Augusta Chronicle Editorial: Paine College is focused on its future
April 29, 2019
In a corner of Paine College President Dr. Jerry Hardee's office, there sits a bust of famed U.S. educator and African-American leader Booker T. Washington.
Washington actually visited Augusta three times - in 1899, 1905 and 1911. Back then, in Paine's earliest years, the HBCU - the historically black college or university - was just settling into its acreage on 15th Street.
What if Washington visited Paine today?
He'd probably be proud of how far the school has come, and impressed with the ambitious direction Dr. Hardee intends to take it.
This page repeatedly has urged Augustans not only to stand behind Paine but to help provide the force to move it forward - especially at this crucial time in its 137-year history.
An important part of Paine's future still rests in a courtroom.
When allegations of financial mismanagement surfaced at the school in 2011, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools moved to revoke Paine's accreditation. SACS accreditation is a sort of seal of approval not only for quality academics but for retaining access to students' federal financial aid - and at Paine, that aid goes to more than 90 percent of the student body.
No accreditation means no aid, no students and likely no Paine.
But a judge's October ruling that favored SACS also keeps an injunction in place keeping Paine accredited while the case is resolved. In addition, Paine has partial accreditation from a second agency - the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or TRACS.
This week, the TRACS accreditation director will visit Paine as part of the process to grant the school full accreditation. A complete TRACS evaluation team will arrive in August. Paine could be fully accredited by the end of October.
None of that, however, is slowing Paine down.
The infractions cited by SACS have been resolved. For the past two years, Paine has had a balanced budget. Alumni donations, Dr. Hardee said, have quadrupled. Faculty are busily applying for any and every possible grant to help fund the school's academic mission and research.
More big news: Although Paine has only about 450 students right now - a smaller enrollment than any of Augusta's public high schools - Paine has received about 4,000 student enrollment applications for next year.
But the figure Dr. Hardee said he's more interested in is 1,075. That's the number of students who applied for financial aid, and that better indicates the seriousness of a student's intent to enroll. If half to two-thirds of those 1,075 became Paine Lions, "we're in good shape," Dr. Hardee said.
The entire campus appears in good shape, really. Neatly manicured lawns surround Paine's classically designed buildings, which comprise their own historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That makes the buildings eligible for special grants to have them refurbished.
A number of other projects are on the drawing board.
Property on the campus' edge is being eyed for development as income-producing retail space.
Dr. Hardee said he's spoken with Richmond County School Superintendent Dr. Angela Pringle about an idea for a Paine-affiliated "leadership academy" inside the school district's Performance Learning Center - the former Tubman Junior High School. The goal would be to target likely black students and encourage them to become teachers.
"Other institutions are doing it, but not in the numbers and not at the level that's needed to make sure that every African-American student gets a chance somewhere in his early 12-year education to look at a person who looks like him," Dr. Hardee said.
That increases the likelihood of keeping at-risk students off the streets and in an environment where they can learn and become professionally productive, then encourage future generations to do the same. Otherwise, Dr. Hardee said, time in prison becomes more likely than time in college.
Paine also is pulling a seat up to the large table where cyber opportunities are being served up in Augusta's growing tech environment. Paine is part of a cybersecurity consortium composed of HBCUs nationwide, to foster interest in cyber careers among African-American students. Paine's cybersecurity program has aspirations of growing its curriculum into offering a certificate and even its own degree.
Above all, though, Dr. Hardee sees overall opportunity as Paine's niche. It's not a school just for African-Americans, though as an HBCU the influence is inescapable. But it is a school, he said, for anyone with a desire to succeed.
"What we know is that many of our students are those who under normal circumstances may not go to college, but we end up cranking out students who leave here and become very successful," Dr. Hardee said.
"This place is flowing with optimism, and I wish the general public would really see and understand what it means to be associated with an institution that, for 137 years, has taken the underserved - the disenfranchised, people who have the academic acumen and the desire to learn - but may not have gotten the opportunity because of their circumstances."
Augusta's continued support of Paine can keep that optimism going.
"It starts with me. It starts with you," he said. "It starts with anyone who can have a voice in making that change."
Read the original article on the Augusta Chronicle website.