Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Thomas More acts on accreditation warning




By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hit with a warning by its accrediting agency, Thomas More College has reshaped some faculty responsibilities, raised tuition and redesigned its financial aid.

        It should know by June 1 whether these changes offer hope for overcoming years of operating fund deficits.

        An affirmative answer would allow the College Commission of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, when it convenes in December, to reconfirm the school's accreditation until 2010.

        Meanwhile, Thomas More's accreditation remains in effect, and the college is basking in an overall evaluation as academically strong with bright, motivated students.

        The 900-student Catholic liberal arts college in Crestview Hills was up for routine 10-year re-accreditation in December. Instead, SACS put it “on warning” for 12 months to repair weaknesses in planning, finances, faculty and paperwork.

        “We've taken care of most of that stuff,” the Rev. William F. Cleves, president of Thomas More, said in a recent interview.

        Failure to meet accreditation criteria will lead to a second and final year on warning status, or suspension or loss of accreditation.

        Students at unaccredited schools can't get government financial aid and rarely can get credit for the courses from accredited schools.

        Father Cleves, a popular priest, teacher and campus leader, is the first to concede he was not a talented administrator. He was good at fund raising and for many of his nine years as president, helped create surpluses that paid off the annual deficits.

        The probing self-evaluation required for Thomas More's 10-year accreditation renewal meant that the financial problems could no longer be treated as business-as-usual as the school focused on winning a rising reputation.

        “I have total confidence in Thomas More College's bright future,” said E. Joseph Lee, who succeeds Father Cleves on June 1.

        “If I felt otherwise, I would not have considered making a move of this magni

        tude.”

        Dr. Lee, vice president of New York's Manhattan College, said that school was in worse financial shape than Thomas More when he was hired in 1990.

        Central to his turnaround success was recruiting and retaining more paying students with a scholarship strategy similar to that being adopted by Thomas More.

        Father Cleves said the accreditation process hastened the changes that veteran administrator Dr. Lee found reassuring.

        “We self-reported the financial difficulties,” Father Cleves said, and when the SACS evaluation team arrived, he asked them “to give us their wisdom.”

        Evaluators objected to three years of annual operating deficits of $300,000 to $600,000, according to John R. Parker, the new vice president for administration/finance and chief financial officer.

        Those losses were covered from surpluses built up in previous years and unrestricted investment income.

        Absence of a credible turnaround plan was another problem.

        Thomas More's response is meant to resolve that issue, too, Father Cleves said.

        Faculty administrative duties are being reduced to let more professors teach full time and to reduce the hiring of adjunct instructors.

        Total scholarship spending is being reduced, but more paying students will share the grants to shrink the gap between Thomas More and public schools.

        Also, adult education is being marketed aggressively.

        Father Cleves said SACS rules bar him from speculating whether these changes will elicit renewed accreditation but he was confident Thomas More would measure up.

        Dr. Gerald D. Lord, associate executive director of the SACS Commission on Colleges in Decatur, Ga., would not comment on Thomas More, although he is the staff person most closely associated with its case.

        However, he said, “Many private church-related liberal arts colleges find themselves faced with a continually accelerating fund-raising challenge ... It's a downward spiral once you get into the spiral. It's a common kind of thing.”

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