Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh is one of the oldest historically black universities in the country. It was started by the Episcopal Church soon after the end of the Civil War.
But Saint Augustine’s has seen brighter days. Major fluctuations in enrollment and finances have resulted in the university being put on probation for the past two years. The school’s president says an accreditation site visit is scheduled for this week. If it is not found to have improved its financial problems and “questions of institutional effectiveness” the accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, could take away its membership. That would effectively close the university.
However, when you scroll through social media, you find a St. Augustine’s that is full of life and spirit. There are several clips of cheerleaders cheering and the band marching through the immaculately manicured campus, which sits on Oakwood Avenue, near downtown.
Scroll down a little bit more and you find a rant like this one, from St. Augustine’s student body president Alston Devega.
“What’s up everybody, I am on the beautiful campus of St. Augustine’s University, home of the Mighty Falcons. And I am really tired of seeing the negative today, I just want to talk about the positive,” said Devega.
Devega goes on to welcome students back to school and then wraps up his message.
“We support and stand by our St. Augustine’s University, our institution. We stand by our president, Dr. Everett B. Ward," said Devega, with his voice rising. "And we’re not going to take any attacks towards him. So, I just want to let you know we love you, we can’t wait to see you and when they go low, we fly high. Go Falcons!”
Devega admits he was mad, but also passionate about his school.
"I definitely was passionate and I think one thing that the students are focused on, we all knew we were on probation, it’s out there," he said. "But I think the biggest thing for us is the achievement we were making so far."
Devega is referring to a rise in enrollment. But St. Augustine’s finances reports paint a more serious picture. Two months ago, HBCU Digest quoted a report by Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). The report said net assets at the HBCU declined by $8.1 million dollars between 2014 and 2017. And the number of employees who were laid off or furloughed was described as “extraordinary.”
“Our finances are improving each and every day. Our alums and university stakeholders are contributing,” said Everett B. Ward, who has been at the helm of St. Augustine’s during the past several years, as either head of its Board of Trustees, as interim president or president. Ward and St. Aug go way back.
“I am very blessed to have been born on this campus at St. Agnes Hospital in 1958. And my father attended St. Augustine’s, all of my relatives," said Ward. "So St. Augustine’s and I have been together literally from the day I was born until this very moment.”
So if you ask Ward, St. Augustine's biggest cheerleader, about the future of his alma mater, he would say it looks bright, despite reports and rumors that this 151 year old institution could close.
“I know and learned very early from my mentors that, when you are in leadership positions, there will be rumors, there will be speculations but it is our role to stay focused on the facts, stay focused on the future and never give up," said Ward. "And that’s what we’re doing at St. Augustine’s University.”
According to the HBCU Digest report, the St. Augustine’s Board of Trustees rated Ward’s performance as president at 70 – a “C.” At the beginning of this semester, Board Chairman Rev. Hilton Smith said in a statement, “We are excited about the start of a new academic year. We continue to support the direction the university’s administrators are taking to prepare for the university’s removal from probationary status with the regional accreditation agency.” And that means doing everything you can to get the word out that St. Augustine’s is open for business. Here is a segment from a video, pumping up students for Fall 2018.
“Hey falcons! SAU falcons! Returning students, new students! SAU remain strong! Remain strong! Remain Strong! It’s been a long summer but the preparations have been made for your return in August.”
Ward said one of the biggest hurdles is raising scholarship money for some of the neediest, mostly African-American students. He said 2018 has seen a substantial increase in donors and the school’s annual fund.
"So I feel very confident when SACS and its site committee comes here in October they will see a university that has made enormous strides forward for the sustainability and viability of the university," said Ward.
Meanwhile, the pride and joy of the St. Augustine’s campus is its chapel, which visitors see as soon as they enter the campus. The chapel was built by students in 1895, with the help of the Rev. Henry Beard Delaney, who would become the first African-American elected bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Rev. Nita Byrd is St. Augustine's chaplain.
“More than history, there is also the fact that this is a spiritual space that has been set aside and blessed for God’s work and I see that influence on students every day,” said Byrd.
“Mother Nita,” as she is called by students, says she hears all the talk surrounding St. Augustine’s future.
“I feel very confident that there is a purpose and a place for this university as an educational institution of importance to this city, to this state, the nation and the world. And with the help of God we will continue to do the work that God has given us to do,” said Byrd.
Last month, the National Park Service granted St. Augustine’s $300,000 to support the preservation of historic structures. It’ll be used for the chapel – restoring the stained glass windows and the pews, where there will likely be a lot of praying going on.