| The Tuscaloosa News
The 105-acre Stillman College campus in Tuscaloosa looked largely different in early 2017 when Cynthia Warrick became its seventh president, the first woman in that position.
Enrollment had fallen to less than half a hoped-for 1,300. Sports programs had been cut from 12 down to 2, a cost-saving measure. Admission had been reduced for fall 2015, from roughly $22,500 to $17,500 for tuition, meals and housing, but the perception of Stillman’s expense drove some potential students to investigate other alternatives. And cutting tuition was a risk: The college needs that money to run. Despite the cuts, enrollment dropped from 917 full-time students in fall 2014 to less than 600 by late 2016.
“As a private school, that really affected us,” said Warrick. “We’re tuition-driven.”
The summer before she took on the job, Stillman had borrowed $1.05 million to cover payroll and other operating costs, in a bank loan requiring the city of Tuscaloosa to sign on as guarantor.
“Stillman College has honored its commitment to the consortium of banks, thus it is premature to speculate on the future,” Mayor Walt Maddox said in early 2017.
The financial picture overall was rocky. Spring of her first year Warrick, who also serves as CEO of Stillman, sent a call to alumni of an immediate need for $275,000 to pay debt service on a a $40 million federal loan, and $2.8 million to cover expenses through to that fall semester. There was serious concern the college would run out of money.
“When I arrived, it was not a good relationship with the city,” Warrick said, “with the school districts, with the University of Alabama, with everybody.
“The overall perception was that Stillman was closing.”
But balanced against all those negatives, when Warrick first came to visit the campus, what she saw mostly was potential.
“I was pleasantly surprised. It was a beautiful campus, a safe campus,” she said, “with a faculty and staff that really cared about the college, and the students.
“The community was receptive as well. I think there are a lot of people in Tuscaloosa who love Stillman. There were a lot of pluses.”
Before moving into academia, Warrick had worked as a licensed pharmacist, with a bachelor’s of science degree from Howard University in 1975, then earned a master’s in public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1994, and doctor of philosophy degree in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University in 1999. She’s held higher education jobs at Howard, the University of Texas, Florida A&M University, South Carolina State University and Grambling State University.
As interim president at Grambling, she was credited with restoring stability to an in-crisis historically black public university, streamlining operations, raising student recruitment and building relationships that helped raised funding, “more than $470,000 in donations,” according to a story in The Times Picayune.
The Stillman board of trustees charged her with raising enrollment, working toward a goal of 1,300 students.
“The have had enrollments as high as 1,800 students in the past, in the ’90s,” Warrick said.
In the process of restoring its men’s and women’s basketball and track, and baseball and softball teams, Stillman joined a new athletic conference, the Southern States Athletic Conference, which includes Faulkner University in Montgomery, Loyola of New Orleans, the University of Mobile and others in the region
“I think that helps with our recruitment,” Warrick said “and cuts down on travel costs.”
Under her guidance, Stillman took care of the city-guarantor loan not long after making the call to alumni.
“By May of 2017, I had paid off all those short-term debts the college had incurred,” she said. “Our only long-term debut is the HBCU capital finance loan, and it’s in deferment.” Warrick worked with legislators, and a consultant who worked with schools in Louisiana and Mississippi that were impacted by Hurricane Katrina, making the case that Stillman and other HBCUs have been disproportionately slammed by the devastation of the pandemic.
Warrick also worked to restore connections with the college’s Presbyterian roots. The Tuscaloosa Institute was authorized by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1875, and 1895 was renamed Stillman Institute after the man who developed the concept, the Rev. Dr. Charles Allen Stillman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa. The college was built “…for the training of colored men for the ministry.”
“Most HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) were founded by former slaves,” Warrick said. But the Rev. Stillman and others within the Presbyterian church founded this school during Reconstruction, when it wasn’t a popular idea, especially in the South, to educate black students.
“Stillman really started the Black Lives Matter movement,” Warrick said. So it was crucial to enhance and re-develop that relationship.
“We signed a covenant with the Presbyterian church to demonstrate our commitment. We added board members who are Presbyterian, which was not required, but we felt that it was important.”
The board as a whole was diversified, Warrick said, as a wide range of inputs were needed to establish and revise the mission statement. In 2017, the revised Ramp Up — Retain, Advance, Measure and Place — Stillman set goals for a five-year program, with numerous goals and objectives including increasing the application pool by 20 percent, increasing enrollment of new full-time freshmen by 70 percent, increasing enrollment of transfer students 25 percent, and increasing enrollment of transfer students by 25 percent. Additionally, Stillman wished to increase graduation and retention rates, decrease transfer, withdrawal and stop-out rates, and increase the full-time graduating class of 2021 by 15 percent over the 2017 numbers.
But COVID-19 carved into the progress.
“We were projected up to another 30 percent increase in enrollment this fall,” Warrick said, before the pandemic, “but the freshman class now is 48 percent lower than last fall.
“I think overall a lot of students opted to take a gap year, to stay home. And some parents really didn’t want to let their kids come. This pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on African-American families. You can’t do anything about increasing that number, and that’s going to carry over for the next four to five years.”
They’re following the UAB GuideSafe program, and conducting testing, she said, for those who are on campus.
“We were testing athletes the other day, and that’s 103 students,” she said. “We asked ‘How many of you have been impacted, have a friend or relative who’s been diagnosed?’ and everybody raised their hand.
“The impact on our community is just so much greater, and concentrated.”
Happily, Stillman was ahead of the online-education curve, earning the National Innovation in Technology Award from Apple Computers. SACSCOC approved, in 2019, Stillman’s option to offer fully online degrees.
“Our online tuition is very affordable,” Warrick said, at about $400 per three-hour course, hoping to reach especially “… people who have dropped out or stopped, to come back and complete their degrees.
“I think we can do both: Increase our online student population as well as on-campus. I don’t think on-campus we’ll be exceeding 1,000 students, but if we can also increase online to 1,000 students, we’d be happy with that.”
The spirit of Stillman was fired by events this fall, when it received a reaffirmed 10-year accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, just days before holding an on-campus, socially distanced commencement in the football stadium. The revival this summer of the Black Lives Matter movement added greater import, reminding many of the college’s core virtues.
Stillman’s provost and vice-president for academic affairs Mark McCormick wrote about the coinciding events in publication The Presbyterian Outlook: “Planning a commencement ceremony in the midst of the news of rising deaths of Black Americans attributed to COVID-19, the reports of Black lives lost and the rise of the street protests by Black Lives Matter caused the team at Stillman College to see their work in the light of a graduating class that is predominantly the first generation in their families to accomplish such a feat.
“In that way, the goal was shaped in part by the awareness of the number of candidates for graduation whose lives were being directly affected by the pandemics in this nation — one fueled by a biological virus (COVID-19) and another fueled by a social virus (racism).”
Stillman’s impact cannot be underestimated during times such as these, Warrick said.
“When you think about impact, where our kids come from, 87 percent of our students are on Pell Grants,” she said. “That means they’re coming from the poorest families, poor school districts, from Black Belt school districts, in the Southern states which are not ranked as high as other places.”
Often, Stillman students are the first in their families to succeed to higher education, and from there to business degrees, or medicine, or law.
“Their effort lifts the whole family out of poverty. So when people talk about why should Stillman still exist? We’re moving these students out of poverty, we’re moving their whole family out of poverty.
“You spend more more money on education and less on incarceration you’re going to have a better outcome. It’s that simple.”
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