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Black college in Dallas - like many in US - struggles to survive

When Bishop College moved from Marshall, Texas, to Dallas in 1961, hopes were high that the 80-year-old black institution would etch its imprint not just on the growing city's black community, but across the country as well. For a time those hopes were at least partly fulfilled by the Baptist-affiliated college. When Ebony magazine named the top 15 black preachers in the United States in 1984, three of them were Bishop graduates.

But today, outside of a small band of enthusiastic students and never-say-die overseers and administrators, little of that hope remains. This year just over 300 students - down from a peak of 1,500 in 1967 - are enrolled on a 400-acre campus once envisioned for 3,500. Names on buildings are the last vestige of the substantial support the school once enjoyed from Dallas's business community.

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Although some of the elements of Bishop's decline are peculiar to it, others mirror the broad troubles afflicting many of the more than 110 predominantly black colleges and universities in the US.

Those problems are largely financial, but they also reflect a questioning among blacks and whites alike of the need for black colleges. ``You have to wonder just what purpose the all-black college serves in today's society,'' says Carr Collins III, grandson of the white Baptist philanthropist who brought Bishop to Dallas. ``There may be a feeling that black institutions are becoming pass'e.''

Enrollment nationwide in the nation's 57 black private colleges dropped 4 percent between 1980 and '84, according to a survey by the United Negro College Fund. At the same time, the percentage of black high school graduates entering any college fell to 26 percent in 1985, down from 34 percent in 1976.

Much of the blame for the drop has been placed on reduced federal student aid. Another reason for the decline at historically black colleges is the increasingly intense recruitment of black students and faculty by other institutions.

Bishop lost its accreditation in December 1986. With debts exceeding $12 million, the school last year filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws. The debts deepened as the school carried students whose federal financial aid has been held back. The school owes the Department of Education about $8 million, according to Bishop registrar J.D. Hurd.

Yet hope persists. Last week the spring air was charged with relief that the Department of Education had reversed itself Thursday and decided to grant Bishop students financial aid for this semester.

Yet the department added that, barring ``dramatically altered circumstances,'' any funding beyond this semester was unlikely.

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Still, Bishop officials said the reinstated aid could set the school on a new path. Bishop president Levi Watkins said the aid ``could mean a 180-degree turnaround for this institution.''

Earlier in the week the Rev. William J. Shaw, minister at White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia and president of the Bishop board of trustees, said he thought that the school ``has a very good chance of survival if we can make it through this semester.''

School officials also began taking steps last week to add members of the Dallas business community to its board of directors - something it has not had since a rift between the school and business leaders developed several years ago.

Some former members of the school's board of trustees say Bishop's financial problems mounted when secular board members became outnumbered by members of the clergy. In 1986 the last of the school's white board members resigned, and several prominent black business leaders followed them.

``I finally concluded it wasn't worth the effort with the board as it was made up,'' says George Shafer, a white construction executive who served on the board from 1984 to '86.

Mr. Shafer says he realized that none of Texas' five black colleges was ``really doing any good.'' He and others suggested mergers that would better utilize Bishop's large campus, ``but the idea got nowhere with the board,'' he says.

A black member of the board, hair-products executive Comer Cottrell, also left when his plan for paring spending by $2 million was rejected.

The Rev. Mr. Shaw, a member of the board for 15 years, says he believes ``some curtailing [of spending] could have been done that wasn't.'' He says the major need now, once short-term cash flow is stabilized, will be to develop a plan for settling the school's long-term debt.

Yet few here seem to believe that short-term solutions to the school's financial problems mean more than a staving off of closure and liquidation.

``I don't think you can solve their problem with money,'' says Donald Zale, a former board member whose family's foundation was a longtime contributor.

Shafer says working with Bishop students convinced him there is a need for black colleges: ``There are definitely [black] students who would fall through the cracks if you didn't have a setting in which they could feel comfortable.''

But he says he believes those colleges ``must be focused on the future'' and not preoccupied with making it day to day. ``Dallas really needs more young black leaders,'' Shafer says, ``but I don't see that coming from Bishop.''

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