For the second time in as many years, a university affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention has seen its accreditation placed on a two-year probation amid controversy about mismanagement and poor trustee governance. Earlier this month, the Higher Learning Commission placed Hannibal-LaGrange University’s accreditation on probation, while Southwest Baptist University’s probation period is just at its halfway mark.
Two of the three MBC-affiliated schools are now on probation. In both cases, the trustees elected by the MBC were criticized for not providing appropriate leadership.
HLGU’s woes burst into the public spotlight in March when the school’s interim president announced a time of “repentance” as the institution faced a financial crisis. But the problems had long been brewing behind the scenes. The HLC’s Institutional Actions Council had in November of 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 did highlight his work to strengthen the MBC’s control of the institution. Allen is a member of the steering council for the Conservative Baptist Network, a group trying to push the Southern Baptist Convention further rightward.
On March 10, HLGU Transitional President Rodney Harrison led a 10-hour “time of prayer, fasting, petition, and repentance.” He said during the event that HLGU faced “imminent disaster” and they 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.” But Harrison spoke in vague terms about the severity of the crisis and how it occurred.
MBC Executive Director John Yeats, who attended the prayer event, also warned about the “dire financial straits” facing HLGU. And he said they needed to “confess our sin,” but didn’t mention what needed to be confessed.
Since then, the school’s trustee in October elected Robert 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. He previously taught at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
HLC’s Probation Decision
On Nov. 15, HLC President Barbara Gellman-Danley wrote to new HLGU President Matz about the decision to place the school’s accreditation on probation. The HLC, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, 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), and 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,” she added. “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. On June 30, 2021, the school’s endowment stood at $8,815,105.52. But in the 16 months that followed, the school borrowed $6,118,125.45
The HLC’s president 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 explained. “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 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.
The decision to place HLGU’s accreditation on probation for the next two years came almost exactly one year after the HLC made a similar decision about Southwest Baptist University. SBU’s problems emerged after years of controversy as MBC leaders sought greater control over the institution. And like with HLGU, the MBC’s chosen trustees for SBU were criticized by the HLC.
The MBC did not respond to requests for comment after the HLC’s probation decision. HLGU promised to send a statement later, and this article will be updated when it is received.