South Florida’s only historically Black university on track to return to good standing with accreditor
South Florida’s only historically Black university may soon be back in good standing with its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges or SACS. It’s a critical step for the future of Florida Memorial University, the private school in Miami Gardens, which has struggled with budget cuts brought on by years of declining enrollment.
You turn to WLRN for reporting you can trust and stories that move our South Florida community forward. Your support makes it possible. Please donate now. Thank you.
Florida Memorial was put on probation for good cause last year after its board borrowed from the endowment to cover costs. But after a campus visit in mid-April, SACS representatives say the school is in compliance with the organization’s standards. A final decision is expected next month.
WLRN education reporter Kate Payne spoke with Florida Memorial President Jaffus Hardrick about how the school got here and what comes next.
The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
HARDRICK: The institution really started experiencing a decline in enrollment around 2011, 2012. And it just kept going, a nosedive decline. So what was happening, as the enrollment was declining, the institution wasn’t necessarily adjusting the budget accordingly. And when the institution found itself in these situations, the board had no choice but to tap into the endowment to help mitigate budget shortfalls. And when I came on board in July of 2018, I put in place mechanisms to start repaying the endowment but it was just not fast enough.
WLRN: According to a spokesperson, the university began repaying the endowment in 2019. As of March, they had paid back $300,000 dollars, and still owed $3.1 million.
The school hosted a campus visit for officials from SACS, from the accrediting organization, to see the steps you all are taking. What was that visit like and what was the case that you made to them?
They interviewed with a plethora of stakeholders, students, faculty, staff, board members and so many others. And when they got here, they saw the beautiful renovations taking place throughout the university campus. And they saw many of the changes that we’re putting in place now. Increasing the enrollment, new academic programs, new revenue streams we’re looking at. We were literally tracking somewhere around 4,000 applications by this time last year. Today we are well over 10,000 plus applications.
That increase is consistent with what we’re seeing nationally at other historically Black colleges and universities. Some have seen a spike in enrollment, despite the overall student headcount going down across the country.
After the probation was announced back in June of last year, the school did announce a series of changes: discontinuing 18 undergraduate degree programs, cutting certain salaries for staff, eliminating some 15 faculty positions. Some of those faculty have alleged that the school discriminated against them. What is your response to those accusations?
Any time you're making these type of dramatic changes in an organization, of course there will be some that will take that position. I would never do anything where we are violating the protected statutes of anyone. We could no longer continue to have programs open where we have no students in those programs.
According to a school analysis, on average there were zero students graduating with engineering or physics degrees over a five year period. Other programs like English and marketing were graduating an average of 3 or 4 students.
So we are aligning many of our academic programs with market needs and demands, like computer science. E-sports. Turning the university into an innovative tech hub. We’re focusing on renewable energy. Cryptocurrency. Healthcare. It’s part of why we’re seeing such an increase as well in our enrollment.
Florida Memorial is of course the only HBCU in South Florida. It’s this important community institution. So what is the significance for the future and for the legacy of the school to get back on track in this way?
For me, it’s about us making sure that we are having economic transformational impact in our communities. We are still one of the largest employers here in this community and I want to continue to expand what we’re doing. I want to teach folks how to become your own employers, right? How to create your own revenue. How to scale your businesses. These are the types of initiatives that we are bringing here to the university that I know will have transformational impact on this community.
Final decision expected in June
The final say on Florida Memorial’s standing will be up to the SACS Board of Trustees, which is slated to meet in June. SACS Vice President Michael Hoefer says while it’s likely that the board will follow the recommendations made by the team that conducted the campus visit in April, the trustees are not bound by those findings.
Hoefer said for his part he’s impressed by the changes Hardrick and his administration have made.
“The president has put a highly trained and qualified team around him,” Hoefer told WLRN. “They’ve done some pretty remarkable things in the past year and a half to two years.”