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EXCHANGE: Community reacts after college announces closing

June 15, 2018

WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. (AP) — Tim Morthland promised economic revitalization for Franklin County and Southern Illinois by opening Morthland College and its family of businesses — a research park that would produce energy drinks, a music conservatory, phone screen repair, even a cafe on top of a proposed hospital, and a four-year private college based on Christian values.

There would be a sports complex and health clinics, and there would be jobs for miles coupled with a huge economic stimulation from increased tax revenue. Ceremonies and news conferences were held, buildings were donated, deals were made, and gifts were given.

Momentum for the Morthland train was huge and, according to former Morthland College administrative employee Paul Lemon, the enthusiasm for the project, specifically the college, was palpable.

However, through a series of missteps, the intricate weave of Morthland College and its guilds began to unravel in 2016. Decisions were made against the recommendation of top advisors, money began to get thin and people complained of paychecks bouncing. Contractors slowly stopped being able to reach anyone on the phone and payment for services dried up for some.

The Southern Illinoisan reported last year that the school was under investigation by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, after a Department of Education program review revealed alleged mishandling of Title IV student aid dollars. The college had allegedly allowed ineligible students at prep sports academies to use their FAFSA numbers to draw down student aid while taking online classes.

The school lost the ability to access those funds. In a May 26 news release, officials said that was the root cause for the college’s closure.

In the wake of Morthland College’s decline, careers were sent sideways, students were left in limbo, and a small community’s goodwill and hopes for revitalization were dashed.

Mike Popovich was living, teaching and coaching football in Mount Zion when he saw a job advertised downstate — a football program was being started at a small Christian college in Franklin County, and it needed a head coach.

When he got the job, he said he didn’t know what to think when he actually saw the campus.

“They had basically a couple of buildings they were operating out of,” he said. “There was nothing there.”

Popovich said when he was hired in 2016 he was told they would have everything they needed for the team. A weight room, a football field ... all of it would be ready for the 2017 season.

“You had to close your eyes and imagine what it would be like,” Popovich said.

It wasn’t hard to do. Popovich said the dream was around every corner of the campus. Drawings of the future were framed on the walls, the big plans were on people’s lips at all their meetings.

“You believe it,” he said. “Wow, this is going to be amazing.”

Leigh Caldwell was born and raised in Franklin County and had spent about 20 years working outside the community in journalism when she was looking for a way to come back. She had seen what the slowing economy had done to her hometown of West Frankfort and was struck when she heard Morthland’s big plan for economic revival. So she was thrilled when she got to work as part of a team helping bring her small town back to life.

“I wanted to work to make my hometown better, to see economic recovery there and to make it more of the community that I had left in the ’90s,” she said. “My involvement in Morthland College came from exactly that same place.”

She took the helm as the school’s media coordinator in June of 2015 and eventually also became the resident “dorm mom” when the college opened its campus dorms.

She said she threw herself into her work, even moving her teenage daughter into the dorm with her.

Cathie Mieldezis worked in the administrative office at Morthland College and was there from its earliest days working just part time, eventually finding her way into a full-time position as the school grew. She said the core group of people there at the time believed in the mission. There was a giving spirit there.

“We invested our finances into that college,” she said, adding that office workers would routinely supply their own copier paper and Post-it notes. There was literal and figurative buy-in, she said.

As time wore on, the veneer wore thin for many that worked there. The environment became less and less open, and the inner circle of the administrative team grew smaller and smaller.

Employees weren’t the only ones who were taken with the idea that Tim Morthland could be the saving grace of West Frankfort and Franklin County.

Tom Jordan, West Frankfort’s mayor, said the idea was exciting for a small town leader anxious for his city to prosper, particularly in light of the steady decline of coal jobs.

Jordan and the city lined up to help in any way it could — how could he say no to the possibility of having a thriving private college, bringing hundreds of students to his town, not to mention the “guild” businesses associated with the college?

They even signed a TIF agreement with Morthland College to help whenever needed with the loan payments on the school’s Oak Street main office. The classical, white-columned structure eventually became home base for the school.

Community leaders pitched in as well. Money was donated, buildings even. The Coleman-Rhoads building on Main Street in West Frankfort was donated to the college in 2014 by Brent Coleman and Steve Rhoads.

″(I) thought it held great promise for the town,” Rhodes said in an interview Tuesday.

The next year another large gift was made to the school in the form of a church. In 2015, the First United Methodist Church signed a $1, 20-year lease for the school to use the building, allowing the very small, aging congregation to continue to worship in the historic church.

Joyce Mutche, former administrative board chairwoman for the church, said at the time, donating the church seemed like the right idea. She said Morthland College seemed like a great opportunity for the community and for the congregation.

Money and buildings weren’t the only gifts. There was time and influence given, too. Mieldezis and Jordan said some of the most prominent members of the Franklin County community signed on to the Morthland idea. Even West Frankfort’s city attorney, Mike Riva, sat on the board of the Morthland College Foundation, which he said acted like a booster club for the school. It raised money to help offset the cost of operation.

Popovich traveled a lot. He would go state to state, even as far as California, to bring kids to play for his program, the program that was going to be something. The program that was promised to him.

He said there was even a donation made from someone in West Frankfort that paid for this travel. He did what he was supposed to do. He got a team together and it bloomed the school’s enrollment.

“That first year, that fall of 2016, we had, there were 95 kids in the school and I want to say almost half of them were made up by the football team,” Popovich said.

The season went pretty well. The Patriots finished 7-3. Fundraising wasn’t doing too bad either — they played a game against Wisconsin Oshkosh, an NCAA Division III team, for $5,000. However, after the check was sent, Popovich said his program never saw the payment.

Popovich said it was at this point that his eyes started to open to what was happening at the school, and he started to see a change.

He said he started to see donations come in for things that never happened, and money started to get harder and harder to get.

Popovich said he came in several times to find the lights were off because of unpaid electric bills. He said his $1,400 paychecks even bounced a few times.

Talking to his bosses also got a lot harder.

“To get ahold of them it was like trying to see the wizard,” he said, referencing the illusive wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.” He said Morthland himself was never available.

“You didn’t get to Tim Morthland,” he said.

Over time Popovich and Mieldezis said they began to see through what they were being told.

“They were really good at lying,” Popovich said.

“I would say it was very cultish,” Mieldezis said of the Morthland College work culture.

“It’s what you wear, it’s what you eat. It’s the manipulation and the control of everything you do,” she said.

Popovich agreed.

“They just they paint a picture, you get sucked in that you are going to be part of something bigger,” he said.

The duality Mieldezis felt was hard to reckon with, she said. She would watch people come to the school and be told what she knew to be falsehoods, but then turn around and believe the same things when she was told them.

She said Morthland and the administrative staff created a culture of divisiveness among employees.

“It was always this idea of you didn’t know who stood where,” she said. “I didn’t trust anybody.”

Mieldezis said she thinks this was all by design.

“How do you control someone? You make (yourself) the person that they need,” she explained.

She said she’s not sure if these actions were the plan from day one, but said once they realized the power the administration could have, they worked it.

“I believe they fed on it, they realized it and that’s what they did,” Mieldezis said.

Popovich said he has since heard numerous falsehoods about the school’s goings on during his time there. Things he knows aren’t true because he was involved — namely the relationship the school had with prep academies.

Part of the problem the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the DOE had with Morthland College’s reviews was their enrollment and retention of online students at prep sports academies — schools that pledge to help high school athletes get placed in college sports programs while also getting them college credit.

In emails previously reported on by The Southern, Morthland and his vice president, Emily Hayes, claim the school had no relationship with the academies beyond accepting them as students. Morthland reiterated this in an interview Wednesday with Tom Miller on WJPF.

“That’s a lie because I did, because I was told to recruit student athletes from the prep schools,” Popovich said, adding that it only made sense to recruit from these schools for their own football program — they were already enrolled at the college and had experience on the field.

Things didn’t go too well for students, either.

Andrew Trambley is originally from Vienna and said he jumped from attending Shawnee Community College in order to play football for Morthland College. He said his first experiences there were great — the teachers knew all the students and really seemed to care about their success. But things went sideways his senior year.

He said he had signed up for classes in the fall of 2016 for the next semester. When he went to pick up his schedule, one class didn’t appear. He said he found out weeks later that he had been enrolled in an online course without his permission — he said he had signed up for all in-person courses. And, a notification that if he did not become active in the class he would be dropped was sent not to his school email, but to his dad’s.

When he found out, he decided just to let the class drop. This became a problem the next year when he tried to get his transcripts. He was told by a school administrator that he had been failed in the class, not dropped, and that he owed a $200 online class fee for a course he never OKed in the first place.

Because of this, his transcripts were being held, and they turned the $200 over to collections.

His decision to leave Morthland College came after he found out that athletics had been dropped in favor of club sports — he said it also put a bad taste in his mouth to hear Morthland deliver an address to that year’s graduating class saying how stable the school was when he saw that it wasn’t.

“The fact that he just blatantly lied to everyone at graduation, I was done with the school,” Trambley said.

Trambley said he was in a low place after he left Morthland College.

“I was going into my senior year, I had my life planned out pretty much,” he said. “To have that plan ripped out from me really hurt.”

Trambley is currently in a lawsuit against the school to have the fee waived and to have his transcripts released, but he said even after that, he’s not sure what he’s going to do. He said based on his research the closest school that would accept the credits from Morthland College is in Tennessee.

Tim Eaton, president of Morthland’s accrediting agency TRACS, said his institution is working with students who need to finish degrees to find schools to attend.

Caldwell, Mieldezis and Popovich all left on their own terms, and all said their biggest regret is that students got caught up in the school’s problems.

“The biggest source of upset for me (is) the students who came there in good faith to pursue degrees,” Caldwell said.

There is also a sense of disappointment for the city and county.

“Beyond any personal impact of losing my job and having to move from the place where I was living, I am heartbroken over what the opportunities that were lost in my town over anything that happened with me personally,” Caldwell said.

Jordan and Riva said while the city did help Morthland with some money directly, any money still committed to Morthland College should be freed up, given that the institution no longer exists.

As for the donated buildings, some, including the Oak Street office, have been sold by the county at tax sale after tax bills were not paid.

Caldwell, Popovich and Mieldezis all landed fine. Caldwell has a new career and has since gotten married, Popovich is coaching in Collinsville — though he said last summer was hard with his family having only one income — and Mieldezis has also secured work. She even said she feels “free” again, adding that she knew there was oppression when she worked at the college, but said it has taken time and distance to realize just how much there was.

Looking back on it, Mieldezis and Popovich said they aren’t sure if the entire Morthland College project was bad from its outset. However, Popovich said at the end, he thinks the administrators believed what they told people.

“Once you tell yourself a lie over and over ... you eventually start to believe those lies,” Popovich said.

In the radio interview with Miller, Morthland discussed the closure of his namesake college, pushing most of the blame on the DOE and their sanctions, pointing to a conspiracy that the department has it out for faith-based schools.

Mieldezis and Jordan both took issue with this blame-shift.

“It had nothing to do with Obama or Trump or George Bush I or II, it had to do with what was going on internally,” Mieldezis said.

“It’s easy to blame everybody else,” Jordan said, adding that he thought the school administrators needed to own their mistakes.

He said Morthland’s various institutions had the very best leaders Franklin County had to offer, but for whatever reason, the college didn’t make it work.

“They had every opportunity to succeed and didn’t,” Jordan said.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education waived the college’s $2 million fine and closed two docket entries in the Office of Hearings and Appeals. Documents provided to The Southern by Aaron Hopkins, attorney for Morthland College, indicate that the department felt the appeal hearings would be “moot” because the school had opted to close on its own.

It is unclear what these decisions by DOE mean as to future penalties or actions from the department or other federal agencies. The documents said the decision to waive the fine and close the hearings were separate from the still-ongoing program review, the results of which have not yet been published.

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/2sFGf50

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com

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