Saint Augustine’s University moving classes online for semester, as alumni call on board to resign

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 20, 2024
Saint Augustine's

Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of two remaining historically Black colleges with Episcopal roots. Photo: Saint Augustine’s University

[Episcopal News Service] Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, will move its classes online for the rest of the semester starting April 1, as it fights to maintain its accreditation and remain open as one of two remaining historically Black colleges with Episcopal roots.

After local media reports about the switch to remote learning, the university’s interim president, Marcus Burgess, released a statement confirming the plan without giving a clear explanation for the reason. “While we strive to maintain the quality of education, it is also our utmost responsibility to ensure the safety, well-being, and dignity of the SAU community, especially our students,” Burgess said. Some students will remain on campus through the May 4 graduation ceremonies.

The university also is pushing back against pressure from alumni groups for its entire Board of Trustees to resign over concerns that it has failed to ensure the institution’s continued financial solvency.

“The board remains focused on preserving SAU’s accreditation and stabilizing the university’s finances under its new leadership,” the board said in a statement released March 20 in response to the alumni groups’ demands for a new board. “The university’s accreditation and financial stability are critical to its ability to continue as a premier HBCU in North Carolina. Our focus remains on fulfilling Saint Augustine’s University’s mission and supporting students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

The latest developments follow news last month that Saint Augustine’s accrediting agency had rejected a university appeal, putting it on the brink of losing accreditation and potentially threatening its continued viability as an institution of higher education.

Its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC, first ruled in December that Saint Augustine’s had 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. After losing its appeal of that decision, Saint Augustine’s board has vowed to pursue arbitration with SACSCOC and ultimately a court battle if necessary to remain accredited.

Regarding the plan to move classes online, sources at the university told WRAL-TV that students had been asked to move out by April 3 and to prepare for remote learning. Burgess said the decision was made after holding forums this week with students, faculty and staff.

“We will remain in communication with all students and their families during this transition and handle all special conditions related to out-of-state students and additional inquiries related to housing, student accounts, and technology on a case-by-case basis,” Burgess said.

The six alumni organizations are describing their campaign for change with the shorthand SAVESAU.

“We believe and evidence shows the SAU Board of Trustees has breached its fiduciary duty to the university,” John Larkins, a 1966 graduate, told local media. “The FY21 audit also states that the board’s overall governance and oversight of the university were severely absent. … Alumni have expressed major concerns about the board’s governance of SAU for the past five years.”

Saint Augustine’s and the much smaller Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, are the two remaining historically Black institutions with Episcopal roots. The pair of colleges have received several million dollars from The Episcopal Church in recent years while also accepting the church’s guidance on administrative and fundraising matters.

Saint Augustine’s history dates 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.

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.

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