College explains how $5M endowment dwindled

Lisa Chalidze, Chair of the Criminal Justice Division at the College of St. Joseph, addresses the audience at Tuttle Hall Monday afternoon, April 30, 2018. (Robert Layman / Staff Photo)

College of St. Joseph officials said Monday that while the announcement last week that the trustees were considering closing the school did not come completely out of the blue, they did not realize just how dire their straits were. CSJ President Larry Jensen spoke at a campus meeting Monday and put the college's financial woes down to a combination of declining enrollment and the failure of the planned physician assistant program. Other school officials at the meeting said they were still lacking answers to questions they had been asking for months, but outlined a multi-pronged approach to rescue the school's embattled finances. Lisa Chalidze, the faculty representative to the board of trustees who is emerging as an apparent leader among the college's employees, said that Jensen called a "town meeting" for faculty and staff Sept. 1, 2017, and told them the college was in financial trouble. "We were not given any information to speak of," she said. "Just the bald statement." Monday, Jensen offered an accounting for the evaporation of the school's $5 million endowment, of which he said $500,000 remained. He said $2.5 million was spent trying to launch a master's degree program training physicians assistants. After several years in development, that program was abandoned in 2016 after it was denied accreditation by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Another $2 million, he said, was spent covering operating losses. Jensen did not go into much more detail when pressed by members of the audience at Monday's meeting. Back in 2016, when he was president of the board of trustees as the program was scrapped, he had declined to even discuss how much the school had spent on it. Chalidze said she knew the school had spent money on architectural drawings and upgrades to two donated buildings in Proctor — which the school has since placed on the market — that CSJ planned to use for the program. "It turns out one of them was just chock full of asbestos," she said. Chalidze also said payroll "rocketed" during that period. The college hired six to eight new employees for the program, according to media accounts at the time. "The decision was made to expend that money before the program was accredited," she said. CSJ's form 990 for 2015 — the most recent year available online — showed the college had $1,468,612 in losses in 2014 and then of $2,583,883 in 2015. During that time, the college was increasing its total employee compensation, salaries and benefits, from $3,636,299 to $4,475,214. As the college was taking losses equal to about 15 percent of its total budget, it increased the amount it was spending on employees by more than 20 percent. Other filings show this was the second year in a row the college had made such an increase in staffing costs. Meanwhile, enrollment took a nosedive, with college officials reporting only about 200 students showing up last year instead of the expected 260. Looking ahead to next year, Jensen said 95 undergraduates had registered — 10 new students and 85 returning. He said the college has 17 full-time graduate students and a total population of 164 when part-time students are factored in. Jensen said admissions were doing "OK," with 432 applications, but that the school needed to make every effort to recruit as it looked for other ways to make money. Chalidze said that after the September meeting, an ad hoc group of faculty and staff came together "We just did it," she said. "We came together. We came together to figure out how me might help." Those efforts were frustrated, she said, by a lack of responsiveness by the administration and the trustees. This resulted in Chalidze drafting, and about a dozen of her colleagues signing, a letter of "no confidence," calling on Jensen to resign and for the board to appoint Roger Weeden, head of the radiology program, to replace him. They delivered the letter in October. "We don't have a union or a faculty senate," she said. "We have no formal way of doing anything. ... Those of us who did sign it, we felt we were putting ourselves at risk to some extent." Chalidze said Weeden's leadership abilities had won him the respect of the entire campus. Numerous students came to the meeting with signs calling for Weeden's installation as president. "I don't mean to badmouth Larry," she said. "He's tried hard." The letter got a tepid response from the board, Chalidze said, so she, Weeden and others continued working on ideas to bring more money to the college. They ranged from a development plan calling for pursuing additional grants alongside donations from alumni and corporations totaling about $1 million a year to opening a daycare on campus. "The first thing you need to realize in higher education is higher education is not the same any more," Weeden said at Monday's meeting, explaining colleges can no longer just rely on tuition for revenue. Other intitiatives Weeden said were ready to launch included a partnership with the Boston High School to Teachers Program, an institute on the study of psychological trauma, a nursing program and selling online marketing services to downtown businesses. "This is a service that they want," Weeden said. "It's an economic driver. Why can't we be the epicenter? We're here. Castleton has abandoned downtown."

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