Correction: This story and a photo caption originally misspelled the name of Bacone College freshman Dalton Sikes. The story and caption have been corrected.
MUSKOGEE — A private school that bills itself as Oklahoma’s oldest higher education institution may unceremoniously fade into history, catching students off guard during finals week and leaving them, faculty and staff in flux entering summer break.
Bacone College is temporarily shuttered — about 90 of its 95 full-time employees laid off until further notice — as its new president and board of trustees search for $2.5 million in funding. The administration is urging students to secure an option in case the Christian liberal arts school remains closed, while hoping funds emerge soon enough to re-open in June or July.
With closure a practical reality, some Bacone students may have nowhere else to go for legal or financial reasons. Some are happy to transfer as they feel their campus living environment hasn’t met expectations. Others want to return but may not be able to wait out an uncertain financial picture.
The four-year school’s mission involves trying to attract disadvantaged students. Current enrollment includes foster children, inner-city African-Americans, undocumented immigrants and Burmese refugees, according to President Franklin Willis.
Willis said this year marked the first time in a while the institute came out even on finances. However, the school is carrying a debt from the prior academic year of $2.5 million.
If somehow officials can attract $1.5 million in donations from tribes or other sources, he believes the school can again secure a $1 million line of credit from the American Baptists Home Mission Societies that it received for this past year. Discussions have been positive, he said.
A record enrollment of 700 students this year is projected to grow larger next year, which he said could result in another gain in revenue.
“In terms of operating the college, we’ve taken a major step forward this year,” Willis said. “And it’s why it is so sad that we can’t solve this problem. We are now operating cash-flow neutral. We are not getting deeper in debt; we are now beginning to move toward operating profitably.
“Compared to last year, we’re going to be $600,000 to $700,000 better in our expenses this year. That’s taking the steps to get us on track. To get caught because of a lousy $1.5 million that we can’t seem to get is just a crying shame.”
Bacone is home to Nancy, an undocumented immigrant from Chihuahua. She was brought to America at age 2.
The 20-year-old sophomore does a work-study program and waitresses at a nearby eatery to try to pay the bills. She receives financial aid from the school but still has standing debt semester-to-semester.
Being a straight-A student, the college’s president sat down with her and hammered out a plan that allows her to carry that negative balance so long as she attends classes, does well and makes payments.
Her undocumented status, which is why the Tulsa World isn’t publishing her last name, precludes her from receiving government aid, as well as student loans unless a co-signer “has like a perfect credit score.”
“I honestly have no idea what would happen (if Bacone closes),” Nancy said. “I would try to go back to Oklahoma City and go to a school that might be expensive and find a way to pay for it. But I don’t really know.
“I don’t think any other school would do what Bacone did for me.”
Nancy enjoys the small-school atmosphere and strives to enter early childhood education to help other students crush barriers as she has.
She teared up discussing her potentially precarious future.
“When (President Donald) Trump came in, everybody was worried I was going to be taken away,” Nancy said. “And (professors) told me not to worry and that I had their support.
“I get pretty emotional just because I feel like I’m a good student and a good person and I studied hard to get to where I am now.”
Charon Cheatham, a 19-year-old sophomore on a basketball scholarship, enjoyed her first year on campus but said her second year devolved with “terrible” living conditions.
The Oklahoma City native referenced black mold in her shower and nearly nonexistent building maintenance as she stood in a parking lot taking a break from packing.
Cheatham is transferring out of state for next school year.
“I just don’t think this is a good college experience for me,” she said.
In a Wednesday afternoon interview with the Tulsa World, Willis sat in a lawn chair on the front porch of his home on campus with his customary glass of iced tea in hand.
Willis, serving as interim president for 4½ years, will shake hands with 100 graduating seniors Saturday during commencement at Memorial Chapel on campus as his last official action.
He was brought in by the board of trustees as a temporary replacement to restructure the staff, faculty and departments to staunch the institution’s financial hemorrhaging.
Willis emphasized that a school with Bacone’s type of mission will undoubtedly write off “bad debt” as it tries to educate society’s more vulnerable students.
“The mission has been to reach out to kids who wouldn’t have a fighting chance otherwise and see if we can get them a college education,” he said.
Combining to financially hamstring Bacone, Willis cited difficulties in operating a small private Christian liberal arts school, no endowment or alumni association, and a significant portion of students this academic year not making good on payments owed to the school.
He said about 100 students owe around $2 million, of which he believes approximately $500,000 to $800,000 is collectible. He said each student receives at least $7,000 in school aid to attend, with yearly room, board, tuition and fees at $25,000.
“For private school, that’s a deal,” Willis said.
He said the school works tirelessly with students who honestly try to pay down debt and allows them to continue in good faith, knowing summer jobs can be vital toward that end. But the 100-some students Willis referred to he said have the wherewithal to acquire loans or funding elsewhere but choose not to are “scamming” the school. He said those students will be given incomplete grades and not allowed to graduate or receive credits.
“They’re running from their debt and they need to pay us,” Willis said.
Willis said some faculty and staff have expressed to him a desire to carry on — volunteering if necessary — and “hope for the best.” He acknowledged a handful of others are rather bitter and feel the school has been mismanaged to arrive at such a desperate situation.
Mostly the vibe has been hope and resiliency, he said.
“I’m indebted to them for their spirit and stoicism,” Willis said.
Some students are on the proverbial fence about returning.
Dalton Sikes is a 19-year-old freshman from Athens, Georgia. On a wrestling scholarship, he is majoring in medical imaging management — a college pathway that he said is difficult to find elsewhere.
Bacone’s tuition is easier for him to handle at about $10,000 to $12,000 a year less than attending a university near his home.
So Sikes was upset the school’s administration kept students in the dark and didn’t inform him of a likely closure a month or two ago, allowing him to better plan his future. He has always wanted to be a college wrestler and would like to return, but Bacone’s unsteady future may stymie that.
The unexpected closure also nixed his plan to stay on campus for lucrative work over the summer as a USA softball umpire in Broken Arrow.
“I’m happy here; I’m getting an education,” Sikes said. “That’s all that matters in the end.”
Both criminal and civil lawsuits point to financial difficulties at Bacone in recent years.
In 2015, prosecutors in Muskogee federal court charged the former Director of Human Resources at Bacone with wire fraud in connection with the theft of nearly $150,000 payroll funds.
Prosecutors alleged Tammy Jean McDaniels, 59, between 2012 and 2014 reactivated former Bacone employees and contractors on the payroll as part of a scheme to divert their pay to her personal bank accounts.
McDaniels pleaded guilty in 2015 to wire fraud and received a 21 month prison sentence. She was released from prison in August, according to federal Bureau of Prison records. McDaniels was ordered to pay a combined $146,004 in restitution to the college and its insurance company.
Willis called the case a “regrettable episode” that was covered financially by insurance.
Also in 2015, a former instructor sued the college, claiming they were unjustly denied compensation the prior year when the college announced it was furloughing staff.
The case was jointly dismissed in 2016.
Founded in 1880 as Indian University, Bacone College is affiliated with the American Baptist Church of the United States and retains a commitment to serve Native American students in a culturally diverse environment, according to information on its website.
In April, the institution selected a new president, Ferlin Clark, who is scheduled to take office Saturday.
Curtis Killman contributed to this story.