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College drops out

Cash woes, loss of accreditation doom Atlantic Union

Elmo Benjamin packed, ready to leave his apartment near the Central Massachusetts campus in Lancaster. Elmo Benjamin packed, ready to leave his apartment near the Central Massachusetts campus in Lancaster. (Photos By Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / September 7, 2011

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LANCASTER - Elmo Benjamin moved across the country from the sprawl of Southern California looking for peace. He found it at Atlantic Union College, a tight-knit Seventh-day Adventist school framed by hills and orchards in the Central Massachusetts town of Lancaster. “The air was clean, there wasn’t much crime, there were ponds to fish in - it was a paradise,’’ he said. At 47, he delved into a theology major. His wife, Lana, found a job as a financial aid adviser at the college.

Then, suddenly, there was no college.

On July 31, Atlantic Union laid off almost all of its 120 employees, told its 450 students there would be no classes this year, and shut down.

The school’s finances had been shaky for years. It had a legacy of bureaucratic bungling and misunderstandings with state and regional higher education authorities, and it had spent the last decade on and off probation with its accrediting body. “I came in knowing that the school was in very precarious shape,’’ said Norman Wendth, its president from 2007 until July. “I knew there was a good chance my job would be to close it with dignity.’’

Still, the demise of the 129-year-old campus left many students in shock.

“I never believed we were actually going to lose our accreditation,’’ said nursing student Kelly McNamara, 33. “People are upset about how this happened. They miss the school, and they’re sad.’’

The complete collapse of a college is a rare event. This is the first time a local school has permanently lost its accreditation in well over a decade, said Barbara Brittingham, of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Atlantic Union’s accrediting group.

The school was not always so troubled. In its heyday in the 1950s, it served nearly 900 students, and until its closing, boasted one of the state’s stronger nursing programs, with 100-percent passing rates on board exams.

But it never had a large endowment, and even with annual subsidies of $3 million to $4 million from its parent church and further support from regional Adventist divisions, it struggled to stay afloat. Its students, almost all on financial aid, often could not pay their tuition, which was comparatively cheap for a private school, at $15,000.

The school hit a low point in 2003, when its president at the time left under a cloud. His administration was accused of transgressions from racial discrimination to mishandling of student aid funds, which resulted in a federal investigation. George Babcock, a longtime Adventist administrator, came out of retirement to turn things around.

“I had been president of the place for two weeks before I realized it was in much deeper trouble than I had thought,’’ he said. “Enrollment was ridiculously low. And it was many, many millions in debt. For a small school, that’s catastrophic.’’

Babcock began an aggressive fund-raising campaign, drawing in million-dollar donations. The school’s finances improved, as did enrollment.

But in summer 2007, incoming students who called the registrar’s office were mistakenly told the college was closing. Almost a sixth of the students went elsewhere.

By 2008, the school was on probation with its accrediting body for the third time in 10 years. Finances remained tenuous, and in June 2010, it lost accreditation.

There was one last chance: The college had a year to appeal the decision. Otherwise, it would have to hand its grounds over to a sister school, Washington Adventist University, which has its main campus in Maryland.

“They really wanted to remain independent if there was any possibility,’’ said Larry Blackmer, vice president of education for the Adventist church’s North American division. “There’s almost a parental pride in that college. It’s hard to give up on your children.’’

Students found themselves paralyzed, not knowing whether they should stay or transfer.

“We were in a sticky situation,’’ said Sarah Bouché, 24, a nursing student. “We didn’t really know what was going on because the administrators didn’t know what was going on.’’

Earlier this summer, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges rejected Atlantic Union’s final appeal. Institutions must have accreditation to get federal financial aid, so operating unaccredited was out. The remaining option was for Washington Adventist to adopt the students and employees as its own.

But the Maryland school was not authorized to operate in Massachusetts. Washington Adventist’s leaders knew since fall that gaining state approval typically takes nine to 12 months. They stalled while they sought go-aheads from administrators in the Adventist Church.

By the time they applied in May, it was too late.

Washington Adventist asked the state for special treatment. “We have been operating for over 107 years with regional accreditation. We’re not young babes at this,’’ said school president Weymouth Spence. “Given that everyone’s talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, and we were trying to help the Commonwealth keep 120 individuals employed, we had hoped for an expedited process.’’

No such thing exists, state officials said. “When an out-of-state institution wants to operate in Massachusetts, we ask a lot of questions,’’ said Francesca Purcell, associate commissioner for academic policy at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. “It’s not a simple up or down.’’

Atlantic Union allowed a handful of out-of-state students to live in on-campus housing over the summer, and about 40 employees remained until the end of last month. Before the campus closed, the bookstore sold off its leftover memorabilia - hats, sweatshirts, notebooks - at slashed prices, and in a classroom students wrote on the whiteboard: “WE LOVE AUC. Thank you theology professors! We will not forget you.’’

Washington Adventist still harbors hopes of turning the grounds into a branch campus. An application to do that is pending with the state.

But most people have moved on. The two-year nursing students have all graduated or transferred to Mount Wachusett Community College, which has set up a special program for 31 of them on its Devens campus.

The four-year undergraduates are facing bigger disruptions. The vast majority have transferred to Washington Adventist’s campus in Takoma Park, Md.

That includes Elmo and Lana Benjamin, who loved rural life. Washington Adventist has hired Lana to work in its financial aid office, and it will charge Elmo the same tuition he paid at Atlantic Union. But rent will probably be far more than the $450 the couple paid in Lancaster.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work out,’’ Elmo Benjamin said. “But somehow, it will.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at mary_carmichael.