Selling property, slashing sports and shrinking faculty are allowing Bacone College to launch slimmed-down course offerings Wednesday after its outgoing president cast doubt on its future over severe debt.

Dorms are undergoing cleaning for students to begin moving in Sunday. Officials anticipate an enrollment of 400 students, with confirmed numbers near 240 early last week.

Jan Peppler, vice president of development, said Bacone, which is in Muskogee, has sold its Taco Bell property for about $600,000. The college is in the process of selling the Northpointe Plaza Shopping Center for approximately $3 million and Bacone Inn for about $400,000.

All three properties are just west of campus.

The inn’s sale likely is to be finalized next week, Peppler said. The shopping center purchase agreement is on hold as the buyer seeks to secure a bank loan.

“We have enough — not a lot — but enough money coming in that we are paying off our debts and secure enough to move forward with these contracts with our faculty and bringing back faculty and staff as needed,” Peppler said.

Enrollment is a far cry from the record 700-plus students of a year ago. But, after all, Interim President Franklin Willis announced during finals week in May that the private four-year college was temporarily closing as it grappled with debt totaling $2.5 million.

Peppler said a skeleton staff immediately began reaching out to students. But the damage had already been done as confusion and uncertainty ensued.

“We recognize we have to heal some relationships,” said Peppler, who began work at Bacone a month ago. “People lost trust in us, and it’s going to take some time to heal those relationships and to demonstrate that we are here for the students and we are here for the community. But we are prepared for that challenge, and I believe we’re going to be successful.”

Bacone College is one of the oldest American Indian colleges in the nation and Oklahoma’s oldest operating higher education institution, according to its website. New President Ferlin Clark intends to focus on education and redirect Bacone toward its historic mission of teaching Native Americans in a Christian setting.

About 45 instructors have signed on to teach classes, Peppler said. The total number of employees wasn’t immediately available as administrators bring on staff as needed. There were an estimated 95 full-time employees at the end of the previous school year.

There remain 17 degree paths out of 34 programs as curriculum was streamlined.

“Part of slimming it down to 17, however, meant that instead of having an (associate in arts) and a (bachelor in arts) in tribal languages, now there is Concentration in Tribal Languages under the BA in American Indian studies,” Peppler said. “Similar movement of concentrations was done in Christian ministry and liberal arts.

“So students can still take the same classes and focus on a particular concentration, only these concentrations appear under other degrees instead of standing on their own.”

Football, wrestling, rodeo, lacrosse, cheerleading and dance were axed. Sports that remain are men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, baseball, softball, track, and cross country.

Education and athletics aren’t the only Bacone sectors being pared down.

The Northpointe Plaza Shopping Center houses several Bacone College amenities and services — Welcome Center, Registrar’s Office, library and bookstore. There’s existing space on campus where each can be transferred this fall after the sale is complete.

There’s also ample space in the dorms for its student population without Bacone Inn, Peppler said. Bacone Inn primarily housed football and wrestling student-athletes.

“We are actually calling this the Phoenix Campaign,” Peppler said. “Which is good — sometimes the forest has to burn down to grow.”

Despite the widespread cuts, some areas are receiving upgrades.

The cafeteria will move from Bacone Inn to the Palmer Center until finishing touches are completed in September on the new on-campus cafeteria building that began under the interim president.

Peppler said the school recently bought mattresses and window shades for the dorms.

“We’re being very careful with finances but not cutting on student needs,” she said.

Difficult 2017-18 school year

A complex picture of the final year of Willis’ 4½-year service as interim president emerged after the temporary closure announcement.

Willis told the Tulsa World that undoubtedly a school like Bacone College will write off “bad debt” as it tries to teach society’s most vulnerable students and give them a “fighting chance” at higher education.

There are inherent financial difficulties in operating a small private Christian liberal arts school, particularly with no endowment or alumni association, he said.

But Willis also pointed a finger at about 100 students who he said owed around $2 million and were “scamming” the school because they had the wherewithal to acquire loans or funding elsewhere.

Each student received at least $7,000 in school aid to attend, with yearly room, board, tuition and fees at $25,000, Willis said, adding “that’s a deal” for a private school.

Some students spoke highly of the school. However, not all students felt Bacone was a deal.

Dorms were described as less than ideal by some. Many were said to be without functioning air conditioning units or were missing floor tiles.

One student said he lived in a dorm that had a leaky roof from the air conditioner above him and also was plagued by electrical issues. A few other students complained of black mold in showers.

‘Failed model’ emphasized athletics

Clark, who took over as president after seniors graduated in May, said the prior administration spent funds the school didn’t have.

Ken Adams, Board of Trustees chairman, acknowledged “a series of financial ups and downs, some because of poor decisions and some because of natural disasters.”

Peppler, who moved from Idaho, said the past three administrations falsely believed there needed to be a student body of 1,000 to retain accreditation. They attempted to boost enrollment through athletics, which are costly for a smaller college, she said.

“We can’t compete in football like some other institutions can,” Peppler said. “So that was a big part of the failed model was to put too much emphasis on athletics. It drained us financially.”

She said officials with the U.S. Department of Education recently spent a week at Bacone College and were “very supportive.” The school expects a report from the agency in October.

“If their findings do include any problems, it is clear that they are not severe enough to keep us from operating,” Peppler said. “And that is wonderful news.”

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Corey Jones

918-581-8359

corey.jones@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @JonesingToWrite

Corey is a general assignment reporter who specializes in coverage of man-made earthquakes, criminal justice and dabbles in enterprise projects. He excels at annoying the city editor. Phone: 918-581-8359

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