Birmingham-Southern College officials, alumni seek way forward amid financial woes

By: - November 6, 2023 7:01 am
Photo of a campus

A photo of Birmingham-Southern College’s campus. (Birmingham-Southern College Communications Department)

Birmingham-Southern College might close. The president wonders why it has reached this point.

“Why did the governor sign a bill that apparently many people knew would never be enforced?” Daniel Coleman said in an interview on Friday.

Earlier this year, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill that would offer up to $30 million to “distressed” higher education institutions as a loan. The bill was intended as a lifeline for the liberal arts college.


The governor signed the bill into law. The Attorney General gave the treasurer an opinion before it opened applications. 

But State Treasurer Young Boozer did not approve the loan. In a court filing in litigation over the decision, attorneys for Boozer wrote that the college is a “terrible credit risk.” 

“Look, I think this a political story,” he said. “I mean, we can talk all about the value of Birmingham-Southern education and talk about what happened 20 years ago here but what happened in the last three or four months?”

In a response to the treasurer’s response to the school’s response about the lawsuit dismissal, the school said in an October statement that “The treasurer has provided inconsistent statements on his refusal to make the loan. The treasurer has said BSC did not qualify for the loan under the Act, which is inaccurate.”

The college faces financial struggles that officials say have brought the school to the brink of closure. An story in January said that a round of building that took place under David Pollick, president of the college from 2005 to 2010, combined with a decline in enrollment and the economic downturn of the Great Recession, eroded the school’s endowment, with the COVID-19 pandemic dealing an additional blow to the school. 

Natalie Davis, a professor emerita of political science at Birmingham-Southern College, said Pollick “operating funds to build a lake where there is no water. He was into aesthetics and he wanted– we had a beautiful campus– but he wanted to be even nicer.”

The Reflector could not find contact information for Pollick.

BSC leaders said the state loan was critical to the school’s future. And current BSC students, some of whom traveled to Montgomery Friday in an attempt to meet with Boozer, have said that the situation has left them unmoored, with the potential to lose both credits and thousands of dollars in scholarship money. 

 “I was very much crushed because I cannot afford to transfer again and I will lose all of my credits from BSC pretty much and basically start over as a sophomore if I have to go back to Georgia and transfer,” read Kristen Sorrel from a letter she wrote to Boozer.

Sorrel had already transferred colleges once before.

“I will be losing thousands of dollars in scholarship awards that are not honored elsewhere, I will lose the chance to walk in my mother’s footsteps,” read Koestler Anderton, a sophomore.

BSC officials, who lost a lawsuit against Boozer in late October, say they are considering other options to keep the school open. 

But the liberal arts school isn’t the only one of its kind to face difficulties in recent years. 

Liberal arts struggles

The State State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found that the number of college closures peaked in 2016, according to the Hechinger Report. The November 2022 article said that 861 colleges and 9,499 campuses had closed since 2004. A 2018 Hechinger Report article reported that a study that found that 28% of 500 liberal arts colleges studied over the last 50 years have closed.

Coleman pushed back on this narrative. He emphasized that some smaller liberal arts colleges seem to be doing well, while others struggled.

“There’s a lot of small liberal arts colleges that have a record enrollment, that have a great endowment, so I don’t think that is a blanket statement that’s accurate,” he said.

Others invested in the school echoed similar sentiments, focusing on the greater size of endowments or higher tuition costs at other schools.

“[BSC] has provided sometimes tuition that’s not as high as some of its competitor schools,” said alumnus Doug Turner, owner of Censeo. “But I mean, this is not, I mean, it’s not Smith or Wellesley, right?”

Smith College has a $2.5 billion endowment and tuition of $61,260 annually. Wellesley College has a $2.8 billion endowment and tuition of $64,000 annually. Both schools are in Massachusetts.

Birmingham-Southern’s annual tuition is $21,500.

As a public program geared toward a private school, the loan program designed by Alabama was something of an outlier. It’s rare, though not unprecedented, for private schools to get public funding. 

New York State, for example, has Bundy Aid, which can provide unrestricted funding to independent colleges and universities. But those institutions may have to submit to other state educational requirements.  In 2022, schools participating in the fund had to present plans to increase faculty diversity. 

Virginia Loftin, a spokeswoman for BSC, provided a list of other private entities that receive public money. Most of the colleges are Historically Black Colleges or Universities. One example was Stillman College, which can receive public funding under Alabama law.

“It has been reported that providing bridge funding for Birmingham-Southern College would  establish a new precedent,” the school said in a February statement which they sent to the Reflector on Thursday. dated from February but sent over Thursday. “ That is simply not the case.”

Doug Turner, a BSC alumnus and owner of Censeo, a consulting and data analysis firm, volunteered in organizing other alumni during the legislative session to advocate for a BSC loan. Turner said that private schools and entities have historically received public funding. One example he gave was school vouchers.

“If you’re a purist on that, then I have a lot of respect for you,” he said.

Alumni loyalty, student uncertainty

Alumni interviewed for this article spoke about Birmingham-Southern’s reputation as a small school that gives bright young people from rural areas a good education.

“You went to Birmingham-Southern because it builds a sense of leadership. It changes people in a way that you’d get lost in a big school and you’re probably very bright and that was our thing for so many years,” Davis said.

To Coleman, being a liberal arts college means being a school that focuses on teaching through discourse, not lecture.

“It’s the leadership opportunities where we’re a participatory institution, not a spectator institution, and it is critical thinking honed in a community where discourse really brings the best out of everyone,” he said.

Alumni like Ellen Potts, executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Tuscaloosa, said Birmingham-Southern gave them opportunities and experiences they would not have otherwise found in Alabama schools.

“Your professor knows you, your professor knows if you’re in class or not, you know, there is a relationship that builds,” she said.

Potts said that she once taught a class at a large state university in Alabama and an engineering student asked her for a letter of recommendation. She asked the student if it would be better if an engineering professor wrote the letter, and the student said there were 400 students in the engineering class.

“I don’t know my professors,” she recalls the student saying.

Bill Smith, another alumnus, said that Birmingham-Southern is friendly and service-oriented. He said it’s neither leftist nor conservative.

“It’s deeply connected to purpose,” he said.

If the school survives for the next five or ten years, Coleman said he was considering a plan to develop a graduate program that would focus on what he called “highly skilled” workers, one that would allow the undergraduate program at BSC to retain the core of its liberal arts mission. Undergraduates would have access to some of those classes.

“Learn how to think critically in different ways, but to have the core skills that you need for our current job market and the critical thinking will help as the demand for the current job market changes over time,” he said.

Current BSC students who showed up in Montgomery on Friday with their letters said letting the school shut down would make their post-college lives much more difficult.

“The actions at place is not only taking away a sense of my academic pride and my community, but he’s also stealing my chances of a future career,” Sydney Scarpula, a senior at BSC, wrote in her letter “Suppose the school shuts down. In that case, I will be displaced, unable to graduate from my undergraduate, and fall behind in my career causing a lifetime of hardships financially.” 

Scarpula had recently learned she had received a grant to cover graduate school at UAB. But the grant, she said, was dependent on graduating from Birmingham-Southern. 

Luke Mitchell, a junior at BSC said that the treasurer’s office told him that someone would receive the letters from them. 

A message was left with the treasurer’s office Friday afternoon.

The students hung out in the Alabama State Capitol gift shop. Some went on a tour of the building. No one from the treasurer’s office ever met with them.

“I would just like to know that our government cares about us, as like not just a college, but as individual people whose lives have been altered by this,” said Daniel Johnson.

He said if the school closes, he won’t get his degree as a senior and will have to transfer as a sophomore. He said that would give him a two-year delay on his career.

The students left their letters for Boozer with a state trooper.


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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.