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Judge hears final arguments on future of Sojourner-Douglass College

School remains open even as accreditation up in the air, no classes scheduled

The future of Sojourner-Douglass College is now in the hands of a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander heard final arguments Monday on the college’s request to reinstate its accreditation, which was withdrawn June 30.

Sojourner-Douglass filed on June 29 a motion for a temporary restraining order and a lawsuit against the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Hollander denied the motion but allowed the college to file a motion for a preliminary injunction.

Hollander said Monday she would issue an opinion “in the near future” on the preliminary injunction after reviewing exhibits and considering the oral arguments made by the parties in court.

Sojourner-Douglass should have started its fall semester at the end of July but no classes were scheduled after it lost its accreditation. The college has three semesters per year.

The college, which was created in 1972 in Baltimore and had several satellite campuses in Maryland, has experienced severe financial difficulties. It lost more than $5 million in 2012, according to the school’s most recently available tax statements.

The college’s president, Dr. Charles Simmons, said outside the Baltimore courthouse after the hearing that staff have continued working despite not having any classes scheduled.

“We never close,” Simmons said.

Employees are still processing transcripts and assisting students transferring to other institutions, he said, though many hope to return.

“Some students are saying when this is over and we win, they’re coming back,” Simmons said. Others, he said, have told him they don’t want to attend classes anywhere else.

The accreditation commission announced in November that Sojourner-Douglass would be losing its accreditation due to financial difficulties. Without accreditation, the East Baltimore college cannot receive federal funds; at least 80 percent of the college’s tuition revenue comes from federal grants and loans, according to court filings.

An appeals panel affirmed the decision on Feb. 10.

‘Moving the goal post’

The commission first alerted the college that its accreditation was at risk in November 2011 after finding insufficient evidence to show compliance with several standards, including institutional financial viability, according to court filings.

John H. Morris Jr., a Baltimore solo practitioner representing Sojourner-Douglass, argued Monday that the school’s due process rights were violated when the accreditation commission refused to allow additional evidence at the appeal hearing that would have shown projections for dealing with the school’s debts to satisfy the standards.

Morris said the commission should have been looking at the present-day capacity for Sojourner-Douglass to be financially viable, not judging based on the past. He also said the commission’s standards do not require the elimination of debt.

Morris accused the commission of “moving the goal post” by changing its requests for information without giving Sojourner-Douglass adequate notice and an opportunity to respond.

Hollander questioned whether the new information the college wanted to present, a projection made by an outside party, was something unavailable at the first hearing. Only information the college could not have known at an initial hearing on accreditation may be used to supplement the record at on appeal, per U.S. Department of Education guidelines.

Timothy F. McCormack, an attorney representing the commission, said the accreditation process is about self-reporting and peer review and requires trust and confidence in its members.

“Accreditation cannot proceed in an environment of, ‘What’s the loophole? How can we get around this?'” he said.

Discrimination alleged

McCormack, a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP in Baltimore, said Sojourner-Douglass was not forthright during the process, and instead of honestly reporting its financial status it released small bits of information at a time and continued applying for loans despite the commission’s concerns about the college’s debts.

Sojourner-Douglass also alleged racial discrimination in its complaint, claiming it was subjected to a double standard by the commission and denied “any reasonable flexibility” given to similarly situated, predominantly white universities to address documented problems.

McCormack criticized the college for alleging discrimination but not supporting the accusation with evidence at hearings on the injunction.

“They have substituted gamesmanship for substance throughout these proceedings,” he said.

Hollander said that based on the original complaint requesting a temporary restraining order, she understood that the accusation of racial bias would be an important issue.

McCormack accused Sojourner-Douglass of making headlines by accusing the commission of discrimination then backing away from that argument during proceedings.

The case is Sojourner-Douglass College v. Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, 1:15-cv-01926-ELH.