Presiding Over a College's Final Days

An accidental president guides the end of a failed HBCU

May 21, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz
The president of Saint Paul’s College, Millard (Pete) Stith, has the unusual mandate of selling his institution after it closed.

The president of Saint Paul's College, Millard (Pete) Stith, has the unusual mandate of selling his institution. He took over management after the historically black college was unable to pay its debts, lost its accreditation, and closed in 2013. Along with a staff of 22, he maintains the campus in hopes that another college will purchase it during a sealed-bid auction, on June 25.



MILLARD (PETE) STITH: I’d like for them to come just live with me for a week and see what you have to do when your school is about to go belly-up. There’s no course you can take. You know everyday you are making a decision that you never thought you’d have to make in your life.

(TEXT) 1888: Saint Paul’s College was founded by Rev. James Solomon Russell in Lawrenceville, Virginia.

(TEXT) 2013: Unable to overcome financial difficulties the school closed its doors to students.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: Saint Paul’s was started in 1888. It was an elementary and high school, and then, in the 1940s, the General Assembly gave him permission to start a college, a four-year college.

DALE GLENWOOD GREEN: Historically black colleges and universities were founded throughout the country, and they were started prior to the Civil War. A large percentage of them were started post-Civil War. These were institutions that were, by and large, birthed out of religious denominations. Saint Paul’s College was birthed out of the Episcopal Church.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: He obviously does not look like what the typical Negro looks like. He is extremely fair skinned, and so they thought that, using those qualities, he could come to the South and create a facility and a church.

DALE GLENWOOD GREEN: These are important institutions that are unique, unlike others in the sense that they were designed with the mission to educate black Americans—Americans who were, for the most part, prohibited from an American education.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: Typically the campus had anywhere from 450 to 500 students on the campus.

The campus is about 132 acres, with about 36 buildings on it. We have a lot of buildings around here that need some major upgrades, not major work, because students built some of these buildings, and you can see that they are all brick. They are not going to get blown down by the Three Little Pigs, but when you have a three-story building with no elevators, well, how do you get the disabled people into your building? If you don’t have wi-fi, you don’t have cable TV. If you don’t have the latest computer equipment, you know students are going to go to UVa, who is now offering free room and board and tuition if your family income is below a certain level.

DALE GLENWOOD GREEN: The National Trust has equally placed the entire historically-black-college-and-university landscape on the endangered-national-treasures list.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: I think that the former leaders didn’t really keep their eye on the ball. I think they made some decisions that a good manager would not make. One was the return of football. To bring football back to campus with at best 500 students, you’re giving them full scholarships—well, that’s not money, that’s just paper transfer.

They just kept saying, “everything is OK, everything is OK,” and everything wasn’t OK.

We couldn’t pay the bills, we couldn’t pay the debt, our accreditation was gone, and there was no reason to continue the campus.

So I went to the board. I said to the chairman, “You just can’t close this campus.” I said there are too many things, too many appendages hanging out there. You have student records you have to protect, both the academic and the financial records. You’re coming on the winter. These are old pipes in the ground. They’re going to freeze and break. You’ve got to have someone to answer the questions from the Virginia Employment Commission, from the federal government, if they ask for those persons who are eligible for Social Security. You can’t just shut this school down. I said you need security on the gate. I said as soon as the element learns that this school is closed, they’re going to back in here with their big pickup trucks. They’re going to ransack the buildings. They said: But we don’t have any money. I said that we’ve got to find a way to find money. We’ve got to keep it open.

(Stith looking at prints) “Abraham Lincoln, that’s a gift from an alum.”

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: You know I sold off some nonessential equipment on the campus. We don’t have football anymore, so I sold the bleachers and so we began to find money, and then I cut the budget from a quarter of a million dollars a month down to $55,000 a month. I began to find documents in the budget office—stocks and bonds that people had left us and given us that we needed to cash in. We made a plea to the Episcopal Church to give us money, and they gave us some money. We made a plea to the alums. They sent us some money. So instead of closing June the 28th of 2013, here it is almost June of 2014, and we’re still in business.

The board came back to me and said, Would you agree to be the president? We can’t pay you anymore, but we’ll give you the parking space near the building. So I said, That’s fine. I’m not here to try to get rich.

DALE GLENWOOD GREEN: The transformation of the higher-education landscape requires, whether you are an HBCU or traditionally white institution, to really begin to think innovatively and broadly about what an academic campus entails.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: I would like to pass on to HBCUs a couple of things. No. 1—first and foremost—you are not going to get the premiere black student like you used to because now UVa, Virginia Tech, Southern Cal—they’re going after those students too, and they can make a better deal than you can.

You have to change with the times. You have to make sure your campus is modern, and you’ve got to reinvent the wheel in terms of who now becomes your core student. It’s not the valedictorian or the salutatorian out of the high school. It may be the person who just got a straight-B average.

I have a staff of about 22.

I said to the staff, I expect each of you who are remaining to make a monthly contribution to the school, and most of them do. I do out of each one of my paychecks.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: I have two people who do the maintenance. The board has said to me, Can you just do with one person in maintenance? And I said I can’t because if one person goes up on the ladder and falls, who finds him? I said I need two people if for no other reason than safety.

RYAN SPENCER: I’m a second-generation graduate. My momma graduated here, and so I feel a real closeness and so I trust, I believe by faith, that we will be opening as a college once again.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: They’re still pushing me a little bit to get rid of employees, and I’m pushing back, you know, because I can always go home. But that’s not the attitude that I want to have. I want to negotiate with them and fight when I have to.

(STITH looking in classroom) You can see, the classrooms are usable.

MILLARD (PETE) STITH: I hope that, a year from now, that you will see some life on this campus, and that’s the term I use with the board. I said the campus has got to be alive and look alive in order to attract a suitor.