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Plan for New College Draws Scrutiny

June 9, 2006

New private liberal arts colleges aren’t established every day, so pending proposals in Maine and North Carolina to create institutions from scratch have officials in those states intrigued. But the proposals, which have been cloaked in mystery, are raising some eyebrows -- partly because of their sponsors’ ties to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy, and partly because of suggestions that Maine officials expedited their usual process for approving new colleges because the college’s backers are reportedly looking to buy a vacant $26 million piece of land. (Maine officials deny those accusations.)

Applications to create Founders College, as the new institution would be called, were submitted nearly a year ago in North Carolina and just last month in Maine. The main people behind both applications are Gary Hull and Eric Daniels, who are a senior lecturing fellow and visiting assistant professor, respectively, at Duke University’s Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace, one of multiple such programs at colleges in North Carolina that are supported financially by BB&T Bank.

Hull and Daniels are also officers of two recently established nonprofit groups in North Carolina, Founders College Education, Inc., and the College of Rational Education, Inc., the latter of which, in its North Carolina articles of incorporation, describes its mission as providing “a reality-based, rationally grounded education, by applying Objectivism, the philosophy of Rand, to all of the Corporation’s activities and undertakings.” Both men are also affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute.

Others listed as officers of Founders College Education, Inc., include Tedd Potts, president of a Chevrolet dealership in Kansas City, Mo., and an active member of the Kansas City Objectivists group, and Tamara K. Fuller, of Columbia, Md., a management consultant.

Hull, when reached via e-mail, said it was “premature” to talk about the plans for Founders College, and otherwise declined comment. Daniels did not respond to a request for comment.

At this point, it is not clear whether the team behind the proposals envision starting colleges in both states, or only one. (The Founders College founders have also discussed Virginia as a possible destination.) What little information is available about the plans for the college(s) is contained in the applications the sponsors submitted to state officials.

In North Carolina, the application submitted to the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system, which licenses degree granting institutions in its state, proposed creating a nonprofit college that would offer associate and bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts beginning in fall 2007, according to Michelle Howard-Vital, who oversees licensure as assistant vice president for academic affairs for the North Carolina system.

Because the proposed college “does not have a track record,” its sponsors have applied for an “interim permit” to operate -- an institution must have been operating for at least two years to qualify for permanent recognition, Howard-Vital said. Hull and Daniels submitted the “bare bones” application for licensure last year, but Howard-Vital said that her office had delayed its review of how well Founders met the state’s 15 licensure standards, on such things as curriculum, library holdings and finances, because “there was nothing for us to investigate.”

“I've been waiting until there's enough in terms of content to be able to say to the Board of Governors, either way, that this is or is not recommended for licensure,” she said. Those behind Founders submitted a budget only recently, and Howard-Vital said that North Carolina officials now feel that they have enough information to schedule a review by a team of officials from the state and from other colleges. The review, which will be led by the Richard Neel, former chairman of the business school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and include a liberal arts dean as well as a library expert, could occur within the next four to six weeks, Howard-Vital said.

Moving Fast in Maine

If the approval process for Founders College has been in the slow lane in North Carolina, it has very much been on the fast track in Maine. According to documents gathered by and published in the Village Soup, an online and print publisher that has community newspapers in two counties north of Portland, Me., state higher education officials first learned about the possible creation of Founders College there because the college’s backers were in discussions with state economic development officials about buying a $26.4 million mountainside retreat.

An article in the newspaper suggested that the state’s Department of Education had subverted its normal procedures for considering the creation of new colleges by establishing a panel to review the institution before Founders officials had formally submitted an application to the state and provided a range of supporting materials.

Through a state open records request, the newspaper also got hold of e-mail messages in which economic development officials asked leaders in the Education Department to keep financial information about the real estate deal quiet. “It appears some state officials were willing to abide by these requests, and put Founders on some fast track before knowing the full extent of the proposed college’s board of directors, educational mission and curriculum,” the Village Soup Times said in an editorial.

In an interview Wednesday, the state’s education commissioner, Susan A. Gendron, said state officials had received the required “letter of intent” from Founders officials before the Board of Education voted to form the review panel on May 8. Gendron acknowledged that the education department “formed the review team before we had the [budget and other supporting] materials.”

That was done in large part, she said, to accommodate the desire of Founders officials to begin operating in fall 2007, which would require approval during the state legislative session that begins in January. “Our role is to expedite folks to be able to achieve and have access to our processes,” she said. “We’re a resource to entities who wish to come to Maine. But we have protocols and we have to follow the statute,” she said. “We were not trying to circumvent or in any way advance this college – we’re just making sure they had access to the steps.”

But the steps are undoubtedly happening speedily. The review panel, which includes the presidents or other administrators from Bates, Husson and Unity Colleges, Central Maine Community College, and the University of Maine at Augusta, will meet next week to conduct a “thorough review” of the Founders proposal, including the financial backing and the content of the curriculum, Gendron said.

As in North Carolina, the college seeks approval to offer associate and bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts. But unlike in North Carolina, according to the Village Soup Times, the college is seeking to operate as a for-profit entity, with backing from “corporate supporters” as well as tuition of $28,853 a year.

The review panel will make a recommendation to Gendron, who will then make her own recommendation to the Board of Education. Final approval would require an act of the Legislature.

 

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