Saint Augustine's University in flux after firing president; accreditation in jeopardy

DeJuan Hoggard Image
Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Saint Augustine's in flux after shakeup; accreditation in jeopardy
The university's Board of Trustees said Tuesday that it is focused on "restoring the University's standing with the accreditation body under "new University leadership."

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon, David Tracey, attorney for now-former Saint Augustine's University president Dr. Christine McPhail, said, "Dr. McPhail put her heart and soul into the university."

McPhail was named the 13th president of Saint Augustine's following a search to replace her husband's tenure as president after he died because of a COVID-related illness in October 2020. In February 2021, the Board of Trustees named her as the school's next president.

Nearly four years later, McPhail is now no longer in her position.

"She always acted in the university's best interest," said Tracey, a New York-based lawyer. "It is incredibly disheartening and disappointing, and dismaying that the university has terminated her employment."

According to Tracey, McPhail filed an internal complaint alleging gender discrimination and a hostile working environment on Oct. 9. Weeks later, on Nov. 6, Tracey said his client notified the Board that she had retained him as her counsel to represent her for the claims she levied. Tracey told ABC11 that McPhail found out on or about Nov. 13 that she would no longer be president.

This past weekend, our newsgathering partners at the News & Observer reported McPhail had been fired and the school's accreditation status had been stripped.

However, Tracey said the timing of McPhail's firing had nothing to do with the university's accreditation status.

"It is also our position that the accreditation decision had no impact on the termination decision," added Tracey. "And we know that to be true because we understand that the Board of Trustees voted to terminate Dr. McPhail on Nov. 13 -- well before the accreditation meeting. Notably the Nov. 13 termination decision was only days after Dr McPhail notified the university that she had retained counsel to represent her in her discrimination retaliation claims."

In a statement, the Board of Trustees declined to comment on McPhail's termination, citing it as a "personnel issue". However, the statement went on to read, "The Board denies the unfounded allegations Dr. McPhail has made against the University, and the Board is prepared to defend itself and the institution."

The statement continues to read, "The Board is focused on restoring the University's standing with SACSCOC under new University leadership. The University's accreditation is critical to the University's ability to continue as one of the predominant HBCUs in this State. This critical mission will remain our central focus as we continue to support the faculty, staff, alumni, and, most importantly, the students of Saint Augustine's University."

On Tuesday afternoon, the Board of Trustees announced Leslie Rodriguez-McClellon as acting president of the university. Board chairman The Honorable Chief Justice James E.C. Perry also confirmed to ABC11 that Marcus Burgess, vice president of institutional advancement at Claflin University in South Carolina, will be named as interim president "soon."

"We (the Board) already voted on it," Perry told ABC11.

On Dec. 3, the school's accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) said its Board voted to remove Saint Augustine's University from its membership. This move would effectively strip the university of its accreditation. The school is currently on probation for good cause by SACSCOC for the following infractions:

  • Governing Board characteristics
  • Financial resources
  • Financial documents
  • Control of finances
  • Federal and state responsibilities

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Rodriguez-McClellon responded to SACSCOC's findings.

"The work has already begun to appeal SACSCOC's decision, and we will remain steadfast during this process," Rodriguez-McClellon said. "While we are disappointed by SACSCOC's decision, we are confident and unified in our commitment to fulfill and complete our mission."

Perry also responded by saying the university intends to "stop at nothing" to ensure Saint Augustine's remains accredited.

"We are experiencing one of the most important moments in the institution's history," Perry said. "Our charge to everyone associated with the university is to comply with all policies and procedures, advance the institution's mission and division, and work collectively to place SAU back in good standing with SACSCOC."

According to SACSCOC policies and practices, Saint Augustine's will meet with representatives from SACSCOC's appeals committee sometime between Feb. 19-21.

During the appeals process, Saint Augustine's will remain on probation for good cause until a final decision is made. The university will also continue to offer financial aid to students during this time.

If Saint Augustine's loses its appeals, it will officially lose its accreditation and be removed from membership by the SACSCOC. The school will be eligible to reapply in two years following the decision.