A Christmas miracle for a tiny Baptist college

by Joni B. Hannigan, Editorial Staff |
Brewton Parker College

MOUNT VERNON, Ga. (Christian Examiner) – A tiny Georgia Baptist school got a Christmas miracle this month.

When officials at Brewton-Parker College were told in June the 110-year old school would be stripped of its accreditation, they knew something had gone very wrong.

The college had faced an uphill battle in meeting financial obligations during the economic recession and yet people gave to retire debt and provide needed operating funds.

Not only did the school show it was financially stable, put it also put into place more robust financial controls, and resolved Title IV program issues with the U.S. Department of Education to show it was in compliance with the principles of accreditation. 

In June and then again in September, despite appeals, things were not looking good. It was as if the financial miracle was not enough, that another miracle was needed, one the school's president, Ergun Caner, never gave up on.

On Dec. 9 Brewton-Parker College got its Christmas miracle. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges reversed its earlier decision, reaffirming the accreditation of Brewton-Parker College.

It was a decision some believed in all along, and others thought impossible.

"Nobody had ever been to this point," Caner told Christian Examiner. "We were the first ones to test it. It was a final appeal."

Caner, 49, who was elected as the institution's 16th president just a year ago, went to the school knowing of its accreditation woes, which started three years before he arrived, but believing its best days were yet ahead.

"Even the students believed," he said, pointing to steady enrollment despite the school's probationary status since 2010. "Who does that?"

In a candid interview, Caner outlined the steps by which the school appealed its probationary status with SACS, the tremendous support it received from the community, and the personal circumstances that threatened the entire process.

Giving a "best estimate," Caner said officials at the school spent over 20,000 man hours over the last five years to meet SACS standards -- meeting committees four times just since he became president.

Supporters came out the woodwork, Caner said, once they understood the problem, something he called "insane."

"People give to a new vision, a new building, a new program – rarely do they give to old debt," Caner said. But transparency was critical in building the case, he said, and so he told them some of the money could be used for legal funds, fights in court – and in return, "we got money from every corner."

Caner said funds poured in from alumni and friends who are "happy, sad, conservative and liberal" -- all who have a common interest in keeping Brewton-Parker alive.

The challenge was to prove to SACS there was "money in the coffers" and the school indeed was "following procedures," he said. But it appeared for a while that no one was listening.

Meanwhile various news outlets were saying Brewton Parker had been stripped of its accreditation. Even SACS issued a "Disclosure Statement" clarifying the issue -- a note since removed from its website, but available via Google cache.

In an hour-long meeting Dec. 6, of a "committee of its peers," the fourth of such meetings with SACS in his short time as president, Caner said he and others of his team presented "new verified material evidence" proving the school is "solvent and will never have to beg for money again."

In fact, he chuckled, "my first response is, we don't spend it, we just stare at it for awhile."

His jovial spirit was gone by that evening, however. He knew the committee wouldn't vote until Sunday night. "It was the longest weekend of my life," he said.

Caner, who grew up in the United States, but is the son of a Turkish Muslim father and a Swedish mom, took his young son to a Turkish restaurant for dinner – and to a mission church.

"We tried to keep busy," he said. The call came on Monday, but Caner was told he couldn't release the information until an official announcement at the close of the SACS annual meeting Tuesday.

"It was -- it was a Christmas miracle. I never did give up hope."

Tears filling his eyes, Caner said even on the day his 15-year-old son died unexpectedly in July -- he had never experienced anything close to what he saw. Hundreds of people stood waiting for a rally to start. As his personal agony began, he knew professionally the people were saying, "We've got your back" on the accreditation issue.

"I didn't even know if I would ever stand in a pulpit again – but there has never been one moment where I thought we couldn't get accredited because I know the school inside and out," Caner said.

Heartbroken at the thought of his family spending their first Christmas without his beloved son – Caner said the thought of a Savior who loves him and a community that has surrounded him has offered some comfort.

"This was as much a miracle for all of the people on the payroll for as much as a lucky, baldheaded idiot who loves what he's doing," Caner said. "I couldn't walk away from this because we have 600 kids who are as equally precious to their parents as my son was to me and as my other son is to me. You can't give up on the place because you give up on people."

With enrollment increasing and an emphasis on building community -- while making the school known for its focus on missions and evangelism -- Caner said the "constant wheezing of trolls and the constant braying of donkeys has been pretty silent since the vote."

Brewton-Parker, a Georgia Baptist college founded in 1904 and affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, operates a satellite campus in Newnan. It is the only accredited four-year Christian college in the southern half of Georgia (south of Macon and north of Jacksonville, Fla.).

Caner said Brewton-Parker is seeking dual accreditation through the Transactional Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), a non-profit, voluntary association discussed during the school's probationary status.

Instead of "rebooting the whole school," Caner brightened, "we get to be doubly accredited."

Looking back, Caner said in a prepared statement the school is "much stronger" in large part due to the efforts of its board of trustees, legal team, auditor, and the people of Mount Vernon, Ga.

"We give thanks to God for this decision, for it was by His guidance we were able to achieve this result," said Caner in the release.

Caner plainly told the Examiner although he believed Brewton-Parker would prevail, he knew there was plenty of skepticism to go around and that lack of confidence fueled his desire even more to vindicate those who fought so valiantly. So while the personal struggle mounted over the pain of losing a child, Caner trudged on.

"It was the worst year of my personal life, and professionally the greatest year of my life," Caner said. "Not one moment was I giving up on this.

"Yes, it is a Christmas miracle."

For more information on Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga., go to bpc.edu