusing the Board of Trustees of creating a “hostile environment” for her and other female leaders, according to the law firm representing her.

In its statement denying McPhail’s allegations, Saint Augustine’s board said it was focused instead on maintaining accreditation. “The university’s accreditation is critical to the university’s ability to continue as one of the predominant HBCUs in this State,” the board said. “This critical mission will remain our central focus as we continue to support the faculty, staff, alumni, and, most importantly, the students of Saint Augustine’s University.”

North Carolina Bishop Samuel Rodman, who serves on the Board of Trustees, declined to comment for this story, saying he preferred to wait until after the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 19.

Under federal guidelines, colleges and universities seek accreditation by an approved governmental or non-governmental agency like SACSCOC to ensure they meet “acceptable levels of quality,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation, for example, is a minimum standard typically verified by managers when assessing graduates for potential employment. An academic institution that fails to retain accreditation also could be disqualified from federal grants and student aid programs, potentially jeopardizing the school’s ability to remain open.

SACSCOC had first placed Saint Augustine’s on probation in 2016 because of earlier concerns about its financial security. At that time, The Episcopal Church was ramping up its support for Saint Augustine’s and Voorhees, first through a task force and then through the Committee on HBCU that was established by Executive Council in 2017.

The church also has approved a little more than $1 million for each school every three years since the 2016-18 churchwide budget. That support continued through the pandemic, and the draft 2025-27 budget plan that is advancing to the 81st General Convention this June proposes similar funding levels for the two colleges.

Separately, the church’s Development Office has worked to increase awareness of the schools within the church and to help with fundraising. Its appeal every Feb. 13 on the Feast Day of Absalom Jones, the church’s first Black priest, raises money to support historically Black colleges.

Voorhees is in a better financial position than Saint Augustine’s, with no known threat to its accreditation, Shaw told ENS. He partly credits the collegiality of the leadership at Voorhees, something that has not always been the case at Saint Augustine’s in recent years.

“It’s very disconcerting,” Shaw said. “It hasn’t been a good relationship with board and president [at Saint Augustine’s]. That seems to be an issue, and it continues to be issue.”

In mid-December, the Saint Augustine’s board announced that it was appointing Marcus Burgess as interim president. Burgess previously served as vice president for institutional advancement at Claflin University, a historically Black school in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Burgess, in a university news release, said he would work to preserve Saint Augustine’s “mission of excellence in education.”

“I am committed to ushering in a new era of stability and growth for the university, ensuring its continued accreditation and fostering a culture of transparency and collaboration,” Burgess said. “I stand with the dedicated faculty, staff, and students as we navigate these challenges and build a promising future for SAU.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.