Dr. Levi Watkins thumps a yellowing page from the Dallas Times Herald and laughs his soft, coughing chuckle. “Bishop College: rest in peace,” reads the somber editorial page headline. He fingers the line as if the words were punched out in braille or engraved in stone. “October 15, 1986. I remember that day well,” he smiles. “That was the day they went ahead and killed Bishop College.”
His smile inverts into a frown, and Watkins shrugs his shoulders in a gesture of weariness or despair. Like reports of Mark Twain’s death, the early obituaries for Dallas’s 106-year-old, predominantly black college may have been greatly exaggerated. But Bishop’s interim president knows all too well that his institution’s life dangles by a fragile thread. Without a healing miracle, he fears, the school will lie lifeless and abandoned when other campuses open for a new academic year in September. The prognosis, concedes Watkins, is bleak.
Though Bishop enjoyed robust health no more than a decade ago, it has foiled steadily and fast in recent years. Endowments that once exceeded S4 million have dwindled to nothing. Instructional programs, formerly ranked among the best offered by black colleges, have been pared to the bone. Faculty have fled, many with no hope that months of wages due to them ever will be paid. The student census, which approached 2,000 in good years and placed Bishop fifth among private black colleges, has dwindled to 640.
Worse, the school this past year fell victim to a tightening of financial stability requirements for accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS, based in Atlanta, grants or denies certification to educational institutions after evaluating them in twelve areas ranging from instructional programs to administrative services. SACS concluded that, without endowments or hefty financial support from the community. Bishop could no longer promise quality education.
The decision to strip Bishop of accreditation came despite impassioned objections from Watkins. He and various Bishop trustees pleaded with the accrediting board to weigh the pluses on the college ledger. Yes, the school needs funds, Watkins told an accreditation appeals board. But he insisted that even with its troubles, Bishop College is important to the students it serves, to the city of Dallas, to the state of Texas, and to society as a whole.
Indeed. Bishop does excel in many areas. For example, the faculty, though eroded by recent financial troubles, consistently has boasted about 52 percent Ph.D.s. well above SACS standards. The science department conducts millions of dollars worth of federally sponsored research into cancer causes, alternative fuel sources, and pollution control. Zale Library offers the most extensive, complete, and up-to-date resource center on black history in Texas. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) provides a rich recruiting pool for our nation’s armed forces. But Bishop officials recently learned that the military program cannot continue without accreditation.
Until disaster struck, Bishop contributed more than S2 million annually to the local economy as Dallas’s largest minority employer. An annual minister’s conference on the campus attracts clergy and laymen from all states and raises $500,000 for the troubled college. This year, the school hosted a technical assistance training seminar sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For the past three years, HUD has funded a $100,000 Technical Assistance Program at Bishop, which has provided development assistance to the cities of Ferris, Sanger, Seagoville, Hutchins, and Caddo Mills. “We are helping cities that do not have black city council members,” says Bishop spokesman Love Johnson. “Although they are conservative, they accept what we have to offer. It works well for them and for Bishop College.” Johnson says HUD officials showed “a great deal of faith in Bishop” by refunding the program this year, despite the college’s severe financial woes.
Not to mention the many foreign students who make up nearly a third of Bishop’s enrollment each semester- But again, Bishop officials have been notified that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service will issue visas only to foreign students attending an accredited college.
Even as enrollment dwindled this past spring, the student body represented thirty-three states and fifteen foreign countries. Bishop graduates-including many who have remained in Dallas to live and work-can be found in promising careers and influential positions across the country. James Lewis, a 1970 Bishop graduate, recently became New Mexico’s first black treasurer. Dr. John B. Watson, a graduate of the 1897 class at Bishop, was a former president of what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. James Dillard was the first black to serve as a federal voters” rights registration officer in the deep South. Dillard’s wife. Excella, was a long-time Dallas librarian, The Excella Rawlett Dillard Media Center at C.F. Carr Elementary School was named for her. Along with Watson, the Dillards-both 1939 Bishop graduates-were inducted into the Bishop College Alumni Hall of Fame. Another Bishop alumni hall of famer, William T. Daniels, graduated from Bishop in 1905 and went on to become a well-known educator, community developer, and humanitarian. Daniels served on Bishop’s board of trustees from 1930 until 1936, and was the first black from Tex-arkana to receive a college degree. A Texarkana elementary school was named after him.
“Bishop accepted students that other schools wouldn’t take.” remembers Austin physician Patsy Jones, a 1975 Bishop graduate. “It was a family-like atmosphere where everyone supported everyone. My sister went to Bishop and I came to Dallas to live with her and to attend Bishop. That’s pretty much the way Bishop gets its students.”
Adds white Dallas businessman George Shafer, a former Bishop trustee: “I think there are students who will fall through the cracks without an institution like Bishop College. I think a lot of people feel black colleges are a thins of the past, but there still are students who will not get an education otherwise. As long as that is true, we need Bishop College. But, of course, we need it financially healthy and stable.”
But when Watkins’s pleas failed to sway the accreditation board, the possibility that Bishop could regain health or return to stability grew dim. SACS’s decision cut the school off from federal funding and from United Negro College Fund contributions. It diminished the confidence of potential private donors to whom Watkins had looked for life-saving assistance. And i( drove away students who fear their investment in education will be worthless if the college is not accredited.
Facing such a bleak future. Bishop administrators last spring despaired of satisfying creditors demanding payments on debts totaling some $12.6 million. In May, Bishop turned to the courts for help, seeking protection and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law. “I kept thinking I wouldn’t have to do it.” the seventy-six-year-old veteran educator told reporters at the time, “I know some of the board members [who weren’t at the pivotal meeting] will be surprised.”
But many who know Bishop College well were not surprised. Current problems, they contend, merely are symptoms, not the disease. The real cancer, they say. is buried deep in the history of Bishop. It centers in a disorganized, insular, and suspicious church organization-the American Baptist Churches Convention. It taints a board of trustees with little skill and less interest in the gritty mechanics of managing an institution. It feeds on community apathy, racism, and a vague feeling that black colleges may no longer be essential to an integrated society.
Excising the malignancy may require even stronger doses of bitter medicine than Chapter 11, some say. Shaffer and former president Wright Lassiter both suggest that filing bankruptcy was only a first step. Next, they propose. Bishop should board up its campus for at least a year, sever its bonds to the controlling church, and redefine its mission. Then, like Braniff Airlines, it may, perhaps, rise from its own ashes to soar again.
Since SACS rejected Bishop’s appeal and yanked its accreditation. Watkins has remained stoically noncommittal about the college’s future. He says only that he will do whatever is required to save Bishop College, The institution that has opened doors for black ministers, educators, and business people for more than a century has life in it yet, he insists. “Bishop College is in intensive care, but it’s not dead.” declares Levi Watkins. He adds, however, that saving Bishop must be “a very careful procedure. A burned child dreads fire, and Bishop has been burned.’”
NATHAN BISHOP NEVER PAID MUCH ATTENTION TO the catcalls and criticisms from his Yankee friends. He knew that while most of them had self-righteously deplored slavery before the Civil War, many nevertheless despised his personal concern for what was then called “The Negro Race.” But Bishop insisted that the social welfare of this country-and certainly his own religious beliefs-demanded more from whites than mere lip service to black betterment. He once declared that he expected “to stand side by side with those freedmen on judgment day. Their Lord is my Lord. They and I are brethren. And I am determined to be prepared for that meeting.”
To get right with his God and to prepare for the time of judgment, Bishop strove from the end of the Civil War until his death in 1880 to improve conditions for blacks. As a member of the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York City, he helped raise funds to found a college for Negroes in the Southwest. At his death, he bequeathed $10,000 to establish a college for freedmen, a college built the following year in Marshall, Texas, by ex-slaves and Baptist missionaries. Relocated to Dallas eighty years after its beginning, the institution still is known as Bishop College.
In its early days, Bishop enjoyed a large and growing enrollment, a bustling and beautiful campus, a healthy endowment, and generous contributions from the Baptist Church, alumni, and the Marshall business establishment. By the Twenties, though, the American Baptist Churches-sometimes known as the Northern Baptists-wearied of supporting institutions far flung from the church’s New York base. Short of funds and patience, the American Baptist Board of Education (ABBE) made no secret of its desire to close Bishop College.
“The board had already said it wanted to close Bishop in 1926, but they didn’t want to do that under a while president,” says Dr. Milton K. Curry Jr., a long-time Bishop president and now its president emeritus and leading historian. “That’s what they tried to do when [Joseph J.] Rhoads became president. There appeared to be a direct relationship between the time when black schools were able to elect blacks to the presidency and the time the church boards began withdrawing their support.”
Rhoads, a Marshall native and Bishop graduate, became the school’s sixth president-and first black president-in 1929. He recognized the decline in support from ABBE but refused to allow the college to collapse. Instead, he cut the umbilical cord to the church and dismissed virtually all white faculty members. In doing so, he extinguished the support of the Marshall business community. Things got so bad that Rhoads eventually was forced to tell many black teachers to go elsewhere because he couldn’t pay them.
Remembers Curry: “Those who stayed knew what they were getting into.” Rhoads kept records of the teachers and what he owed them in a little box on his desk. They would come into his office, and he would ask them how much they needed to get through the week, the month, or whatever. “The amazing thing about Rhoads,” Curry adds, “is that he continued to govern Bishop as a first-class college and turned out some of its finest graduates.”
Among Bishop’s modern-day supporters, many regard Curry as the best thing that ever happened to the South Dallas institution. It was Curry who brought the institution to Dallas and its greatest prosperity. From the day he was named president in 1952, Curry feared that Bishop would be destroyed by the apathy of the school’s traditional church-based supporters and by the indifference of the Marshall business community. To Curry, the choices were simple: move Bishop or watch it die.
Curry re-integrated Bishop’s staff, seeking white teachers and asking them to help build the college in preparation for relocation. He also persuaded SACS to accredit a branch in Dallas, though it served only 125 part-time students. “I needed that branch as a base for the move to Dallas,” Curry says.
Money was Curry’s most pressing concern, however. When he took over, the school was nearly broke, and it faced the first serious threat to its accreditation from SACS. Graduate programs, in fact, already stood in tenuous probation because only two professors with doctoral degrees taught in graduate departments and research facilities fell far short of standards.
“’When I arrived, Bishop couldn’t buy a loaf of bread on credit.” recalls Curry, “Marshall’s business community hadn’t supported Bishop at all. At one lime, our financial records showed only sixty-nine cents from the white community. That was from a white woman, a grocery store owner.”
To preserve the school’s accreditation and release the graduate program from probation. SACS demanded that Bishop demonstrate endowments of $300,000 or more. At the time, the college fund totaled only $12,000. Curry talked the Baptist Missionary and Education Convention into cosigning a $300,000 loan and standing for the interest so he could report the principal as funds in hand. His financial sleight of hand bailed the college out of its crisis.
IF EVER MORE DALLAS MILLIONAIRES MOBILIZED TO A SINGLE end, few can remember when it was. The year was 1956 and Curry and representatives of the United Negro College Fund arrived here to persuade seventy-five wealthy capitalists-including Interstate Theater founder Karl Hoblitzelle, homebuilder Jerome Crossman, Community Chest Trust Fund executive Fred Lange, and Fidelity Union Life icon Carr P. Collins-to finance Bishop College’s move to their city.
Dallas’s permission givers quietly listened as Curry and the UNCF explained that Dallas was the only city in the country with a large minority population and no black college. Curry believes many members of Dallas’s wealthy business fraternity were less interested that day in quality education for Dallas blacks than in maintaining de facto segregation beyond the decade of the Fifties. “I think they felt we eventually were going to arrive in Dallas anyway, so they’d be better off seeing to it that Bishop’s arrival was more comfortable for them, and not us,” says Curry. “It really didn’t matter then, because I figured it to be that way.”
Whatever their motives, Hoblitzelle-who later would vehemently resist integration in his theaters-and most of the others agreed to underwrite the move. They promised to give Curry seventy-five acres for a South Dallas campus if he could acquire twenty-five more acres to put with them.
“The pastor of a church down the road from the land they were going to give us put an article in a local paper saying Bishop College would make property values go down in the area,” recalls Curry. “I met with the pastor and told him if what he said was true, then the best time for him to sell was now. I also told the white pastor that if Bishop moved near his church, he would reap the benefits of an increased membership. Well, he couldn’t have any of that, blacks in his congregation. After I talked to him, he told us he wouldn’t sell for a penny less than $52,500. We were ready to pay $65,000.”
With contributions from Collins, the Meadows Foundation, and others. Curry raised almost $2 million to relocate Bishop. The new South Dallas campus opened in 1961 with 654 students (compared to 356 in Marshall). Facilities included an administrative building, a classroom building, two dormitories linked by a cafeteria, a gymnasium, and a church. Within a year, the college rented nearby hotel rooms to house a student body that was growing faster than expected.
In the next nineteen years under Curry’s leadership, donations added 306 Dallas acres to Bishop’s original 100. Facilities grew to twenty-seven buildings, and student population reached 2.000. Math, physics, and chemistry programs gained national acclaim. Business, criminal justice, and pre-nursing courses expanded the educational scope. Endowments climbed from $12,000 to $4 million, and a 1977 fund drive attracted wealthy donors both black and white to boost operating funds by S6 million.
“I believe Bishop was on its way to being one of the great institutions of higher learning in this country during its early days in Dallas.” says jewelry mogul Donald Zale. “I was enthusiastic about the college’s potential. Through the Zale Foundation. I did my best to support that college.” adds Zale, a Bishop trustee for more than twenty years. “I thought it had tremendous promise.”
Unfortunately, the promise would go unfulfilled. Bishop had begun to sow the seeds of its own destruction.
ON BLACK COLLEGE CAMPUSES ACROSS THE COUNTRY. THEFederal Grand Jury indictments handed down in May 1979 hit like a bomb. Dr. Milton K. Curry Jr., president not only of Bishop College but of the United Negro College Fund, which helped support forty other black schools, was accused of diverting federal money for his own use. With two other Bishop administrators, Curry was tried in 1980 on three charges, including conspiracy to defraud the government of more than $3 million in education grants.
Curry, then sixty-eight, eventually was cleared of all charges. But the scandal ended his career at Bishop and strained the school’s relationship with the UNCF. It also dried up federal funds, which accounted for 40 percent of the $10.9 million in revenues budgeted for 1979. Bishop anticipated $7,312 in federal money to educate each of its mostly low-income students. But Education Secretary Joseph Califano dammed up all funds until Curry was cleared of charges.
From relative prosperity. Bishop plunged into poverty. Suddenly, it lacked the resources to pay the phone bill, the gas bill, or food bills, never mind a $1.3 million debt that HEW called prematurely. Economically, the federal indictments pitched Bishop into a pit from which it never could escape.
Former trustee Shafer marks Curry’s 1979 indictment as the beginning of the end for Bishop College, Probes into possible fiscal abuse raised broader questions about management and governance. An annual fund drive was canceled lest ebbing community confidence stunt contributions and embarrass the school. White business backers demanded reshuffling and reorganization at Bishop’s highest levels.
“Normally when a management group can’t solve problems, you get a new management group,” says Shafer. “The Bishop trustees didn’t do anything. They had a chairman who had been there since 1968 [Dr. J.K. Haynes of Baton Rouge]. The board should have moved to get new blood in that job. But they still have the same chairman and basically the same board today, The chairman doesn’t go to meetings because of his health. But he still tries to run the show.”
Donald Zale, who served on Bishop’s board longer than any other white in Dallas and taught evening courses on campus, also believes that blame for Bishop’s difficulties rests squarely with its trustees. But Zale traces the problems to an earlier date-1973, six years before Curry’s indictment. For reasons never revealed, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes and several other white board members resigned en masse that year. Their departure meant that, except for Zale and a few others who came and went later, the board consisted entirely of black ministers.
“Board meetings became more like prayer meetings,” says a former trustee. “Even if they could get a quorum-and with forty-three members they often could not-they never accomplished anything. Most of the ministers seemed more interested in telling the others about this sermon or that award than in taking care of Bishop’s business.”
Zale, who also has served on the SMU board of trustees, agrees with this assessment. “That board out there was just a big mess. There was not a group who could really challenge management and make them perform. There was no nucleus of trustees who understood the basic principles of management or accounting that have to be applied to operate an institution successfully.”
According to Zale, the board’s lack of business acumen manifested itself most seriously in relaxed accounting procedures. Quarterly financial statements, routine since the college’s move to Dallas, were forgotten. Annual reports, formerly prepared by a Big Eight accounting firm, became unaudited and unreliable summaries.
“I told them I had no confidence in how money was being spent,” says Zale. “I told them that any contributions I controlled were contingent on getting audited financial statements, which, P.S., we never received. The Zale Foundation, which had contributed generously until then, quit giving except for one contribution when [Wright] Lassiter became president that we gave to try to en-courage him,”
Zale says he argued for stronger management policies and accounting until ministers on the board began to view him as an adversary and a threat. “I was president of a rather large company, and a lot of our customers, about 25 percent, were black,” says Zale. “I didn’t feel I could be an antagonist and get a whole constituency of preachers mad at me and saying, perhaps from the pulpit, that I was trying to destroy Bishop College. I decided to stay quiet.”
With the board’s only business voice stilled, fiscal headaches intensified. Food disappeared from the cafeteria in such quantities, says a former cook, that hardly enough remained to feed students some days. Student loan funds mysteriously evaporated; earmarked grants were diverted to other uses. By the time charges were lodged against Curry, it was impossible for federal investigators to determine where HEW funds had gone.
Matters worsened as the board responded to Curry’s departure by appointing three presidents in three years. By the time Dr. Wright Lassiter accepted the post in 1983, Bishop College was critically ill.
“When I accepted, one of the conditions I insisted on was that the board approve an auditing firm,” says Lassiter. “The auditors found the closing entries hadn’t been made for the two previous years and there essentially had been no posting for those years. The books were not auditable. It took our fiscal staff two years to gel them in order so an audit could occur.”
Results of that audit, when they came, were distressing. Bishop was, for all practical purposes, broke. Debt approached $12 million, and revenues, including support from the United Negro College Fund and grants from the federal government, barely covered daily costs of operating the campus.
Though Bishop’s board remained blithely oblivious to the school’s financial ills until Lassiter forcefully placed the issues before it. the accrediting association knew matters were amiss. SACS assessors found evidence of fiscal irresponsibility not only in the absence of auditable books, but in faculty standards and in the basic educational program.
“Having been through an accreditation crisis in New York, 1 was optimistic when 1 came to Bishop.” recalls Lassiter. But when he came to Bishop, he was presented with “the most damaging accreditation report” he had ever seen. At Lassiter’s first meeting with the accreditation board, the college was put on private notice and given a year to remedy its problems. When Lassiter was next called before the board, in 1984, the school still fell short in three areas-including financial stability. Bishop was put on open probation.
Through various tactics, including the sale of thirty acres of the campus and agreements with federal agencies erasing $12 million in debt, Lassiter improved Bishop’s financial condition dramatically in the next year. When he met with the accrediting board in 1985. he expected probation to be lifted.
But the SACS board, while noting stronger finances, extended the probation. The reason: Bishop’s board of trustees. SACS concluded the board was not sufficiently active in managing the college and was not assisting Lassiter’s drives to raise funds. Though the SACS report stopped short of requiring a reorganization of the board of trustees, it clearly implied that nothing less could rescue the college from its morass.
Similar conclusions emerged almost simultaneously in a role and scope study of the school financed by the Dallas Citizens Council at the request of George Shafer, then a trustee. The $50,000 study faulted Bishop for the size of its board, the concentration of ministers among the trustees, and the seemingly eternal tenure many of them enjoyed.
“I wouldn’t blame the board entirely for Bishop’s problems,” says Dr. Joel Nwag-baraocha, a Harvard-educated management expert who headed the role and scope study team. “But it is the board that is responsible for setting policies and making sure those policies are carried out. To govern effectively, trustees should include a cross section of the city’s business, religious, and community sectors. A board made up almost entirely of church leaders, many of whom do not live in Dallas, isolates the college.”
Despite clear warning signals from several directions, the trustees resisted change. They offered no support when Dr. William Shaw. acting board chairman, insisted that the “reduction of the number of board members and the broadening of [the board’s] composition is an immediate concern.” Later, though, they balked at signing a life-saving loan package feverishly put together by Watkins to keep the school out of bankruptcy court. “They didn’t want to put their names on the dotted line because they knew the school was in trouble and the loans might one day go bad,” says one board member who asked not to be identified.
Lassiter gave up in frustration last year and accepted the presidency of El Centro Community College. His departure spurred resignations from Zale, Shafer, and Proline Corp, founder Comer Cottrell, the last three Dallas business leaders among the trustees. Under Haynes, the ailing chairman who had held the position for nineteen years. Bishop’s board grew even more isolated.
Zale says his resignation was triggered partly by the realization that-because Bishop had long since quit paying premiums on liability insurance-he could be held personally liable if a student were injured play-ing basketball or crossing the street. Zale adds, though, that he felt profound despair for the college that he had worked to nurture for more than two decades. “When Wright Lassiter left, I kind of gave up. I felt that if Wright Lassiter couldn’t save Bishop, nobody could do it.”
IT WAS A COOL EVENING IN ATLANTA ON March 27, but Levi Watkins was hot. For two hours he had stood before an appeals committee of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools pleading for time to set Bishop College back on its feet. The school had made huge strides toward financial recovery since he was appointed interim president last August, Watkins told the committee. He pleaded with them to continue accreditation for at least one more year.
The SACS committee members had nodded agreement with Watkins’s claims of progress, but turned a deaf ear to the plea for time. Before the session was over, Watkins stormed out, saying he didn’t want to hear the verdict. An hour later, Bishop’s appeal was denied. As of that moment, Bishop was no longer accredited. It was the ultimate college death penalty.
Without accreditation, Bishop lost support from the United Negro College Fund, which in good years had enriched the school’s coffers by as much as ￡700,000. “Bishop is one of our oldest and most distinguished member colleges,” says UNCF chairman Christopher Edley. “We deeply regret losing their participation in our program. But the bylaws of our organization require us to assist only accredited institutions.”
Stripping away accreditation also jeopardized federal support, which fifteen years ago peaked at $5.1 million, placing Bishop sixth, behind such renowned black institutions as Howard University in Washington. D.C.; Meharry Medical College in Nashville; Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama; Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge; and North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Watkins claims Bishop remains eligible for federal funds because other accredited colleges have agreed to accept Bishop credits from transfer students. So far, though, he has not revealed which colleges are lined up.
Worse, perhaps, than the likely loss of funds is the pall SACS’s decision casts over the campus itself. Accreditation lends legitimacy to educational programs, and its loss already has hastened an exodus of faculty and students. Even students who remain loyal fear that, without federal assistance, they will be unable to pay fees at Bishop. And the stigma of bankruptcy is sure to turn away prospective students for many years hence. For some, the crisis may pinch off the opportunity for higher education.
“I’ve heard some students talk about transferring,” says Student Government Association president Nathaniel Thomas. “But even that lakes money, and a lot of us are here on some type of aid. Let’s stick it out, I say.”
Despite the Rubicon they are approaching, many of Bishop College’s board members seem blissfully unaware that the school verges on collapse. “The information I have suggests to me that there is still hope, regardless of the school’s accreditation state,” says Dr. LeRoy K. Jordan of the First Baptist Church of North Tulsa.
Dr. Floyd N. Williams of Antioch Baptist Church in Houston goes a step further. “Historically, black colleges have never really had accreditation in the eyes of larger white schools. As long as Bishop continues to keep a faculty with members that rank among me best in their fields, and as long as Bishop continues to offer the curricula it promised, it will survive.”
Other Bishop supporters respond with less optimism. They point out that the school can no longer afford to pay professors and cannot reasonably expect to retain either faculty or curricula. “There is no hope for Bishop now,” says Comer Cottrell. “If Bishop had changed its board and responded early on that they were serious about (he resources that were there, it would be a different story.”
Rather than spurring change, Cottrell (and other former trustees who would not speak openly) says the mounting crisis thrust Bishop’s board into a stale of near paralysis. For example, Cottrell speaks of a proposal to revitalize Bishop’s criminology department by appointing Houston Police Chief Lee Brown to head it. The presence of Brown, one of the best-known black crimi-nologists in the country, would have attracted students and could have created visibility to help woo contributions, Cottrell believes.
“We needed a person with a doctorate in criminal justice to chair the department,” says Cottrell. “Lee Brown offered to chair and felt he could hire some graduates and so could [Dallas Police Chief Billy] Prince. Nobody ever followed up.”
Brown, who previously developed programs in criminology at Portland State University in Oregon and at Howard University, confirms that he was intrigued by the possibility. He adds, though, that Bishop trustees sought no meeting with him. so he assumed they were not interested.
Similarly, Bishop dropped the ball in recent months on other offers of assistance. The Coca-Cola Company offered a $100,000 grant to help Bishop create a development office to canvass for corporate contributions. Nwagbaraocha, who led the role and scope study, says a development office is among the school’s most critical needs. But Watkins and the trustees again failed to follow up. They also shunned assistance from a retired ARCO comptroller who volunteered to assist the school’s finance office.
Other signs of board inactivity abound. A proposal from the Dallas Independent School District to create a special education center, which could at least have helped with operating costs, was ignored. A Dallas Community College District plan to estab-lish a technical institute feeding into a four-year program at Bishop brought no action. And so on.
One plan that might have saved Bishop was rejected early this year. A possible merger with three other struggling black colleges-Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas College in Tyler, and Wiley College in Marshall-failed to trigger serious board discussion, according to one insider.
“The only way some people see to solve these problems.” complains trustee Dr. Harry Blake of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church in Shreveport, “is to merge these black schools together or with existing majority white schools. What else can you call it if it’s not an attempt by mainstream America to get rid of black colleges?”
Such racial fear has often shackled Bishop, says former instructor Tom McClellan, who is white. “I got the impression that Bishop was working to stay segregated from mainstream Dallas, sort of a ’the honkies are out to get us.’ That paranoia and the layered egos and iron-handed rule of its leaders has, in a way, caused Bishop to contribute to its apparent downfall.”
But Bishop trustees were hardly more enthusiastic about a proposal that might have preserved the black college and ensured its prosperity. In December, a group of investors headed by the Rev. Anthony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship offered to buy the school. With backers including Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, former football stars Roger Staubach, Joe Green, and Bob Breunig, and businessmen Hugo Schoell-kopf, A. Starke Taylor III, Don Carter, and Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Evans promised to retire Bishop’s debt and breathe new life into academic programs.
“We would have put in a seminary, health clinic, skill and employment bank, counseling center, and a junior and senior high school,” says Evans. “We were committed to Bishop as a school that particularizes itself to blacks, The trustees were aware of our vision for the black community to provide education, economic development, social and health services, and the like. We are do-ing those things right now through the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.”
Despite this lineup of well-known investors, men who surely could have boosted Bishop’s finances into the black. Evans’s proposal received an icy reception from trustees. Shafer speculates that doctrinal differences between church groups may have queered the deal. Watkins says trustees did not believe that Evans and his group had the administrative skills to run a college.
Trustees, and to some extent, Watkins too, blame Bishop’s troubles on lack of support from the while community in Dallas. But Wright Lassiter and Donald Zale say the board’s refusal to weigh bailout possibilities is typical of an insular attitude that has alienated not only the white community, but blacks as well. “When I came, it appeared to me that Bishop was on an island out in Southwest Dallas,” says Lassiter. “There was water all around and no boats and no means to navigate from the island to the mainland. The trustees have always been very suspicious of outside influences.”
Says Zale, “It goes back to the church and the preachers. The board had such a good old boy network-so tight and shielded from the outside influence-that they prevented other influences, whether we talk about white people or black, from being effective. I have heard one preacher on the board say that ’they’-whoever they are-are just trying to horn in on our deal.”
Watkins disagrees. “My research shows that the trustees and the administration yielded to outside influences too much for too long rather than using their own initiative.” Watkins adds, “I can only say that Bishop is open today because of the support and dollars from, through, and by the influence of those preachers.”
No matter the reasons, Bishop now teeters on the brink of collapse. Without major infusions of money, instructional talent, and energy, Bishop has no chance of regaining accreditation. And without accreditation, even trustees concede it may die.
Lassiter, Shafer, Zale, and almost every other Bishop watcher insist that a healthy Bishop College is important to cultural growth and diversity in Dallas’s future. They agree with the UNCF that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and they fear many minds will be wasted without the nurturing influence of a predominantly black college. “There is something genuine and sincere in the way Bishop takes a student with many weaknesses and cultivates his strengths,” says McClellan, the former instructor. “At any other school, that student would have been crushed by his own anonymity. You can’t brush away that sincerity and dedication. Likewise, there are people who have gone to Bishop, gotten advanced degrees at other schools, excelled in the world, and still come back year after year, to share their knowledge, experiences, and time with Bishop College.”
Dr. Patsy Jones, who used to lecture freshman science classes at Bishop, is one who has never forgotten her alma mater. Jones was the first Bishop graduate to attend the University of Texas Health Science Center at Dallas, and the first physician from the Central Texas Medical Foundation-Brackenridge Hospital program appointed to the Brackenridge Advisory Board. “The thing I loved about Bishop was the people,” says Jones. “Even though I always had an interest in medicine, I had planned to get an elementary education degree and leave Bishop. But the people there persuaded me not to be less than I truly wanted to be. The class sizes were such that I didn’t gel lost in the crowd. The teachers knew many students by name and took an interest in our off-campus interests and problems.”
Says McClellan: “Academically, I have every faith in the Bishop faculty. They are a solid bunch, and many of them could enjoy much better careers in other places.”
Without exception, those who know Bishop cherish its contributions to Dallas, to Texas, and to the American dream of opportunity for everyone. Through 106 years, many of them marked by racial oppression and financial struggle, the college has fought and survived and fulfilled the mission set out by Nathan Bishop in the aftertides of the Civil War. But today, with its coffers empty and bankruptcy at its door, Bishop faces the greatest challenge in its history, the greatest threat to its tradition.
“Almost the only thing that Bishop has left is its heritage,” says Lassiter. “You need to hold on to that heritage and get rid of just about everything else. Bishop College needs to reinvent itself, and the place to start is the board of trustees. It may require closing the doors for a year and starting fresh to build on the heritage.
“Someone must take drastic, decisive action. Otherwise, you may as well dig a hole and bury Bishop College.”
Five Problems That May Kill Bishop College
1. A long-standing record offinancial irresponsibility andmismanagement.
2. The resignation of key hoardmembers with business expertise.
3. 3. An oversized and entrenched board of trustees burdened by isolation and an almost paranoid suspicion of outsiders.
4. The 1979 indictment of former president Milton K. Curry Jr. on charges of diverting federal money for his own use.
5. Loss of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges
Five Ways To Save Bishop College-Maybe
l. Black leaders should unite to rally support for the college.
2. Create a smaller, more diverse board of trustees, with a new board chairman elected everv few years.
3. The school should submit asemester-by-semester financialreport to SACS.
4. Create an endowment andfundraising office to solicit helpfrom private and corporate sources.
5. Sell Bishop College to a group that will bolster the college financially and further Bishop’s original goals.
Dr. Levi Watkins thumps a yellowing page from the Dallas Times Herald and laughs his soft, coughing chuckle. “Bishop College: rest in peace,” reads the somber editorial page headline. He fingers the line as if the words were punched out in braille or engraved in stone. “October 15, 1986. I remember that day well,” he smiles. “That was the day they went ahead and killed Bishop College.”