Last November a judge ruled that Bacone College, a small minority-serving institution in Muskogee, Okla., owed Midgley-Huber Energy Concepts more than $1 million. The contractor had filed a lawsuit against the college in September 2021, seeking payment for work performed on Bacone’s heating and cooling systems, as well as interest and attorneys’ fees.
The $1 million contract, included in court documents, promised the college annual energy savings of $89,382. But nonpayment for the services now threatens to come at a much higher cost: the Bacone College campus is headed for the auction block.
News of the possible sale came as a surprise to Bacone College interim president Nicky Michael, who said neither the college nor its attorneys were served a formal notice before the court ordered an appraisal and a county judge set a sale date.
“We were surprised to read it in the newspaper, just like everybody else,” Michael told Inside Higher Ed.
Without intervention, Oklahoma’s oldest college will likely lose its campus. And for the small college, which serves a high percentage of Native American students, the potential sale of its campus is a gut punch after years of financial challenges.
Legal, Financial and Enrollment Woes
With the auction scheduled for Dec. 14, Bacone College is stuck in a wait-and-see position.
“There’s not a whole lot we can do, honestly. We can just see what happens,” Michael said, noting that it’s possible a buyer who wants the college to continue its mission will come forward. Whether that would mean renting space from the buyer is unclear at this point, she added.
Shifting programs online is another option under discussion.
“My gut says to go online,” Michael said.
While the college is stuck in limbo, Bacone is currently between semesters; the fall semester ended in November and the spring term starts in January. But whether that will be on campus or online remains unknown.
Given that uncertainty, the college laid off 40 of its 60 employees this week, Michael said. She noted that students are also feeling anxious as they await more details.
The president harbors a lot of anger about how Bacone arrived at the current predicament. Beyond allegedly not being served papers, Michael suggested there were problems with the work the contractor, MHEC, performed—including damage to a roof that resulted in a leak in one building. The college also had an agreement that MHEC would wait until Bacone could pay before it began the work, she said. But a verbal agreement made with MHEC by a prior Bacone administration, before Michael’s time as interim president, allowed the contractor to move forward despite the college’s financial challenges.
(An attorney representing MHEC did not respond to a request for comment.)
When Bacone couldn’t pay, MHEC sued. Then came the lien to recover the vendor’s costs. And while MHEC had been seeking about $1.6 million, court records show that Bacone faced multiple lawsuits from other vendors—indicating that the college has had difficulty paying its bills in recent years.
Sodexo, a national facilities management and food service company, sued Bacone in July 2020 for an alleged breach of contract, seeking to recover $1.1 million for “investments made by Sodexo in the construction of a new dining hall and for the purchase and installation of kitchen and dining equipment” and $162,000 for unpaid dining services, according to legal documents.
Sodexo eventually dismissed the lawsuit in September 2020. Michael said the college settled its debt with Sodexo in the early days of her interim administration.
But other lawsuits, in addition to MHEC’s, have followed.
In May, BSN Sports, an athletic apparel distributor, sued Bacone for breach of contract. The plaintiff is seeking $34,495 for services rendered, plus interest and attorneys’ fees. BSN Sports claims the college “refused to pay” for services provided in 2021, court records show.
Then, in early June, Thesis America, an appliance company, sued Bacone for breach of contract, allegedly for failing to pay for services. The company is seeking $86,631 plus interest and attorneys’ fees. Later that same month, Bacone was sued, again for breach of contract, by Ohio Security Insurance Company, which is seeking to recover $82,446 for alleged nonpayment of services.
Another lawsuit was filed Monday, this one from an organization called College Tournaments Hawaii. Again the plaintiff alleges breach of contract and is seeking to recover a total of $26,664 from Bacone.
And as Bacone has floundered financially in recent years, its enrollment has collapsed; the student body shriveled from nearly 1,000 a decade ago, according to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, to roughly 100 currently.
A review of Bacone’s enrollment trends shows a severe drop-off five years ago. In fall 2017, the college enrolled more than 900 students before financial issues prompted it to shut down temporarily in 2018. At the time, then president Frank Willis told the community, “We’ve run out of money,” and announced the college was laying off most employees. Willis, who was already on the way out at that time, noted that Ferlin Clark, his soon-to-be-installed successor, was in charge of a national fundraising effort.
“If those sources of support don’t come in, we will have to close Bacone,” Willis warned in 2018.
While the 2018 closure was temporary, Bacone’s enrollment never recovered. When the college began its fall semester later that year, only 271 students enrolled, according to federal data. Since then its head count has mostly hovered below 300 before falling to around 100 this year. But Michael noted that for this academic year, at least, a plan to take fewer students was intentional, given the college’s other financial challenges and problems with student housing, including mold in one dorm.
“We kept it low because we have other issues that are also financial that we need to consider,” Michael said.
A Failed Bid for Tribal College Status
Despite its recent struggles, Bacone College has a rich—if complicated—history.
Its namesake, Almon C. Bacone, a white Christian missionary, founded a boarding school for Native American children in the 1860s. In 1880 Bacone established Indian University, which would eventually adopt his name. The college—which apologized for its role as a boarding school last year—is the oldest postsecondary institution in the state of Oklahoma.
In the 1930s, the college gave rise to a type of Native American art that became known as the “Bacone style.” Emphasizing action, bright colors and a flat method of painting, it spread across Native communities. In the middle of the 20th century, Bacone College produced numerous influential Native artists.
Michael—who is an enrolled member of the Delaware tribe—noted that more than half of Bacone’s current students are Native American. Before it was beset by financial troubles, the college had hoped to lean in to its rich history and cultural influence on Native art to develop new programs.
“Before the auction, part of our strategic plan was to revitalize art and humanities and become the premier institution in the state for art and humanities,” Michael said.
Despite its history—and administrative efforts—Bacone is not a federally recognized tribal college. In 2019 then president Clark sought approval as a tribal college from the Bureau of Indian Education. That status was not granted, but Michael said Clark—who left in May 2022, reportedly under investigation by the human resources department—did not communicate the bureau’s decision to the college.
(Contacted via LinkedIn, Clark did not respond to a request for comment.)
Michael said she was unaware, until last spring, that the BIE—for reasons that remain somewhat opaque—had denied Bacone’s application for tribal college status. The interim president is continuing to seek the status for the college, which would generate much-needed additional federal funding.
(The Bureau of Indian Education, led by Director Tony Dearman, who earned an associate’s degree from Bacone College, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Tribal college status awards federal dollars based on the number of Native American students enrolled. That aid—up to $9,000 per academic year for each Native American student—would make a significant difference for struggling Bacone, which does not have an endowment and was designated as “financially distressed” by its accreditor.
However, Carrie Billy, former president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said in congressional testimony last year that most tribal colleges don’t receive the full funding amount, but closer to $8,000 per Native student enrolled.
Other advocates have argued that tribal colleges are underfunded, despite providing a culturally relevant education to Native students that allows them to fully embrace their Indigenous identity. They say that such institutions serve an important role in supporting entire tribal communities.
Susan Faircloth, founder of Two Feathers Consulting and former director of the School of Education at Colorado State University, noted that institutions must be chartered by a tribe or consortium of tribes and have a student population that is more than half Native American in order to gain tribal college status from the BIE.
“If the tribal college is recognized by the federal government, there’s also an annual process where you have to submit the Indian student count, and then the Bureau would calculate funding eligibility based on the amount that’s in the legislation and the number of Indian students that are enrolled,” said Faircloth, who is an enrolled member of the Coharie tribe.
Faircloth emphasized the importance of such institutions, given that there are fewer than 40 in the U.S.
“Tribal colleges and universities are critically important in supporting tribes and tribal communities in areas like economic development, language and culture,” Faircloth said.
And the city of Muskogee—where 15 percent of residents were Native as of last July, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—will undoubtedly be affected if Bacone College closes down, she suggested.
“What happens to those students who are currently enrolled at the college? What opportunities do they have to pursue a college education? If that institution closes, what happens to the faculty and staff there? What’s the economic impact on that community?” Faircloth wondered.
For Michael, who is dealing directly with those questions, it’s a gut-wrenching ordeal. She noted that the college has sought donations and tried unsuccessfully in the past to sell land to raise money.
“I went to every oil and gas company in Oklahoma City. I knocked on their doors, I revisited them and we never got anywhere. We went to tribal governments, and we have applied for funding as well. Anything that we could do within the normal fundraising world, we did,” she said.
With the auction looming, Michael said her focus remains on students, many of whom have been “triggered” by recent events. Given that the dispossession of Native land by white settlers pushed tribes onto reservations, Michael said this moment feels familiar in a historic sense.
“This is a land grab in the same way that it was in the 1890s,” she said.