MUSKOGEE — Bacone College is selling its adjacent shopping center properties and cutting several sports programs to incrementally reopen a streamlined institution before the fall semester.
Since graduation in May, the four-year, private school has been operating on a skeleton crew as its Board of Trustees and new president attempt to find $2.5 million to erase lingering debt. About 90 of the college’s 95 full-time employees have been laid off.
President Ferlin Clark said on Friday afternoon that there is a buyer for Bacone Commons, the college’s properties in a shopping center that house its Welcome Center, Registrar’s Office, library and bookstore.
The purchase agreement is for $3.5 million, Clark said, and he hopes to secure a loan against the pending sale to fund the fall semester.
A transition plan will move Bacone Commons’ functions and amenities onto the main campus, Clark said.
Also nearby, the Bacone Inn is up for sale.
“My message is: ‘We’re open,’” Clark said. “We want our students to come back. We want our potential students to come.”
Clark said 18 employees’ jobs have been terminated, with other faculty and staff to return in stages as finances allow. He said he is “right-sizing” the college and “re-aligning” it with its historic mission — educating Native American students in a Christian environment, with education taking priority.
Clark said he thinks the school lost its direction under the previous administration. He pointed to an increased emphasis on sports, as well as dropping the nursing and arts programs.
So what happened to land Bacone in such a financial pit?
“That’s a good question that I’ve been breaking down to fully comprehend,” Clark responded. “We basically outspent funds that we didn’t have. Bottom line.
“It didn’t just happen overnight.”
Ken Adams, Board of Trustees chairman, acknowledged problems in a prepared statement Friday morning but didn’t delve into specifics.
“Over the past several years, Bacone College has gone through some very difficult times,” Adams said. “We’ve suffered through a series of financial ups and downs, some because of poor decisions and some because of natural disasters.
“In spite of the serious difficulties we faced and still face, the Board of Trustees has demonstrated their faith in the future of Bacone College and our intent to keep the college open.”
Additionally, Clark announced that several sports have been cut, including football, men’s and women’s wrestling, rodeo, cheerleading and dance. Lacrosse was also cut, having never really established a foothold, he said.
Sports that will remain are men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, track, cross country, and men’s and women’s soccer, he said.
One academic offering — the summer bridge program to elevate students’ math, reading and writing skills to a college level — has been axed, he said.
Clark is preparing a budget that anticipates 400 students enrolled for the fall semester. Four hundred students will generate an estimated $4 million to hopefully pair with $1.5 million from the property sale, making up a “bare-bones” budget for fall, he said.
“So our expenses we cut to that, with a little bit of wiggle room,” Clark said. “We’re not going to have a big budget for supplies or travel or printing or special events.”
Franklin Willis, who served as Bacone’s interim president for 4½ years, spoke to the Tulsa World during the week before graduation. He was hired on a temporary basis to restructure operations to halt financial losses.
Willis said the recent school year was the first time in awhile that the institute broke even on yearly finances, with a record enrollment of 700 students. But the school still carried over an unpaid debt of $2.5 million.
Willis emphasized that a school with Bacone’s type of mission — to educate society’s more vulnerable students — undoubtedly will write off “bad debt.” However, he pinned a chunk of the school’s financial woes on about 100 students who he said collectively owed roughly $2 million and had the wherewithal to pay but were “scamming” Bacone instead.
On Friday, Clark said the prior administration outsourced student enrollment to an out-of-state company. He said he has returned that function to Bacone to have a “direct relationship” with students and their financial aid.
“Me? I’m not blaming the students,” Clark said. “We told the students to come here. And part of it was the outsourcing of their financial aid. And that institution not being able to collect that on behalf of the students, that’s also our fault.”
Previously, some students complained to the Tulsa World of poor living conditions in campus dorms.
“Now we can bring back some staff to start cleaning these dorms,” Clark said. “Because as a parent, you want your child to go to a place that’s secure, safe and get something good to eat.”
Clark, 51, prayed about whether to leave New Mexico to take on the challenge of Bacone. He noted that his mother and father met in Oklahoma, making the state a special place for him.
As a Navajo, he said he wants to rebuild the school’s relationship with the city of Muskogee, tribal nations, donors and alumni. He said he feels a “spirit” about Bacone and its historic standing.
“I feel like I’m here to help. I have an education, and I’m not any better or any worse than anybody else,” Clark said. “I just believe that I’m here to help our students.”
Barry Belindo, a 55-year-old who will be a junior this fall, said he believes in Bacone and never fretted that it would shutter. He said Clark is a “tremendous blessing.”
“I always believed in my heart this was just another hurdle, so to speak, not a stone wall,” Belindo said.