CASUALLY, COMER COT-trell lets the notice of an impending tax hen flutter to the table. The owner of the South-west’s largest black-owned business appears unfazed by the $994,000 debt in front of him. “Hell, I thought I was through with that,” Cottrell chuckles. The lien notice, for taxes never paid by Bishop College, is evidence that even from the grave, Bishop still haunts him. It was Cottrell-as former chairman of Bishop’s board of trustees-who gallantly tried and failed to save this city’s only black college from bankruptcy.
But not even Cottrell’s influence and wealth-he’s arguably the richest African-American in Dallas-could stave off that fate. Just as he did when he moved his floundering hair care products business from California to Dallas in 1980, Cottrell snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by buying Bishop’s remains at a bankruptcy auction in February 1990 and persuading officials at Waco-based Paul Quinn College to step into the crypt. This month, Paul Quinn will complete two full semesters of seemingly fruitful college life.
Malcolm Forbes had his balloons, Donald Trump has his yachts, and Comer Cottrell has Paul Quinn College. Besides the $1.5 million he shelled out for Bishop at the bankruptcy auction, Cottrell estimates his philanthropic plaything has cost him $3.2 million in personal funds and personally guaranteed loans since he moved it to Dallas. While he has been known to throw away barrels of money on impulsive investments unrelated to his $36 million-a-year company, some observers see Cottrell’s nurturing of Paul Quinn as an attempt to shake a demon.
“It hurt him real bad when he couldn’t save Bishop,” explains one of Cottrell’s many business associates. “With Paul Quinn, he’s not taking any chances. It’s his show, and they know it. But it’s not all about business. Comer really cares about Dallas because it’s been good to him. He’s sensitive to the fact that blacks didn’t begin to embrace him for many years. In a way, his trying to save Bishop was his way of trying to earn his way into the black community’s heart. When that failed, he was looking for another way, and got lucky in bankruptcy court.”
Cottrell says his motives were pure. “I didn’t have to sink another dime into the place once I bought the campus. But I want to see Blacks get a chance at an education they might no( get otherwise. The rest of all that stuff is bullshit. That college needs to be here, and nobody else stepped forth to see that things turned out the way they did, so I took the initiative.”
That he did. With Cottrell’s help and $2 million in moving expenses from the United Negro College Fund, Paul Quinn made the move. And despite a harried opening in late summer (without air conditioning), the inevitable headaches of relocating a 119-year-old institution in just four months, and the shocking news last November that the chairman of the school’s trustees had been arrested after hiding crack cocaine crystals in the bushes of an abandoned house, things seem to be going exceedingly well.
Because of Cottrell’s dedication, Dallas has been given an unprecedented second chance to see a primarily African-American institution of higher learning survive and thrive. And by most accounts the city has responded with enthusiasm. Several highly visible businessmen, including Texas Rangers managing general partner George W. Bush, recently agreed to sit on the Paul Quinn board. Numerous fund-raising efforts have been held on Quinn’s behalf. The Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD), under the direction of its new chancellor, J. William Wenrich, recently entered into an innovative agreement to link community college course credits to matriculation efforts at Paul Quinn. The plan is to make it easier for community-college grads to get a four-year degree.
And the outpouring has crossed color lines. At a time when Dallas is plagued with racial divisiveness, the support for Paul Quinn offers real hope that a worthy cause can unite people from varied backgrounds.
But there is still much work to be done before Dallas can claim a first-rate college at Paul Quinn, and Cottrell remains the key. “I aim to see that Paul Quinn not only stays here, but becomes one of the best damn colleges in the state, maybe the nation,” Cottrell says. “I can do that because I’ve got all the power in the world.”
EVEN THE POWER OF GOD-AS CONCEN-trated in a room full of His disciples-wasn’t enough to stop Bishop College from the self-destructive free fall that began in May of 1979. That’s when the board, made up of 43 members, many of them clergy, gathered in shocked silence to hear the news of the federal grand jury indictment against Dr. Milton K. Curry Jr., president of Bishop College and, at the time, president of the United Negro College Fund. Curry was accused of diverting some $3 million in federal education grants to his own use.
Until that time, Bishop College was a robust institution with a national reputation as one of the country’s best black colleges. Moved from Marshall to Dallas in 1956. Bishop had seen the full weight of the white power structure thrown behind it in support, with major grants from wealthy Dallas families like the Hoblitzelles, the Meadows, and the Carr P. Collins. It had grown from a little campus in South Dallas with 650 students to some 400 acres with 27 buildings and a student body of 2,000. Prominent names of the era dotted the list of college trustees, among them jewelry mogul Donald Zale, home builder Jerome Crossman, and U. S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes.
Though he was eventually cleared of all charges, Curry’s indictment dropped an anvil on Bishop’s prosperity. Money that the school had counted on from the federal government was withheld because of the scandal. The United Negro College Fund turned its back on Bishop. And the federal probe had a ripple effect: Community leaders demanded answers and a more accountable system of management. Local fund-raising support withered. Curry left and three presidents were hired and fired in rapid succession. By the time Dr. Wright Lassiter, now president of El Centro College, was hired in 1983, Bishop was almost comatose.
The death knell would not be heard until May 1988, when Bishop was boarded up and the end of an era officially pronounced. Twen-ty months later, the campus was gavelled over to the highest bidder. Paul Quinn College, Dallas, Texas, was merely a twinkle in Comer Cornell’s eye.
Bishop’s long history in Dallas reminds us that, at least at one time, there was a consensus that Dallas needed a black college. Though there’s ongoing debate over the role and value of a predominantly black institution, there is no doubt that minority enrollment is on the increase. Minority students accounted for 73 percent of the enrollment growth at Texas public universities from the fall of 1989 to the fall of 1990, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Those figures suggest that minority students are seeking higher education at any college that will accept them, but two predominantly black schools-Texas Southern University in Houston and Prairie View A&M-were the state’s top two leaders in black enrollment for the 1990 fall term.
While acknowledging that many predominantly white colleges have good programs in place to help minority students ease into and succeed in college, local United Negro College Fund administrator Reginald Gates says the evidence shows that black colleges “do it better.”
“UNCF schools continue to show increases in enrollment while most majority institutions are experiencing decreases,” says Gates of the 41 historically black colleges financially supported by his organization. “I would like to think that it’s because the educational opportunities at historically black colleges are more conducive to learning. It’s a bit more personal. There are smaller classes, and the relationships between students and faculty are more progressive.”
Gates’s rationale, at least to him, supports the existence of a black college in Dallas-or anywhere for that matter-be it Paul Quinn or Bishop College, from which he graduated. Black high-school students who don’t measure up academically to the admissions criteria of largely white institutions have another option in a black college. “Financial aid isn’t available at major and predominantly white institutions for many black students.” adds Gates. “Close to 90 percent of all scholarship money at black colleges is for minorities, but majority schools only provide set-asides, and they reserve them for the star minority students. If you aren’t dean’s list material, then it’s ’later’ for you,”
The high number of Paul Quinn students who apply for financial aid would support Gates’s contention. According to a report by college administrators that was prepared for the Dallas Citizens Council, 30 percent of Paul Quinn’s operating funds are earmarked for financial assistance to its students. “Virtually all of the students are dependent on grants, guaranteed loans, work-study programs, or scholarships to pay tuition and tees,” the briefing states.
Money problems aside, many black educators believe that black students can’t compete with whites for entry to majority colleges because blacks have endured years of inadequate schooling. According to Ethel Barnes, director of planned giving at Fisk University, a predominantly black college in Nashville, Tennessee, institutional racism hinders many black students from being accepted at mainstream universities. “We’ve been made to feel inferior and unable to absorb certain educational training,” says Barnes. And those who do get in to majority colleges, Barnes says, often don’t want to stay. “You have lots of inner city students who’ve gone to public schools all their life, and the transformation to a white college environment leaves them feeling unincluded,” she says.
A recent study conducted by the Southern Regional Education Board seems to buttress Barnes’s point. Data obtained from 4,500 student respondents at 20 historically black (among them, Texas Southern University) and 20 predominantly white colleges suggests “that black students often feel a sense of alienation on predominantly white campuses and question the commitment of white administrators to their success. Racial isolation and insensitivity on campus have a different meaning for white and black students,” according to the report.
Research suggests that these institutions give minority students a shot at the American dream. While the nation’s black colleges enroll just 20 percent of the nation’s black undergraduates, they produce more than a third of black college graduates. More than 70 percent of the nation’s black professionals earned their undergraduate degrees at black colleges and universities. According to the American Council of Education, 55 percent of the 6,320 blacks who earned doctorates between 1975 and 1980 attended just 87 of the historically black colleges.
A comfortable environment is what brought Dallas native Gary Bond, a transfer from the University of Texas at Austin, to Paul Quinn. Bond came here, he says, because “it represented to me a more realistic means of obtaining my degree. Here is a place where I can get a quality education and be in an environment that’s understanding of African-American culture and all that goes along with it,” the student explains.
One thing an institution devoted specifically to seeing minorities get ahead can do is to concentrate its resources on the areas that offer those students the greatest hope, or that fill a critical need in society. Paul Quinn is planning programs to train teachers who can cope with the many challenges facing inner-city kids, and to establish pre-nursing courses that would help prepare badly needed health care professionals, Cottrell himself wants the college to offer courses to jump-start young black entrepreneurs and train minority journalists.
Critics claim that the black college is a historical anachronism that has outlived its usefulness. They argue that cradling blacks in an artificial, if familiar, environment is not really preparing them for the real world. Black colleges, they say, are little more than ethnic incubators that will do little to buffer black students from the culture shock of the postgraduate world.
Proponents, however, see this reasoning as a covert attempt to rid the nation of its black colleges. “The only way some people see to solve these problems is to merge black schools with existing majority white schools,” complains former Bishop College trustee Dr, Harry Blake. Blake recalls that merging Bishop with another institution was presented as a plan that might have saved the college. Blake was skeptical. “What else can you call it,” he says, “if it’s not an attempt by mainstream America to get rid of black colleges?”
DR. WARREN W. MORGAN. PRESIDENT OF the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi River, readjusts his teddy bear-like body deeper into his office chair on the Paul Quinn campus. Although Morgan and Paul Quinn have been in Dallas nearly a year, the leather office chair still squeaks of newness because Morgan seldom uses it. The president rarely sits down, says Comer Cottrell, because “he’s a helluva salesman and is always out searching for people to sell on Paul Quinn. And he’s doing it too. He just needs some help.”
Like most black colleges, Paul Quinn had struggled financially in the late Eighties, and in fact had fought off bankruptcy. Cottrell’s invitation to move to Dallas was a much-needed shot in the arm. With the move, the school’s full-time student enrollment jumped to 1,004, from 517 the previous fall. (The college projects a 1993 enrollment of 3,500 students.) Paul Quinn/Dallas’s land and buildings, equipment, supplies and materials, furniture and fixtures and receivables are appraised today at over $52 million, compared to a paltry $10 million in Waco. The faculty now numbers 92, with 64 percent of those toting doctoral degrees.
Academically, the college has experienced unprecedented growth this year as well. So impressed was the state’s Teacher Education Division of the Texas Education Agency with Paul Quinn’s potential for success in Dallas that it approved five new programs and 15 new courses. Paul Quinn has already pre-enrolled 14 students in a soon-to-be-announced engineering program, which will be aided by a local engineering company. In a unique arrangement, Paul Quinn has linked with African American Men Endangered Species, Inc. (AAMES) to form an Institute of Minority Male Research and Programming. Slated to begin next fall, the program will address problems facing males of color.
Initial reaction to and support from the Dallas-area community has been inspiring, to say the least, as frequent fund-raisers sponsored by varied civic groups have brought thousands of dollars at a time to Paul Quinn coffers. Equally supportive has been the UNCF, which increased its financial commitment to Paul Quinn by 12 percent. The school’s religious parent, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, plans a significant increase in its annual contribution of $250,000-$300,000.
President Morgan is chuckling during our visit because he ha”s just heard that mayoral hopeful and former congressman Steve Bart-lett promises to make Paul Quinn College “a number one priority of the mayor’s office,” if he is elected. Morgan’s laughter is not out of disrespect; rather, it’s a momentary outburst relishing that fantasy. When reality returns, Morgan explains that even if Bart-lett, as mayor of Dallas, can use his congressional contacts to “put some customers into Paul Quinn” by establishing a national police training academy, or looping the college into the prestige, power, and millions of the Superconducting Super Collider-that’s down the road a ways. Morgan’s eye is on the college’s near future, specifically next fall. He speaks excitedly of the new engineering program that will be in full swing then, and of the continuing education program featuring evening and weekend classes.
Even as he speaks, Morgan promises, Paul Quinn and DCCCD officials are putting the finishing touches on a new tandem technology degree program-the first of its kind in the area. DCCCD campuses and Paul Quinn will share each other’s facilities for research and teaching, and exchange faculty as guest lecturers or consultants. Linkages will be established between the financial aid departments of the two schools to expedite the exchange of information.
It is the Morgan-Cottrell one-two punch that both men believe will bring what’s needed most-a hefty endowment. By inviting to Paul Quinn’s current 25-member board such political and financial heavyweights as Bush, Dallas Housing Authority director Alphonso Jackson, and Jette Campbell, partner with Peat Marwick, among others, Cottrell is bringing money to the table, while Morgan explores other avenues for funding. Morgan’s strength lies in catching the attention of donors-hence the planned course offerings in pre-nursing and allied health, communications, teaching, sports management, and entrepreneurship.
“We’re lucky to be here,” says Morgan. “Without the help of the many companies and organizations that readily pitched in and helped get this campus functioning, we’d be light-years behind. It’s been a miracle. I mean, people and companies came to our rescue to give the campus running water, heat, and livable accommodations. I can’t say thank you enough.”
IF THE GHOST OF BISHOP COLLEGE HOVERS over Paul Quinn, you’d never know it by talking to Morgan or Cottrell. But even these remarkable men will not be able to boost the college to prominence alone. Aspirations are high, but the money supply remains insufficiently low.
Among the college’s biggest concerns is the renovation of its campus, estimated to cost some $11 million. In view of the fact that funds for the renovation are lacking and some of the buildings are in bad disrepair, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the school on a one-year warning in January. SACS is not yet threatening to jerk Quinn’s accreditation, as it did Bishop’s, but campus officials can expect a visit next fall from a criteria and review committee, says SACS executive director Dr. James Rogers.
From where such money will come is still up in the air. UNCF funds earmarked for Paul Quinn’s relocation were quickly exhausted in November, bringing an abrupt halt to construction projects. There is also an estimated $150,000 shortfall in the college’s operational budget, which is largely funded by corporate donations. Presently a bond package is being prepared, Morgan says, and he is confident that it will pass.
“I’ve got to get him some help,” Cottrell says of Morgan, explaining that about $60,000 will buy the college a full-time comptroller, and that Morgan needs other essential administrative aides. Some help has come in the form of newly installed Bishop John Bryant, who arrived recently to replace Bishop Robert Lee Pruitt on the board of trustees after Pruitt was convicted of cocaine possession. Cottrell believes that the clergyman will be a real asset to Paul Quinn, explaining that “he understands that running a college is a business.”
The bottom line is that continued support from the community is crucial. And Reginald Gates sees a worrisome detachment on the part of Dallas’s African-American community. “There are many ways to lend community support,” says Gates, “but many of us who are graduates of black schools don’t even send our own children to black schools.”
“Dallas is a philanthropic city of white people who came from generations of givers,” says Fisk University’s Ethel Barnes. “Blacks haven’t historically been able to be those kind of givers, and the few that were able were afraid that their dollars would prompt white benefactors to stop giving.”
Indeed, according to Barnes, who used to be Bishop’s public relations director, the very support that allowed Bishop College to thrive in the Sixties drove some potential black supporters away. “Blacks feared the white community’s control over Bishop,” she says. “It was kind of strange but they really thought like that, and actually, there were some white people who wanted to take control of Bishop.”
Some believe that if blacks don’t put forth an effort today to keep Paul Quinn afloat, the college won’t make it. “There will come a time when the black community will have to become self-sufficient,” says a former Bishop College public relations official. He fears that because of Bishop’s failure, that won’t happen any time soon.
But despite enormous obstacles, Cottrell, Morgan, and Paul Quinn are inching toward respectability in America’s college ranks, especially among other predominantly black colleges.
“Think of us as a potential gold mine forblack Dallas, black Texas, and black America.” says Morgan. Or rather, as NiaraSudarkasa, president of historically blackLincoln University in Pennsylvania says,”Singly any one of us [black colleges] mightseem to be replaceable. As a group, we’reirreplaceable. We’re America’s gateway toopportunity.”