HLGU’s accreditation with Higher Learning Commission placed on two-year probation

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HANNIBAL, Mo. — Hannibal-LaGrange University’s accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission was placed earlier this month on a two-year probation amid controversy about mismanagement and poor trustee governance.

Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., another school affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention, also is on probation. Word and Way, an independent publication that covers news of Baptists in the Midwest, reported Monday the trustees elected by the MBC at both schools were criticized for not providing appropriate leadership.

Word and Way reported the MBC did not respond to requests for comment after the HLC’s probation decision. Todd Damotte, marketing coordinator for HLGU, told Muddy River News on Monday the school promises a statement that will be sent out “no later than (Tuesday).”

Word and Way reported that HLC President Barbara Gellman-Danley wrote to new HLGU President Matz on Nov. 15 about the decision to place the school’s accreditation on probation. The Higher Learning Commission, headquartered in Chicago, accredits post-secondary educational institutions in 19 mostly midwestern states.

The HLC determined HLGU is out of compliance with three of the accreditation criteria — sufficient board autonomy, resource base and future financial projection. The HLC expressed concern about the institution on another criterion — sufficiency of faculty and staff.

“Although the institution’s Board of Trustees plans to provide closer oversight of its financial situation and has implemented several new practices in this regard, there has been insufficient time to determine how the board’s new focus on its fiduciary responsibility will materialize in practice, particularly given the lack of oversight in the years leading up to the current situation,” Gellman-Danley wrote. 

“While its short-term cash flow problems have been addressed, and the institution has developed what it considers a balanced and sustainable budget for the coming academic year, a long-standing culture of complacency with unbalanced budgets and operating deficits, with little to no exercise of fiduciary responsibility by the Board of Trustees, remains cause for concern.

“The most recent financial exigency was declared due to cash flow issues. Those cash flow issues have been resolved primarily with special donations from the community. However, this is not a structural and sustainable solution. Internal stakeholders (including the CFO) informed the HLC team that, for many years, the institution had known of financial issues that were not addressed. Thus, during that time, the institution operated at a loss and borrowed from its endowment.”

The letter adds details about HLGU’s borrowing from its endowment. The school’s endowment stood at $8,815,105.52 on June 30, 2021. In the 16 months that followed, the school borrowed $6,118,125.45.

Gellman-Danley also explained the concerns about the faculty and staff after layoffs this year.

“It is unclear how the uncertainty of enrollment and external funding, coupled with fewer faculty positions, will result in a sustainable capacity to meet the Institution’s needs and serve its students,” she wrote. “The faculty and staff that remained after recent layoffs were unable to confirm that they have the resources to continue to provide a quality education.”

According to the HLC, the school must, during this probation period, “undergo a comprehensive evaluation, which requires an assurance filing, federal compliance filing and (an) on-site visit, to provide evidence that the areas of concern have been ameliorated.” 

If concerns aren’t resolved, the HLC can extend the probation period or even withdraw accreditation. In the case of HLGU, that decision about their status is set to be decided by the HLC in November 2024.

HLGU’s woes became public in March when Rodney Harrison, the school’s interim president, announced a time of “repentance” as the institution faced a financial crisis. The problems had long been brewing behind the scenes. The HLC’s Institutional Actions Council had in November 2021 accepted the results of a financial inquiry into HLGU.

HLGU President Anthony Allen then announced on Jan. 21 that he would step down 10 days later. The school said his departure in the middle of a semester was so he could “recover from some lingering health issues, spend more time with his family and give the opportunity for new leadership to move HLGU to the next level of success.” The statement did not mention the school’s financial woes or accreditation inquiries, but it did highlight his work to strengthen the MBC’s control of the institution. 

Harrison led a 10-hour “time of prayer, fasting, petition, and repentance” on March 10. He said during the event that HLGU faced “imminent disaster” and that school officials were trying to figure out how “to get to the end of the semester.” He admitted the school’s leaders “have not been always faithful stewards of the resources that God has given to this university” and “have not always been forthright about the condition.” 

Harrison spoke in vague terms about the severity of the crisis and how it occurred.

The school’s trustees in October elected Matz as the 18th president of HLGU. Matz had been serving as acting executive vice president of HLGU since March and previously served since July 2021 as vice president of academic administration, dean of the faculty, and a professor of theology and preaching.

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