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St. Aug’s president removed after years of turmoil at the school. Here’s what we know

A shakeup at St. Augustine’s University comes as the 156-year-old school tries to recover its historic reputation and shake off decades of financial trouble and frequent turnovers in leadership.

One of the oldest historically Black colleges in the South, St. Aug’s has struggled to maintain enrollment and stay afloat in a state rich with educational options — ongoing troubles that serve as background for the latest turmoil.

President Christine McPhail told The N&O she learned of her firing on Sunday, two days after St. Aug’s learned it would lose its accreditation, she said.

Here’s what we know.

WHY WAS PRESIDENT CHRISTINE MCPHAIL FIRED?

McPhail said she had been given no explanation for her ouster, but her attorney David Tracey in New York said her firing stemmed from a discrimination complaint she had filed against the board several weeks ago, in which she cited board members yelling at her and making demeaning comments about her gender.

Tracey said the board voted to fire McPhail on Nov. 14 but didn’t notify her until Sunday.

Officials at St. Aug’s have so far declined comment.

Members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 listen to Dr. Christine McPhail, president of St. Augustine’s University, speak during commencement exercises for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, May 1, 2021.
Members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 listen to Dr. Christine McPhail, president of St. Augustine’s University, speak during commencement exercises for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, May 1, 2021.

WHY IS ST. AUGUSTINE’S UNIVERSITY IN TROUBLE?

A private HBCU just east of downtown Raleigh with 924 students, St. Aug’s lacks the public resources that go to much-larger N.C. Central University in Durham or Fayetteville State University.

It also shows a graduation rate of 22% among undergraduates, which rose from 19% in 2021 but still lags far behind other schools, At NC Central, students graduating in six years make up roughly half the student body.

In December 2022, its accreditation agency placed it on probation, citing problems with financial resources, financial documents, financial responsibility, control of finances, governing board characteristics and federal and state responsibilities.

The agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, was to consider in December 2023 what to do next. McPhail said the accrediting agency has already made its decision, to strip the school of accreditation, but that St. Aug’s has until Jan. 24 to appeal. The central issue, she said, is a pair of missing audits from the last two years, which McPhail expected to be complete by the deadline.

That move followed an earlier probation period lasting from 2016 to 2018, which saw enrollment drop into the mid-700s. In response, St. Aug’s invested $1.7 million in the process of keeping track of its finances began accounting with software rather than manually.

But the clouds lifted for only a few years.

WHO HAS LED THE RALEIGH HBCU?

In the last five years, St. Aug’s has seen five presidents take its reins, two of them on an interim basis.

President Everett Ward announced his retirement in January of 2019 with plans to leave that July. But St. Aug’s replaced him with an interim president several months earlier, and unconfirmed news reports at the time alleged he was pushed out.

After a second interim president, St. Aug’s chose Dr. Irving McPhail in 2020, and he spoke of pushing the school’s enrollment past 1,000. But McPhail died of COVID-19 only three months after taking office, and his widow Christine McPhail took his place.

With its accreditation on the line, St. Aug’s will now choose another leader.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT ST. AUG’S?

Despite its modern troubles, St. Aug’s boasts a long and rich history.

Founded in 1867 to educate freed slaves, it started as a school supported by the Episcopal Church and sought mainly to meet the need for Black teachers.

Thirty years later, the college added St. Agnes Hospital, the first school for training Black nurses in North Carolina, and for many decades the only hospital that treated minority patients. In a now-famous episode, boxing champion Jack Johnson died at St. Agnes in 1946 after a car crash in Franklin County — traveling 25 miles because a white ambulance driver refused to treat him.

By the 1920s, St. Aug’s became a four-year college and began conferring degrees on its students. Even in the 21st century, longtime residents of the neighborhood off Oakwood Avenue could recall professors walking those streets speaking Latin and Greek.