Once a bright hope, Arkansas Baptist College now faces fiscal challenges, lawsuits

This story has been edited to correct factual errors in the fifth and the next-to-final paragraph.

Once the feel-good story in moderate Baptist life, these days a historically black college reborn in Arkansas is best known for its mounting financial woes.

By Bob Allen

A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader in Arkansas says he continues to support the president of a historically black college struggling with finances and a close ministry partner to the state CBF chapter the last seven years.

Recent media reports say several lawsuits have been filed against Arkansas Baptist College for unpaid bills. Its accrediting agency, the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission, put the school on notice in February that it is in danger of being out of compliance with one or more of the commission’s accreditation criteria.

A team from the accrediting body will come to the campus in October 2014, followed by an evaluation of whether the college can be removed from notice next February.

Not long ago Arkansas Baptist College seemed on everyone’s list of feel-good stories of the year. Fitz Hill, the 17th African-American coach in Division I-A college football and one of the few at that level with a doctorate, resigned after four seasons as head coach at San Jose State University in 2004.

fitz hillA graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., Hill returned to Arkansas and in February 2006 agreed to become president of Arkansas Baptist College. The historically black college was so financially strapped that it could not afford to pay him a salary.

He raised money to remodel Old Main, the oldest African-American educational building in Arkansas, that was at risk of being demolished and a symbol for the college’s renewed dedication to minister to those traditionally left out of the educational system.

Hill then turned to revitalizing the neighborhood around the school, at the time Little Rock’s most dangerous, renovating abandoned and declining properties in an effort to improve safety, remove blight, attract partners and re-establish the college’s role as an anchor in the historic community.

One of those partners was the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas. CBF Arkansas Coordinator Ray Higgins met Hill at a luncheon for local ministers to meet the new president in March 2007, and they began talking about how they might become partners in ministry.

The CBF Arkansas Coordinating Council voted in August 2007 to move its headquarters from an office building in west Little Rock to a Queen Anne cottage built in the 1890s adjacent to the Arkansas Baptist College campus. Charles Ray, who at the time worked both for the state CBF and as disaster response coordinator for CBF nationwide, led in the office renovation and of other campus projects. CBF Arkansas moved into its new and current office in February 2008.

“What President Hill is doing at Arkansas Baptist College is nothing short of a miracle,” Higgins said in an email this week. “He has created on campus a culture that publicly promotes Christian values, offers a transformational college experience and courageously confronts the realities which are a part of the students’ lives.”

Higgins said Hill recruits the most underserved students around the country and offers them the opportunity to gain a college education. In seven years he has taken a college of about 175 students to a student body of 1,100 with the largest graduating class in its 130-year history this past May. 

The college has opened a GED center, welcomed a charter high school onto its campus and partners with Memphis Theological Seminary to offer the master of divinity degree to students and ministers in central Arkansas. All that is in addition to offering associate and bachelor degree programs, along with an athletics program that even includes a football team

A major setback occurred in 2012, when Derek Olivier, 19, a freshman from New Iberia, La., and cornerback on the Arkansas Baptist College football team, was fatally shot by an unknown assailant while helping a friend change a flat tire across the street from the campus.

Hill responded in 2013 by announcing establishment of the Derek Olivier Research Institute to study causes and solutions to the problem of black-on-black crime so common in urban areas across the country.

Last fall media began reporting that the arrival of federal student aid was being delayed, prompting campus protests. Hill acknowledged cash-flow difficulties, saying the college was unable to make payroll, and many vendors were being unpaid.

Administrators said someone hacked the school’s computer system, causing an estimated $183,000 in damage and wiping out the automatic transfer of federal funds due to students, the major source of college revenue. After going more than a month without pay, some faculty and staff began calling for Hill and his chief executive officer to resign.

Recent news stories say seven civil lawsuits have been filed against Arkansas Baptist College since January 2013. One just filed in Pulaski County Court says the college twice bounced a $157,016 check to pay for furniture it bought from a Texas-based company.

The state’s department of workforces filed a lien on the college’s property over about $131,400 in unpaid unemployment insurance contributions, interest and penalties. Another lawsuit in May said the school did not repay a $132,325 loan.

College administrators again blame the problem in delays on receiving federal funds, but this time they say the culprit is the government. Last year the U.S. Department of Education placed the college on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 status.

That means Pell Grants and federal loans available through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that formerly went directly to the college for reimbursement to students now are not deposited in the school’s bank account until actual disbursements are submitted to and released by a Federal Student Aid School Participation Team.

College administrators say they intend to pay their debts and are trying to work with vendors.

Higgins said one of the biggest challenges in U.S. education today is managing historically black colleges and universities. Even the strongest are facing hard times, he said, and it is no secret that Arkansas Baptist College “confronts complex challenges constantly.”

“There are many of us who know him personally and respect his integrity and gifts as a leader, and we support him and pray for him and the success of the college every day,” Higgins said of his friend and ministry partner.

Previous stories:

Arkansas CBF mourns student’s murder

Institute to study black-on-black crime