Jan 12, 2011

 
 
Dolores Cross came to Morris Brown, the historically black college founded by former slaves, with a plan to pull the school out of debt and restore its pride. Instead, Cross and the school became each other's downfall.

Tapped in 1998 to become the Atlanta school's first female president, Cross left in shame in 2002, facing accusations she had stolen from the 129-year-old institution. In a new memoir "Beyond the Wall," and her first public comments since her conviction, Cross attempts to understand and explain what led to her ruin.

She was accused of misappropriating millions of dollars and indicted on 27 charges, but in 2006 pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement — essentially admitting she swindled about $11,000 in federal loans to cover administrative costs at the college. Yet she still believes she didn't commit a crime.

Cross was sentenced to a year of home confinement and ordered to wear an ankle monitor — a symbol she saw as reminiscent of slavery.

"As with slaves, my movements would be restricted and my whereabouts checked," Cross wrote in her book. "For hours, I tossed and turned, seeing black and white snippets of the documentary of the life and times of Dr. Dolores E. Cross, former educator, former marathon runner, former enabler, former everything, and now prisoner of one electronic bracelet."

For months, the tracking device ruled her daily routine, and she hid the monitor from friends and family, including her adult daughter.

"Each time she visited, I made sure to wear pants to cover the contraption," Cross wrote. "And when she once asked to see it, I said it was bad enough that I had to see it ... She understood and did not ask again."

Cross said the guilty plea was made out of concern for her children and her health. The government acknowledged she did not use the funds for personal gain.

"The public, my peers, my former students, my family, friends and perhaps most of all, my ancestors, must know that I did not steal one cent," Cross wrote. "I was taking responsibility as president at the helm of the college."

Reviews of Cross' tenure have been mixed.

Rasheedah Shaheed, 34, graduated from Morris Brown in 2002 shortly after Cross' resignation and had to take out a $4,000 loan after discovering that a scholarship she thought she had didn't exist.

"I think it was a total system failure," said Shaheed, who feels Cross shouldn't shoulder all the blame for what has happened.

Shaheed said her fellow alumni often vent their frustrations about the sad state of their alma mater.

"They express their concerns all the time, especially during homecoming, when we look at the campus, our dorms," she said. "It's exhausting to us."

Other alumni lay the fault more squarely at the former president's feet.

Derrick Boazman, a 1990 alum who was also an adjunct professor during Cross' tenure, said she should never have been hired and that Cross' actions ultimately led to the school's demise. He said the lingering memory of the federal investigation continues to hobble Morris Brown's progress.

"Through her deception and lies, she left Morris Brown in a ditch," he said. "And she hasn't been held accountable for her actions. She did not do one day in jail."

Since Cross' guilty plea, the school has withered to the brink of extinction. Morris Brown lost its accreditation. Its student body, once a healthy 3,000, has dwindled to between 70 to 100. The college formerly offered 48 courses of study; now there are three.

Cross takes some of the blame, but not all.

"I would say something went wrong and I'm an agent of the board and the buck stopped with me," Cross said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "But in saying that, I'm not saying I committed a crime. I don't think that many people knew what I inherited."

Before her arrival, Morris Brown had changed presidents four times in 10 years, and the problems during her tenure were only the latest struggles for the college.

She said the school made progress under her tenure and worked to satisfy the accreditation requirements, though they were never achieved. Because the school is still unaccredited, it cannot get federal funds for student aid.

Morris Brown is in the process of raising money to cover student costs and is attempting to get reaccredited, which will take at least two years.

The college's current president, Stanley Pritchett, said the school — which nurtured civil rights hero Hosea Williams and author James Alan McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — is focused on moving forward.

"It has been a very challenging time for the college, but we've been resilient," Pritchett said. "It's very difficult to ascertain where particular blame goes ... There's been a dark past that we're trying to get over. We know there has been a rich history."

Cross was raised in the housing projects of New Jersey by a single mother and went on to work with disadvantaged students — both experiences she felt prepared her for her role at Morris Brown, where kids from modest backgrounds have traditionally made up a sizable chunk of the student body.

The book proudly lists her professional and personal accomplishments, and features photographs with Cross rubbing elbows with Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, former President Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and others.

Now 73, Cross spends much of her time mentoring and volunteering.

"I know that I've been discredited," she said. "I can't even teach, and I love teaching. Losing that voice for students and not being able to be in the classroom, I miss that."

Ultimately, Cross said she was done in by an impatient board and by having lost the loyalty of the students. But she has not given up on herself or Morris Brown, and is hopeful they both can move forward.

"I just feel really bad for the college," she said. "I would hope that what the memoir does is clear the air. I think Morris Brown can be saved. I think that it's worth saving."

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