How Dr. Kevin E. James turned around a struggling Morris Brown College into a successful institution

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 13, 2024 7:01 AM EDT
Kevin E. James. Photo credit: The Atlanta Voice

Since 1881, Morris Brown College has produced a Rhodes scholar, graduated future Pulitzer winners, civil rights leaders, and NFL stars, and was named the nation’s best black college football team thrice. The historically Black college or university (HBCU) unfortunately ran into tough times at the start of the 21st century. It had more than $23 million in debt, was on probation for shoddy bookkeeping and a shortage of professors with advanced degrees, and had its accreditation revoked in 2002.

Nearly two decades later, Dr. Kevin E. James joined Morris Brown as president to turn around the struggling institution. The college has since regained full accreditation, grown enrollment, and has a $40 million Hilton hotel being built on campus. He has revived the once-struggling institution.

“I didn’t really know until my first day on the job how bad it really was. But I took those lemons and turned them into lemonade, and we hit the ground running with a new leadership team, new policies and procedures in place,” James explained how he turned around Morris Brown College.

James never intended to be an educator. He attended South Carolina State University where he pursued music under a band scholarship. While studying music theory, he realized that teaching music was not his calling. James later transferred to Winthrop University where he earned a degree in communication disorders and speech pathology with a minor in social sciences. He went on to a master’s degree in business management and a Ph.D. in higher education leadership from Troy State University.

During his time teaching nontraditional students, Dr. James discovered his passion for working with adult learners. He met a mentor who believed in him and impressed him with the possibility of becoming the youngest college president. James then built a 20-year career as a senior-level administrator in higher education. He has served at Strayer University and Herzing University as a dean of academic affairs and at Grand Canyon University as a senior dissertation advisor. He is the former CEO of 100 Black Men of Atlanta and interim CEO of 100 Black Men of America.

James was inspired to apply for president of Morris Brown College after watching a news clip about his predecessor’s resignation. He immediately contacted Morris Brown AME Church, got in touch with the bishop’s assistant, and sent his resume and cover letter. He took over as interim president in 2019 and was immediately faced with significant challenges. The first HBCU in Georgia founded and funded by African Americans had only 20 students, a $35 million bankruptcy filing, and no accreditation when he took the reigns.

“My first order of business is working to obtain accreditation, ensure financial stability, build a strong relationship with alumni, and enrollment growth. Morris Brown will not die. We will restore this college. We will not let another HBCU go by the wayside. That is my commitment to Morris Brown,” Dr James said about his plans for the HBCU.

Under “The Hard Reset,” James embarked on a mission to restore Morris Brown’s’ legacy.  His two major tasks were to make the university affordable and restore students’ access to financial aid. He cut the 60-person staff by half, asked the mostly adjunct faculty to volunteer, and issued a call to action for alumni with PhDs or master’s and had more than 150 alumni show interest. The volunteers taught for free for over two years, allowing the school to lower tuition.

By 2022, James had paid off the debt, made new partnerships, and applied for accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The institution achieved full accreditation and was offered a $2.9 million grant to help grow enrollment. Alumni returned to celebrate homecoming and the first fraternity on campus in 20 years, Alpha Phi Alpha, restarted its chapter. In 2023, Morris Brown had its largest first-year student class in decades, totaling 150. The number doubled to over 300 last semester.

With full accreditation, growing enrollment, powerful community partnerships, and community impact, James has dubbed the next phase “The Hard Resurgence.” Morris Brown recently received a $3 million donation from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and a $500,000 grant from Chick-fil-A. Additionally, a $40 million Hilton hotel is being built on campus for a hospitality management program. Morris Brown is now the only HBCU in the country to launch a national hotel chain and offer an on-campus hospitality management training program.

James has revived the once-struggling institution.

“We worked on my fiscal stability (and) our policies regarding the fiscal umbrella of the institution. We’re scaling our academic profile. We’ve made history by getting our accreditation back, our federal financial aid back and so I just felt like I could do it. And based on the results, I believe that we can say to the world that we did it, and not only that, this is just the beginning of something great,” James said about how he has orchestrated Morris Brown’s turnaround.