The Higher Learning Commission has removed Arkansas Baptist College from probation and reaffirmed the historically Black college's accreditation.
The move came days before the school's former president, Carlos Clark, filed a wrongful terminal lawsuit claiming he was "instrumental" in keeping the school from being sanctioned further during his short tenure.
Arkansas Baptist had been on probation since February 2019, when the education panel determined the college in Little Rock was not in compliance with accreditation criteria. The college had seen enrollment plummet, debt rise and payroll swell to unsustainable levels during a period of financial turmoil that led to the firing of former president Joseph Jones.
The commission on Feb. 25 determined that Arkansas Baptist was back in compliance, writing in a letter that the school's "resource base supports its educational offerings and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future." The commission cited expected excess revenue of $4.39 million for fiscal 2022, and projections of $949,916 for 2023; $1.56 million in 2024; and $1.92 million in 2025.
Adding to the school's improved financial outlook is the cancellation of more than $30 million in debt owed to the U.S. Department of Education. The school now owes just $1.55 million, an amount attributed to financial aid errors in the past.
The commission also pointed to:
- The school's new recruitment and retention programs
- The hiring of a new vice president for advancement who implemented marketing strategies that increased enrollment by 262 students in 2021
- A new loan management firm that reduced the school's cohort default rate to 21% from 37%
Arkansas Baptist is required to update the panel on its compliance in a written report by Sept. 30. Its next comprehensive accreditation evaluation is set for the 2025-2026 school year.
"This extremely positive outcome is the result of the intense focus and resolve of every member of our faculty, staff, board, foundation, students, and our community," Regina Favors, the college's interim president, said in a statement. "The Arkansas Baptist College family expresses our gratitude for the time, commitment, and financial resources that have been provided in this restorative effort."
While the college's situation has improved, it still has issues to address. The commission wrote that Arkansas Baptist lacks financial monitoring systems that would help it stay on its strategic path.
Another problem, the commission wrote, is the college's lack of consistent leadership. Jones was fired after just 15 months as president and Clark's tenure was even shorter, though he had previously worked in other roles at the college for six years.
The college announced in October that Clark had resigned after 12 months as president. But according to Clark, that's not exactly what happened.
The lawsuit Clark filed March 2 in Pulaski County Circuit Court says the school's board of trustees terminated his employment after he abruptly left a board meeting in October. Clark walked out because he was reacting to "what he believed was disregard and disrespect for his office."
The board took his departure as a resignation, even after Clark explained that he had acted "in the heat of the moment."
The walkout came after months of what Clark believed was a "concerted effort to bypass" his office, the suit says. In July, trustees voted for board member Rachel Kremer to step down and become the school's CFO, but instead of her reporting to Clark, she was instructed to report directly to the board. The board had allegedly done this with a former CFO and an interim CFO, as well.
When Clark questioned whether those moves and others were in compliance with Higher Learning Commission standards, he was met with "derogatory and profane language," the suit says.
Clark claims he unsuccessfully sought mediation after he was dismissed. Under his employment contract with the school, he's entitled to half the amount of his $150,000 annual salary as severance, along with medical insurance coverage for a year.
The lawsuit alleges breach of contract. Clark is seeking to be reinstated as president, and he wants an injunction to prevent the school from hiring someone else for the position.
The college had not filed a response to the lawsuit Wednesday.
Jones also sued the college for wrongful termination. The suit resulted in an undisclosed settlement in 2020.