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 News & Record
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School of Hard Knocks

 

Founders/Berry Hill attract criticism,

lose staffers, students, accounts
 
 
 
By MARY EVA CASSADA
Special to The News & Record
 
As the second semester resumes today at Founders College on the Berry
Hill Estate, the sister enterprises are contending with a shrinking
number of students, staff defections and grumbling about unpaid bills
around town.
The antebellum plantation-cum-resort was purchased last year by Tamara
K. Fuller, a Maryland consultant and real estate investor, who added
the start-up, for-profit, private liberal-arts college on site.
Locals have had high hopes for the joint institutions.
"I said from the beginning this could be the greatest thing ever to
happen to South Boston," said town Mayor Carroll Thackston.
But the last few months have seen managers, professors and students
depart, and the school resumes today with about half of the number of
students had before Christmas break. In addition, Founders and Berry
Hill have left a string of old and unpaid bills, resulting in one
collection lawsuit.
Fuller, the chairman and CEO, did not respond after asking for, and
being given, questions in writing early last week. She separately
declined a telephone interview.
 
A small student body, tuition-free
 
With stated hopes of having 100 students in its inaugural class in
September, the school opened with 12 students, two of them off-site
distance-learning students in Canada. The distance-learning program was
not implemented, so those two students were lost for that term. Two
students departed in the middle of the semester, one took leave in
December, leaving seven to finish. Of those seven remaining, at least
two are not returning today, sources said, leaving five. (The college
says about six are returning.)
Two new professors have been hired.
That leaves an on-site student-faculty ratio of about one student to
one professor.
A statement posted Thursday on the Founders website says nine students
are returning for spring, but does not distinguish between students
physically in the classroom and students in the brand-new distance
learning program.
Founders may well be, as Fuller mused in her opening speech four months
ago, "the world's smallest college."
"As with any new enterprise, we have had our share of 'bumps' this past
four months, but I am proud of the current faculty and administration
of the College and their unfailing efforts to deliver on our
educational promise," reads a quote from Fuller posted on the college
website Thursday.
Of students returning to classes today, Jade Fogg of Maryland said she
is "less gung-ho than I was before" and will re-evaluate her enrollment
at the end of the spring semester.
But, said Fogg, she learned a great deal in the fall and lauded the
faculty for "working night and day."
Anna Fogg confirmed that her teen daughter attended last semester
tuition- and room-and-board-free as the family continued to wait for
financial aid to be set up. Jade Fogg also worked for the college by
designing an equestrian center, which has not been constructed.
Former college employees said that, at most, only one or two students
paid tuition for first semester at the for-profit Founders. Tuition,
room, board and fees total $31,500 for the current 2007-08 year,
according to the Founders website.
Perhaps due to these circumstances, the college has relied financially
on the inn, four sources said.
Students this semester have been told they needed to pay and that a
Founders scholarship is available.
Current employees contacted either declined or did not respond to
requests for interviews.
 
Departures in droves
 
In addition to its small student base, the Founders/Berry Hill
businesses also lost no fewer than 17 key personnel between last spring
and Christmas: among them a general manager, a vice-president of
operations, a dean of admissions, four professors, a chef, two
consecutive heads of sales, a director of rooms, head of food, head of
beverage, event planner, two accountants and a sous chef.
Departing even before the first student took a desk was Founders
visionary and curriculum planner Dr. Gary Hull, who enjoys a following
in some academic circles and teaches at Duke University.
Hull is credited with having tried for years to start a college
grounded in the Objectivist philosophy of writer Ayn Rand, which stress
self-reliance, rationalism and laissez-faire capitalism. Hull has not
commented on reasons for his departure. The college has since distanced
itself from an Objectivist foundation.
Ray Weiss, who held the job of director of enrollment and was
"morphed," he said, into vice president of operations, said he worked
tirelessly to recruit students, then felt personally guilty when
enrolled students were caught off guard by the departure of Hull, the
lack of timely accreditation and the very few students on campus.
He called Founders' claim to "world class education" "hyperbole."
Weiss described "chaotic management" and said there was "no real plan."
Ultimately he resigned, he said, because of that.
"I don't want to sound overly negative ... I'm disappointed it's not
succeeding," Weiss stressed. "If we could've delivered, it would've
been a great concept."
He now works in Maryland.
Larry McAfee, a former manager of the upscale, four-star Tides Inn on
the Chesapeake Bay, was general manager of Berry Hill from April to
July. He left, he said, after repeated disagreements with CEO Fuller
and after concluding that many of the plans that lured him here "were
not going to happen." Those plans include an equestrian center, a golf
course, a club and residences.
McAfee also complained of sloppy bookkeeping.
"The resort was there to support the college," McAfee said.
McAfee believes the resort has great potential and he praised "stellar"
co-workers. He now manages the historic Warwick Melrose Hotel, a luxury
property in Dallas, Texas.
His comments were echoed by a former Berry Hill employee who asked not
to be identified for the sake of his career: He said that with Berry
Hill inn not yet turning a profit, it was being depended upon to fund
the college.
"I have this image, a cartoon image, of a big new baby in a wagon being
pulled by a toddler," the former staffer said, casting the college as
the baby and the inn as the toddler.
The expectation was that Berry Hill would make money within a year.
"I don't know how [management] gets off on that," said the source. "It
was unreasonable" given that the inn has not been profitable in years.
Management "doesn't look at the numbers," the staffer added, saying he
quit because he could not deal with the low morale and business chaos.
"I don't think [management] is good for the long haul," said the
staffer, who chided the community and local government for not casting
a more skeptical eye on Berry Hill/Founders.
A second former staffer on the Berry Hill side said that prior to his
departure, "The money was getting strange out there."
Essential vendors were not paid and at one point Sysco Foods, the
restaurant's main supplier, cut off Berry Hill, he said. Two vendors
confirmed putting Berry Hill on cash/check-only status.
The former employee said he adores the property and would like to
return, but not currently. He declined to be named, citing his future.
The well-paid staff in an economically depressed area "wanted to
succeed," the No. 2 source said. "We had some good people there."
On the Founders side, professors Jena Trammel, Lee Sandstead and Bryan
Niblett departed.
The former professors either did not respond to requests for an
interview or would not comment on the record.
One Founders source said that, on the Founders side especially,
paychecks were routinely delayed by a week or two - or are still owed.
McAfee said his first paycheck was two weeks late, but subsequent ones
were on time.
One professor resigned, then refused to go back onto the property to
give final exams. Students had to take their finals at his private
residence off-campus on two separate occasions - and only after he was
paid.
"Some professors have had to use quite unorthodox methods for
collecting their pay," said a Founders insider who asked not to be
named. "That is unprecedented in academia."
A statement posted on the Founders website early Thursday references
two professors (Niblett and Trammel) "whose contracts expired Dec. 22,
2007."
A Founders insider described the contract-expiration explanation as
misleading: "They resigned."
Sandstead resigned in October but finished out the semester, and
Niblett, who doubled as Dean of Faculty, presented his resignation in a
letter handed to each student at breakfast on Dec. 17. The students
were upset and confused, several sources confirmed.
When Founders paychecks were delayed, a source said, professors were
blamed for tight finances. Even on the academic end, he said,
instructors were expected to create revenue-generating programs.
At research universities, professors do chase down lucrative grants,
but the process becomes that much more difficult at an unaccredited,
for-profit college like Founders.
Whatever revenue streams they were supposed to create, the expectation
was in keeping with the uniquely conceived Founders' plan: Professors
are expected to forego tenure in favor of a financial stake in the
college's parent company, according to the Chronicle of Higher
Education.
 
Show me the money
 
Several former employees said their paychecks were sometimes delayed by
days or more; others said they were always paid promptly, which is more
than some vendors can say.
Bill Deeter of Deeter Associates in Doylestown, Pa., confirmed that he
was owed for work done in the summer, but would not specify the amount.
Two insiders put the number near $80,000, a sum Deeter did not
contradict.
After a severed relationship with Founders' former public-relations
firm, Founders hired Deeter to trumpet the September opening ceremony
and help plan the festivities, which were already moving forward and
ended up including colorful hot-air balloons, an orchestra, gourmet
cuisine and a NASA astronaut as a guest speaker.
"We are hopeful in time we will be paid," said Deeter. In the meantime,
Deeter is planning to pay his subcontractors - including professional
photographers, a videographer and a speechwriter - out of pocket. Still
unpaid as of last week, he said, is astronaut Winston Scott, a friend
whom he secured for the grand event at Founder's request.
Deeter said he stopped working for the school after not being paid.
While he praised the school's concept, he said it needed to have and
follow a business plan.
Closer to home, a spot-check of a dozen merchants - running the gamut
from suppliers to media to services - confirmed that they were
collectively owed thousands of dollars by either Founders or Berry
Hill. In some cases, the past-due debt is being worked down; in others
it remains stagnant. All declined to go on record because they said
they didn't want to jeopardize eventual payment.
Thomas Durand also declined to comment, but his small local business,
Creative Ink, took Founders to Halifax County General District Court
last week and won a $2,300 judgment, plus interest, in printing costs
dating to at least July, court records show.
[This newspaper is not currently owed any significant sum.]
Small-town merchants "seem very forgiving and willing to see what will
happen," said a non-local source.
Personnel said they were under the impression last spring that loans
had been secured to carry the businesses through several lean years as
they worked to establish themselves and, eventually, turn a profit.
Two employees said bonuses or incentives they expected did not come
their way.
That a local business has debts - or unhappy former employees - is
hardly unique, but none enjoys the reputation of grandeur, glamour or
the good life quite like Berry Hill and its on-site Founders College,
or has plans for major, far-reaching expansion. Nor do many start-up
schools aim to be "the greatest revolution in higher education of our
lifetime," as Fuller described the college in an August 2006 e-mail.
 
Other issues
 
Beyond personnel departures and finances, some raised other concerns
with the businesses promising one thing but delivering another.
 
• Students arrived under the impression that the college likely would
be retroactively accredited within about 18 months, but Founders ran
into a roadblock when the accreditor of Founders' choosing, the
American Academy for Liberal Education, had its authority revoked by
the U.S. Department of Education for lacking sufficient standards for
evaluating students' performance.
Absence of accreditation leaves students vulnerable in terms of both
academics (accredited colleges may accept an unaccredited college's
credit, but usually evaluate the credit on a class-by-class basis) and
federally guaranteed student loans, a college source said.
 
• Professor Hull, with a national following among Objectivists, was a
major attraction for some students, who arrived on campus in the fall
only to find out that he was no longer affiliated with the school.
 
• Another early draw, Eric Daniels, a contributor to the Ayn Rand
Institute, also left the venture before the doors opened, according to
the Chronicle of Higher Education. Daniels was listed as the likely
history department chairman in papers filed with the State Council of
Higher Education for Virginia.
 
• "Some students felt that the curriculum didn't live up to what
Founders said it would be," said Anna Fogg, the student's mother. She,
however, was very pleased.
 
• As recently as 15 month ago, Founders was planning to locate in
nearby Campbell County before the county's Planning Commission nixed
the idea. Meanwhile, Founders' offers to put up money for
infrastructure improvements dropped dramatically:
"When the Founders proposal was first submitted, developers included
almost $11 million in proposed cash proffers to assist with road and
water line improvements. The proposal was amended Oct. 12 to offer $2.5
million for sewer infrastructure improvements; another offer Monday
[Oct. 16] dropped the amount to $1.5 million," reads a story from the
Lynchburg News & Advance from October 2006.
 
• Advertised on the website as of this past weekend, for example, are
two professors who have spent scant time on campus: Maestro Kim Allen
Kluge, who conducted a single workshop and directed the orchestra at
the opening gala, and Dean of Academic Affairs Neil Hadley, whom
sources said they had rarely seen on campus.
 
• The website, while soliciting for 2008-09 applications, still boasts
photos and resumes of the three departed professors. Five professors
were full-time and on-site in the first semester, sources said.
 
• For months, the school website has also suggested distance learning,
which has not been taking place, sources said. Sources said Founder
started working with eCollege as a conduit for its distance learning,
then switched to Learning House, but that no live, streaming classes
had taken place. However, Learning House is set to offer Founder's
classes beginning this month.
 
• Staffers of both institutions reported that CEO Fuller was difficult
to deal with and sent highly positioned employees on her personal
errands.
A third unnamed former Berry Hill manager said that the professional
environment "not nurturing" and that his Berry Hill job would not be on
his resume. He declined to lend his name to the story. Staff meetings
could be contentious, emotional affairs: "I saw one woman ... take a
lashing that I'm sure General Patton wouldn't have given to a soldier,"
said a separate source.
 
• Some former staffers cited the case of the equestrian center that
Fogg, the student, was charged with designing and then supervising.
Not only has the expensive center not been started, but Fogg's horse
wasn't even boarded on site, as she was assured it would be. Instead,
it is several miles down the road.
Sources said cost estimates for the huge new horse facility caught
management unawares.
Fogg's mother said the situation wasn't handled to her satisfaction but
that she firmly believes intentions were good and honorable.
Weiss, the former director of operations, said management "didn't
really seem to care that [they] didn't deliver" on the equestrian
plans.
Staffers say the incident, while minor, is emblematic of plans put
forth and not carried out.
 
• Most troubling to a half-dozen sources are what they describe as
attempts to tarnish the reputations of some employees who leave.
 
The big future
 
As if operating a start-up school and a struggling resort weren't
ambitious enough, plans call for Founders and Berry Hill to expand
dramatically by adding a golf course, a retirement and lifelong
learning center, conference center, classroom buildings, dorm and
shopping area. Not only has land north and east of the mansion has been
rezoned for the project, the Town of South Boston boundary has been
readjusted to take in the whole estate.
Hurt and Proffitt of Lynchburg is handling the development. The firm's
Earl Dickerson said he has yet to be given a schedule.
"There's not a timetable that I'm aware of for any physical dirt to be
turned over," Dickerson said, referring questions to Fuller. He said a
hiatus over the Christmas holiday was to be expected.
Of the many plans on the Berry Hill side, McAfee said he left "when I
realized that none of them were going to happen."
Back 15 months ago, Fuller (and then-colleague Hull) dispersed a press
release announcing a similar project in Campbell County, promising that
Founders "will redefine and revitalize liberal arts" while the larger
resort would "employ several hundred people in high-paying jobs and
purchase a variety of goods and services that will fuel direct and
indirect economic growth in the area." At the time,the college said it
had signed a contract to purchase the 1,125-acre Merritt-Hutchinson
Estate. The college previously had shopped around for a site in Maine
and North Carolina.
Last summer, the college planned to buy Vintners Cellar, a South Boston
lunch café, wine shop and bookstore combination, for use as a
full-service restaurant, entertainment nightspot and off-site Founders
library, said Vintners owner Wayne Stanfield.  But the deal was not
consummated.
"It fizzled out," said Stanfield.
He said he spent "in the low thousands" in legal fees preparing for the
sale, plus labor in getting the third floor cleared out for Founders'
library and in moving out personal affects. He also dropped
interior-decorating merchandise from his inventory in preparation for
the handover.
The first time he was put off, he said, he was assured the sale would
still go through.
After some weeks, at some point in the fall, Stanfield contacted
Founders, only to be told Founders "simply didn't have the money to go
forward at this time," he recounted.
As for the vast expansion now on the table: Just where will all this
additional funding for development come from?
With Fuller mum and the enterprises private, it's impossible to say.
Fuller has said previously she put up $4 million of her own money. The
State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) papers on
Founders indicate anonymous investors pumped in $6 million and that the
investors borrowed $17.1 million.
More recent financial documents filed with SCHEV go only through last
July 31, and show little about Founders' financial state.
 
Fans galore
 
While Fuller, the CEO, did not respond to questions and repeatedly
declined an interview, both she and her businesses are not without
ardent believers willing to make a case for her, for Founders and for
Berry Hill. Even the most vocal critics were positive about some aspect
of their experience there.
Jade Fogg, the student, was none too troubled about the departures and
turnover, saying some former personnel were "a hindrance" to the
businesses' success, and that some departed for reasons of
incompetence.
She was especially supportive of Fuller.
"I have no doubt that with her mindset she can make it work," she said.
Her mother was equally enthusiastic over the enterprise.
"How many people start a college?" asked Anna Fogg. "I'm excited at the
chance for [Jade] to be a part of something new, exciting and amazing."
"Everyone wants it to work," said Deeter, the head of the PR firm.
Weiss, who volunteered for three months before getting his initial paid
position, said, "I loved being there. I love the concept, and I love
the project."
McAfee praised the area's people and neighborhoods and the potential
for the property.
Plus, "I have a lot of respect for what [Fuller] has been able to
accomplish in her life," he said.
A number of former workers said the pay was decent - or better.
Niblett, one of the departed professors, is quoted on the Founders
website: "The number of students was small - but their quality was
remarkably high. It seems likely that the unique nature of the
education, the Founders difference as it is called, attracts
particularly venturesome and motivated students."
"Berry Hill is a welcoming place. Our arms are open," Fuller is quoted
in Friday's local Gazette-Virginian newspaper.
At The Prizery arts center, Executive Director Chris Jones said Berry
Hill is a great attraction for presenters and performers, whom The
Prizery lodges there.
"It has been a very wonderful thing for us to have Berry Hill as an
asset to bring people in," he said. Performers see the place and tell
him, "Wow, isn't this fabulous?"
[Disclosure: The reporter sits on The Prizery's unpaid board of
directors.]
Thackston, the South Boston mayor, issued a statement last week saying,
in part, "[I]t is normal to expect unexpected bumps in the road for any
new business."
He continued: "I remain very hopeful that the college will overcome any
problems that they have at the present time and will go on to reach
their full potential as a college and resort center."
"I still have all the hope in the world," said Jones.
Note: To protect anonymity, the gender of all unnamed speakers has been
designated by the masculine pronoun "he."