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Thursday, January 04, 2007

A new vision for LeMoyne-Owen

Lemoyne-Owen College got another reprieve this month when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools decided to extend the South Memphis school's probation for another year.

Yet, as LeMoyne-Owen board chairman Robert Lipscomb acknowledges, it's hardly an occasion for popping champagne corks.

The SACS decision means that LeMoyne-Owen hasn't lost its status as an accredited school. Losing accreditation would mean LeMoyne-Owen would no longer be eligible to receive federal funds, a potentially devastating blow for an institution that's already reeling financially.

In fact, it's the college's financial problems that got it into trouble with SACS in the first place. Because expenses have piled up faster than revenues needed to cover them, LeMoyne-Owen's debt has snowballed to $7 million, says Lipscomb.

Lipscomb and the board seem to understand what's needed to dig the college out of its current predicament: A vision for the future inspiring enough and reassuring enough to attract new donors and students.

And Lipscomb hopes the board will bring that vision into focus by the end of next month. Then work can move forward on refining a curriculum and marketing plan which reflect that vision.

"We can't spend two years talking about vision," he said in a meeting with The Commercial Appeal editorial board this week. "We don't have time for that."

No, they don't. Without stabilizing its finances, LeMoyne-Owen has little hope of improving its standing, academically or otherwise. And it's going to be increasingly more difficult to find donors and students willing to invest money if the college doesn't show signs of righting itself.

That said, the situation is far from hopeless. Lipscomb said the new vision will focus on carving out a niche for LeMoyne-Owen in the marketplace of higher learning institutions. "You've got to change your product to keep up with the market," Lipscomb said.

One point of emphasis is likely to be increased focus on attracting African-American males, who Lipscomb says are outnumbered by females among the current student body.

Lipscomb said there will also be more of an outreach to other ethnic groups, particularly the community's fast-growing Hispanic population, even as LeMoyne-Owen maintains its status as a historically black college.

Which all sounds encouraging. And it's a promising sign that the LeMoyne-Owen board has sought the help of Beverly Robertson, who's done a terrific job developing and marketing the National Civil Rights Museum.

However, the college will need to do more than identify new demographic groups and sub-groups. It must also offer the kind of education students from those groups will need to succeed in the workplace.

Other steps toward overhauling LeMoyne-Owen are also underway: The board is being streamlined and Lipscomb hopes a new president can be found sometime around the middle of next year.

LeMoyne-Owen is important not only to the neighborhood that surrounds it, but to Greater Memphis as well. For that reason, Lipscomb and the college's other backers need all the support they can get in the new year.

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