An 11th-hour, anonymous donor's pledge of $2.5 million will help LeMoyne-Owen College meet an end-of-the-month deadline to cover operating expenses.
But the gift comes with a catch: With exceptions, the school's trustees, including Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and board chairman Robert Lipscomb, must step down.
"We must restore confidence in the minds of the corporations, foundations and citizens that the mission of this college is still legitimate," Herenton said during a press conference Friday.
If the trustees agree to step aside, the donor will give the cash-strapped school $1.5 million by June 30 and an additional $1 million in a matching challenge grant, Herenton said.
Trustees who hold seats specially designated for alumni and those representing churches won't be asked to leave.
The 30-plus members of the board, who have been fractured over the past several years, have not officially been asked to resign. Last week, during a specially called meeting, Herenton and other trustees agreed they needed to make some drastic changes if they are to move forward, Lipscomb said.
The donation is under-the-wire temporary relief for the city's only historically black college, which, over the past 10 years, has faced a revolving door of presidents, mounting debt, dwindling enrollment and difficulty securing funds. The school has produced an accomplished class of black leaders, including Herenton and civil rights pioneer Benjamin Hooks.
However, that legacy has not translated into financial solvency.
In December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the region's accrediting body, placed LeMoyne-Owen on "probation with good cause" for continued financial problems. This year the school, supporters and the faith community ramped up fund-raising efforts including an event slated for Sunday afternoon on the school's grounds.
Herenton even offered to box Joe Frazier to raise money for the school. The former heavyweight champion has not responded.
Still, with less than a week before an end of the month deadline to pay $1 million to cover operating expenses, the school had raised only half that amount.
Last week school president James Wingate resigned, citing in part frustration over sluggish corporate contributions and the inability to better chip away at the school's $6 million debt. New trustees will face the task of resolving the remaining debt and finding Wingate's replacement.
LeMoyne-Owen's problems reflect a segment of the nation's historically black colleges and universities that are struggling to remain open. Low enrollment, financial woes and academic accreditation issues have all taken a toll on many of these schools that were created after the Civil War to educate freed slaves
Herenton choked back sobs and dabbed at tears as he recounted how the school provided him with academic opportunities unavailable to blacks at the city's then racially segregated colleges and universities. Several others in the audience, including Lipscomb, joined Herenton in the emotional homily.
For his part, Hooks saw symbolism in the fact that the room where the anonymous donation was announced was the same room officials used to post the names of students who were behind on their tuition payments. Back then tuition was just over $100, more than 10 times what most neighborhood residents made in a week, Hooks said.
"I'd hide around the corner and sneak to see if my name was up there," Hooks said. "Inevitably it was because my father had not paid the check."