The college that refused to die

By Pam Kelley

This story from The Assembly is co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Border Belt Independent, with financial support from The Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

On a Sunday morning in May, St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., kicked off graduation exercises with bagpipes—an apt tradition for a college in Scotland County. The sound, distant at first, grew clear and strong as a piper led the class of 2023 toward a waiting audience.

The mood was joyous. The campus lake sparkled against a blue sky, and with each diploma awarded, families snapped photos, applauded, called out names. At one point, students were so boisterous that Tarun Malik, the campus president, suggested they settle down.

Malik was a newcomer, hired in March after his predecessor’s abrupt departure. He offered the graduates an upbeat message: The college was ushering in a new chapter, and “together we can deal with challenge and great change.”

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Behind the scenes, however, Malik was trying to keep the school afloat. Enrollment had dropped to 520 on-campus students, down from 630 the previous year. Trustees were discussing closing the college if fall enrollment didn’t rebound. 

St. Andrews had teetered near closure several times before, notably in the late 2000s, after financial problems cost the school its accreditation. It survived only because a Florida college, Webber International University, acquired it in 2011. 

Since then, the liberal arts college had slashed liberal arts offerings while adding career-focused majors, online classes, and so many sports teams that athletes now made up most of the student body.

Scenes from graduation day. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

And yet the changes hadn’t solved St. Andrews’ problems, which deepened when Hurricane Florence flooded the campus and caused millions in damage.

In 2018, before the hurricane, Webber President Keith Wade, looking for guidance, had quietly forged a connection with Arthur Keiser, a controversial Florida-based college mogul with a background in for-profit education. The relationship included consulting, but also $12 million in gifts to Webber and St. Andrews from the nonprofit entity that owns Keiser’s schools. 

The donations probably saved St. Andrews. But when details of the relationship became public, the controversy fractured the school’s alumni. 

President Tarun Malik hands out degrees to graduates. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

By May 2023, with the Keiser gifts long spent, Malik needed to pull off a gargantuan turnaround. Two days after graduation, he counseled faculty and staff in an email to turn off lights and go easy on photocopies. “We will have to realize efficiencies to get us through the summer,” he wrote.

Many small private colleges are struggling to attract enough students. Ninety-two closed between 2012 and 2022, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and experts predict an acceleration as the number of college-aged students begins a downward slide later this decade. 

But campuses often quietly limp along for years, deferring maintenance, relying on credit, and concealing difficulties lest they scare away students. They’re either resilient or stubborn, “depending on who you talk to,” said Robert Kelchen, a higher education researcher based at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

Students celebrate after receiving their degrees. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)
Joe Strickler, chairman of Webber International University’s Board of Trustees, addresses St. Andrews graduates. (Andrew
Craft for The Assembly)

That, in a nutshell, is the story I heard as I spent the last six months reporting on St. Andrews. Interviews with more than three dozen current and former staff, faculty, and students and a review of faculty meeting minutes, emails, recordings, and public documents reveal the extent of the college’s troubles, as well as a heated debate over whether it should survive.

On Facebook, some graduates stand by their alma mater. “If you can’t say anything supportive,” one alum wrote, “SHUT THE HELL UP.” Alumni Council Chairperson Gary Brazzell insists brighter days lie ahead. The college, he told me, “is on the precipice of an amazing comeback story.”

But for many supporters, this story reads more like tragedy. They see little hope of raising tens of millions of dollars to fix St. Andrews’ crumbling campus and diminished educational product. And they worry that new students are often completely in the dark. 

An Oasis of Self-Discovery

Even if you live in North Carolina, you may not have heard of St. Andrews. The college, located in Laurinburg, population 15,000, sits in the middle of the state, near the South Carolina border, more than an hour from any population center. 

And yet from the day it opened in 1961, St. Andrews Presbyterian College was distinctive, with a modern campus, now on the National Register of Historic Places, and an innovative streak. Its concrete and glass buildings, collected around a lake, were built with ramps and automatic doors decades before the law required such things; the campus once drew a sizable number of students who used wheelchairs. 

The school’s academic hallmark was its humanities program. Interdisciplinary classes, led by professors from top graduate programs, fed a lively intellectual atmosphere, an “oasis of philosophy, religion, art, history, science and self discovery,” as a 1977 graduate recently wrote on Facebook. 

When I visited in 1987 to do a newspaper feature, I was intrigued by this remote little college with a thriving creative writing program, a literary press, and classes taught by fresh talents such as novelist Clyde Edgerton and Joseph Bathanti, who would later become North Carolina’s poet laureate. 

Mecklenburg Residence Hall has been empty since Hurricane Florence damaged the building. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

I pointed out then that St. Andrews Press ran on a shoestring budget. In fact, the entire college ran lean. “From the get-go, St. Andrews was undercapitalized,” the Rev. Pete Peery, an alumnus and former trustees chairman, told me recently. 

To create what became St. Andrews Presbyterian College, N.C. Presbyterians had planned to close and merge the assets of three single-sex schools. But at the eleventh hour, one college, now William Peace University, backed out. The decision has been “an Achilles heel that has haunted the college,” Peery says.

With an endowment that never reached $20 million, St. Andrews, like many small private colleges, depended on tuition and fees. The campus had been designed for 1,000 students, but it struggled to reach that number. By the late 1990s, even as it was being lauded in a book titled Colleges That Change Lives, enrollment had dropped below 700, and the college was in financial trouble.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the college’s accreditor, had first placed the campus on warning in 1993, citing low enrollment and high debt. In 1995, it raised the warning to probation status. Over the next decade, the college moved on and off probation. At one point, trustees debated closing.

In 2007, the association voted to revoke accreditation—which can be a death blow, as students at unaccredited schools can’t get federal student aid. 

St. Andrews sued the association over the revocation. Though the school ultimately lost, the lawsuit bought time. In 2011, then-President Paul Baldasare found a solution that has become a favorite fix when colleges need a lifeline: merging with an accredited school. For St. Andrews, that was Webber International University, located in Babson Park, a small town in central Florida. 

One former St. Andrews trustee, Bruce Taylor, said recently that board members feared the impact of closing on Laurinburg. Local benefactors had helped keep the school open for decades, and for Taylor, “it felt almost like a betrayal to say we’re just going to let it close.” 

And so the board chose an uncertain future with Webber rather than certain death. The thought of “burying the institution and what it meant to so many people” was too much, Taylor said. 

Damage to both Mecklenburg Residence Hall (above) and the James L. Morgan Liberal Arts Building (below) has yet to be
repaired. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

Supporters lauded Baldasare’s determination, but this was an odd match. St. Andrews was a liberal arts college while Webber, originally a business school for women, focused on majors such as sports business management and hospitality and tourism management. 

The only link between the two institutions was that Webber’s president, Keith Wade, had graduated from St. Andrews in 1987. 

Baldasare, who retired from the campus presidency in 2020, declined to be quoted for this story. Wade, Webber’s president, declined my interview request. Malik, the new St. Andrews president, declined an in-person request I made following the graduation ceremony and didn’t respond to email requests.

Joe Strickler, Webber’s board of trustees chairman, did agree to talk. The former business owner and semiretired mechanical, electrical, and plumbing consultant lives in Florida and has served on Webber’s board for about 20 years. 

Strickler said that Webber’s plan had been to acquire and turn around several struggling liberal arts colleges using economies of scale. St. Andrews would remain a separate nonprofit with a campus president who reported to Webber’s president. 

“There was an altruistic intent in it, but also it’s a business model,” he said. “And St. Andrews was going to be the first one.” Had Webber leaders known the difficulties they’d encounter, “we probably wouldn’t have done it.”

“The Wall,” where students traditionally paint messages. In the background, the Belk College Center, which lost its cafeteria
and restroom to flooding from Hurricane Florence. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

A Branch of Webber

Once the deal closed, St. Andrews Presbyterian College changed its name to “St. Andrews University, a branch of Webber International University.” Its board of trustees disbanded, and the school began to resemble Webber as it adopted strategies to save costs and attract students. 

St. Andrews ceased awarding tenure and shed professors who taught liberal arts subjects such as foreign languages, political science, anthropology, and physics. It added more than a dozen career-focused majors, including nursing, occupational therapy assisting, and sports management. 

The school had begun adding athletic teams even before Webber took over, but now it went all-in. Among its new sports in the past decade: lacrosse and beach volleyball, women’s wrestling and competitive cheer, competitive dance and esports, and the sport with the biggest roster of all—football. 

St. Andrews was acquired by Webber International University in 2011. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

By 2021, St. Andrews had 25 varsity sports, in addition to three long-established equestrian teams. 

At Webber, adding football and other sports had boosted enrollment, Strickler said. Consider that a football team can attract 100 or more students, and you see why under-enrolled colleges turn to sports. St. Andrews’ 2022 football roster listed more than 80 players.

When the St. Andrews Knights football squad took the field for their first game in 2017, the team had neither the stadium nor locker room school leaders had promised. Still, Tim Reynolds, the team’s first offensive coordinator, recalls feeling optimistic: “We literally were selling the dream.”

An August football practice at St. Andrews. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

By then, St. Andrews’ liberal arts reputation was no longer its primary attraction. “It felt like sort of a sports camp,” said Ellen Thompson, a former alumni director who left in 2018.

But even as the school attracted athletes, it continued to lose money, according to Strickler.

Keiser to the Rescue?

In June 2020, Baldasare, a lawyer and St. Andrews alumnus, quietly retired as president. Webber President Keith Wade named Ellen Bernhardt interim president. 

Bernhardt arrived in 2018 as a consultant, occupying a desk outside Baldasare’s office and focusing on launching new academic programs to attract students. A press release announcing her new interim appointment said she’d held “a variety of senior leadership roles in higher education for over thirty years.” 

But it didn’t mention that Bernhardt was an employee of Keiser University, a multicampus career college based in Fort Lauderdale. Or that Bernhardt had come to St. Andrews as part of a $200,000-a-year consulting agreement after Wade sought help from Keiser’s chancellor and CEO, Arthur Keiser.

Perhaps this was because Arthur Keiser was controversial. He operated three Florida-based college chains with family members, and in 2011, he’d converted the largest, Keiser University, from a for-profit to a nonprofit.

His colleges had also had run-ins with regulators. In 2015, Keiser University reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, without admitting misconduct, to pay $335,000 to settle a lawsuit charging that the school gave recruiters sales commissions to enroll students.

And critics questioned whether Everglades College Inc., Keiser University’s parent entity, had violated its nonprofit status by allowing leaders to profit from the school. In 2021, a U.S. House committee pointed to tax filings showing that Keiser and his family had ownership interests in properties the school rented and in companies it used for a variety of services, including air travel, recruitment, roofing, and legal needs.

At St. Andrews, Keiser’s help included free space at for-profit Southeastern College campuses in Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., and Charleston, S.C., part of a chain he owned with his wife. St. Andrews used the space to launch programs for working adults.

Everglades also gave more than $12 million to Webber and St. Andrews between 2018 and 2020, IRS records show. Keiser has written that Everglades’ donations helped Webber “recover from near bankruptcy” and were made “to preserve the legacies of SAU and WIU.” 

Wade has written that the money “sustained us during our most difficult time.”

But it wasn’t enough to fix all the damage from Hurricane Florence. The weakened campus bell tower had to be removed. One dorm, Mecklenburg Residence Hall, sat empty and moldy. Gutted ground floors in the science and liberal arts buildings remained closed off and unusable. 

So did the student center’s ground floor, which had housed the cafeteria and the building’s only restroom. Students dined on the second floor while food service workers prepared meals in a mobile kitchen, near a mobile restroom that served the center.

‘It’s a Business’

By any measure, fall 2020, Bernhardt’s first semester as interim president, was challenging. As COVID-19 raged, the school was holding on-campus classes, trying to repair hurricane-damaged buildings and attempting to grow enrollment. On top of that, Bernhardt alerted the Faculty Executive Committee in October that many students were in danger of failing. 

“The urgency is retaining the students who came in the fall,” she said, according to meeting minutes. “Mid-term grades are out, and many are struggling. We all need to reach out individually to these students to … point them toward support services.”

This was no surprise to professors. As athletes had come to dominate the student body, faculty had encountered more students who either weren’t committed to or couldn’t handle the academics. Some even struggled with reading, several professors said.

St. Andrews launched football in 2017 to boost enrollment. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

“I had numbers of students who were failing and would drop the last week of classes,” recalls Valerie Austin, a history professor who left in 2022. “I brought this up in a faculty meeting: What we’re doing, bringing in these students, is unethical.”

Students saw the problem, too. Jacob Young, who captained the football team and graduated early in December 2019, says that St. Andrews recruited students, including players whose high school grades made them academically ineligible, without providing adequate resources to succeed. “We had half our team leave after the first semester,” he said.

Kimberly McLaurin, a former admissions counselor who left in 2022, confirmed Young’s observations. “We’d do presentations to families, and then get to the financial part of it,” she said. Many recruits were the first in their families to attend college and were being told “this is the only way you’ll play, because your grades are low.” 

Some of these students flunked out. Others left after falling behind on what McLaurin described as “ridiculous payment plans” of $1,200 or more a month. 

Reynolds, the former offensive coordinator, says recruiting was tricky. Scholarships covered only partial tuition, and St. Andrews’ sticker price, now $44,130, put it out of reach for many families. He found that his best chance to recruit a player was to find someone eligible for a full federal Pell Grant in addition to student loans.

Pell Grants, which pay a maximum of $7,395 a year, go mostly to students whose families make less than $60,000 annually. In fall 2021, 51 percent of St. Andrews students received Pell Grants, according to federal data. The national average is 34 percent. 

To keep struggling students enrolled, school leaders encouraged faculty to steer them to shorter online courses, according to more than a half-dozen current and former faculty and staff. Those online courses “may provide ways for students to improve their GPA,” Bernhardt suggested at the October 2020 Faculty Executive Committee meeting, according to minutes. 

The St. Andrews’ knights statue on campus. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

These included St. Andrews’ eight-week online courses, which were half as long as a semester, as well as four-week online courses Keiser University offered. A failing student could drop an in-person class halfway through the semester, pass an online course, and still earn a semester’s worth of credit, professors said. 

The Keiser course subjects were wide-ranging. This semester, they include English composition, human anatomy and physiology, political science, and macroeconomics, according to a fall 2023 registration schedule. Professors said they didn’t know who taught these courses, what they covered, and why St. Andrews was offering them, and they seemed a bad idea for students already struggling with longer in-person classes. 

But some teachers, such as former communications professor Julia O’Grady, saw few other options. Students were accumulating loan debt—74 percent of undergraduates had federal loans in 2021-22, according to federal data—and she didn’t want them to flunk out. She lowered her academic expectations and offered time-management tips, but so many students needed help that “you didn’t really know who to try to save next.”

When her advisees opted for the four-week classes, she reluctantly sent them to the registrar’s office, she said.

She decided to resign in 2022. “When I realized I was complicit, I just had to go.”

Reynolds, disillusioned, also left last year. The school’s goal “was to make money,” he said. “Anybody could get in.”

In 2022, St. Andrews’ six-year graduation rate was 28 percent. The national average for private nonprofit colleges is 68 percent. 

Graduates walk along Lake Ansley Moore, the centerpiece of St. Andrews’ campus. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

Strickler, the Webber trustee chairman, says attrition is to be expected. He played football at Florida State from 1967 to 1971, and says being an athlete is hard work. 

“You also have to understand it’s a business,” he said. “We give them an opportunity to make it, and if they can’t, they drop out.”

Alumni Speak Up

St. Andrews had been tight-lipped about its ties to Keiser University, but in 2020, a blog called The Republic Report began pulling back the curtain. The blog’s author, David Halperin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and activist, told me he’d stumbled on the connections while researching Arthur Keiser’s business and political dealings.

Initially, he revealed that interim president Bernhardt was a Keiser employee. In a 2021 post, he elaborated on Keiser’s connections to Webber and St. Andrews, pointing out that several Webber trustees had ties to Keiser, that three of Keiser’s Southeastern College campuses were sharing their space with St. Andrews campuses for working adults, and that in 2018, Everglades had donated $2.2 million to St. Andrews and $2.1 million to Webber.

A 2020 audit states that Keiser University’s goal was “to improve the delivery of post-secondary education programs to certain student segments,” but Arthur Keiser’s involvement alarmed many alumni and faculty. Some speculated he was trying to gain a foothold in nonprofit education in North Carolina. Some believed he was calling the shots through Bernhardt and worried the nonprofit college was adopting predatory practices. Faculty mostly stayed quiet for fear of retribution. Bernhardt had issued a new policy directing all media inquiries to be sent to her. 

Graduates outside Wilmington Hall, an example of the modernist architecture on campus. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

But the school’s Alumni Council, led by Donald Meisel, a retired town planner who lives in Badin, began asking questions. The group wanted more financial transparency and a larger alumni voice in planning and decisions. 

Instead, in June 2021, the college dissolved the Meisel-led group and replaced it with a less-critical Alumni Council led by Gary Brazzell, who owns a marketing firm in Woodlawn, Virginia. Brazzell says this had been his idea, a change necessary because under Meisel, the council had strayed from its mission and become adversarial.

Some disaffected alumni didn’t give up, even after they found themselves blocked from college social media accounts and dropped from mailing lists. Several launched a website, St. Andrews Friends, detailing a timeline of changes at St. Andrews. They also asked government and accrediting officials to investigate Keiser’s role at the school. 

“My feeling was, if we give everybody all this information, they’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to do something about it,’” said alumna Jennifer Woodward of Winston-Salem, who helped create the website.

While their findings prompted alumni outrage on social media, nothing came of requests to investigate. Webber, after all, had sought Keiser’s help. Webber President Keith Wade, meanwhile, responded to the St. Andrews Friends group in a letter, reminding them that the school was “relying on Webber financially to survive” and accusing them of “libeling and publicly disparaging our alma mater.” 

The High Cost of Deferred Maintenance

In March 2022, Monte Williams, a St. Andrews linebacker from Raleigh, posted photos on Facebook of football helmets, uniforms, and pads dotted with gray spots. “What y’all looking at is My schools football equipment,” he wrote. “Kept in a back room with a bad air system, leaks, etc you name it. Uniforms, helmets and shoulder pads all full of MOLD.”

For players, this moldy equipment was the latest indignity from a high-priced college that hadn’t even come through with a promised football locker room to store gear. 

Williams’ post struck a chord, triggering hundreds of shares and mostly critical comments. Several former students chimed in to say they’d been sickened by mold in dorm rooms. Many commenters, including alumni and parents, expressed outrage. “The football team was all to bring more money in, no other reason,” one wrote. “Seeing as it probably hasn’t done so like they wanted, they won’t be updating anything for the football team like they never did for the rest of the students.”

Current and former students I interviewed last semester also complained about the campus’s physical state. In January, the heat went out in a classroom building. In February, dorms didn’t have hot water. 

Some said they hadn’t seen the dorms before enrolling, or they saw only a nicely decorated “show dorm.” They’d been assured the hurricane-damaged cafeteria would be fixed by the time they enrolled, and that the football locker room would be finished. 

Like any cash-strapped college, St. Andrews had lots of deferred maintenance. And until recently, that included maintenance of its campus centerpiece, Lake Ansley Moore. 

The 65-acre lake, named for the school’s first president, divides the college into two parts; academic buildings are on one side, dorms on the other, connected by a pedestrian causeway.

The lake is man-made, dredged from cypress swamp and fed by a creek. Several buildings lie in its floodplain. In September 2016, Hurricane Matthew flooded the Morgan-Jones Science Center. 

Two Septembers later, Hurricane Florence dumped 26 inches of rain. Water rose nearly three feet in some areas of campus. Damage to a dozen buildings topped $10 million, according to Wade, who complained in a 2019 column that the Federal Emergency Management Agency hadn’t paid the college a penny in recovery money. 

The lake was equipped with a drain to lower its water level. But it wasn’t functional, according to Strickler and Brazzell. “The failure of that system was a contributor to the damage that happened,” Brazzell said. 

The lake also hadn’t been dredged, Brazzell said, which made it shallower and more flood-prone. “I think at one point, the institutional memory of that maintenance requirement got lost.”

St. Andrews has since dredged the lake, he said, and installed a new valve system. When a hurricane threatened North Carolina in fall 2022, the college was able to drop the lake level by 15 inches, according to an Alumni Council report. 

Now, Brazzell says, the school is prepared for the future. “It’s one of the great things that are really good but don’t actually show up and gleam like a new bell tower would,” he said. 

But St. Andrews still lacks the money to repair significant damage from Florence. 

Above: Five years after Hurricane Florence flooded its ground floor, the Belk College Center still uses a portable bathroom.
Damage inside the first floor. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

FEMA refused to fund one large project—the wrecked ground floor of the Morgan-Jones Science Center—because the college didn’t have adequate insurance on the building, according to agency documents. 

FEMA and North Carolina have given the college more than $3 million in hurricane recovery funds, and $5.5 million more remains available to reimburse the school once projects are completed, state documents show. But the money isn’t sufficient to cover current costs, said Strickler, chair of the Webber trustees. 

In a recent message to alumni, St. Andrews leaders suggested class gifts for certain hurricane-related repairs. Among them: a new restroom, estimated at $100,000, to replace the mobile one outside the student center. 

Claims of a Toxic Culture

In January, Ellen Bernhardt departed without explanation. 

One day she was in the middle of her third year leading the campus. The next, she was gone. “Ellen has been a very good friend to St. Andrews and we owe her an incredible debt of gratitude,” Wade wrote in a Facebook post. 

Bernhardt had been a zealous administrator who “was going to go around whatever obstacle somebody put in front of her and make sure that things happened,” Alumni Council Chairperson Brazzell said.

She had also been unpopular. Her critics, including alumni, employees, and students, said she bullied people and created a toxic campus culture. They said she squelched criticism and dismissed concerns that weren’t on her agenda—mold and campus safety, for instance.

And she’d drawn criticism for the way she handled a 2021 sexual assault allegation, now the subject of a lawsuit filed last year. The plaintiff, a former student identified as Jane Doe, alleges that college officials publicly assailed her credibility and expelled one of her friends for speaking out about the incident. Both the college and Bernhardt have denied the lawsuit’s allegations.

Police had charged Paulo Manzoni, a soccer player from Italy, with second-degree forcible sexual offense, an assault Doe describes in the lawsuit as “violent, painful, and terrifying.” Campus officials permitted him to remain on campus but filed a mutual no-contact order, according to the lawsuit. 

One of Doe’s friends, frustrated by what she saw as the college’s lack of action, posted Manzoni’s photo on a social media site with the words “say his name.” Days later, the college expelled her. It later retracted the expulsion, according to the lawsuit. 

Two days after Doe reported her assault, Manzoni said male students assaulted him and destroyed his cell phone. Only then did administrators spring into action, the lawsuit says, “aggressively and swiftly” investigating Manzoni’s claim. At 2 a.m., an employee banged on the door of Doe’s room and took her to a waiting police detective for questioning, the suit alleges.

Bernhardt also held required assemblies that minimized the sexual assault and questioned Doe’s credibility, the lawsuit says. A Laurinburg police lieutenant who spoke acknowledged that rape and sexual assault were bad, but “called into question the veracity of women who report sexual assault,” and recounted the story of the boy who cried wolf, the lawsuit claims. The case is ongoing.

Shortly after the assemblies, Manzoni fled to Italy, according to the lawsuit. 

During Bernhardt’s two and a half years leading St. Andrews, alumni and faculty wanted Wade to launch a search for a permanent campus president. In 2021, Wade told The Laurinburg Exchange, “I’m not ready to change captains” with so many important projects underway. He added: “She’s not everybody’s cup of tea. That is becoming apparent to me.”

When Bernhardt left suddenly in January 2023, people connected with the college speculated that her departure was related to  the previous week’s arrest of a student accused of sexually assaulting three of his classmates.

The man, Mison Mickle, was a wrestling team member. He was also a convicted sex offender who’d failed to register in North Carolina, according to police. He remains in jail on $1.5 million bond.

But others have theorized that Bernhardt, a Keiser University employee, left because Arthur Keiser was done with St. Andrews. 

One thing is certain: Arthur Keiser is now out of the picture. In June, he declined my interview request but said in a statement that Keiser University “has stepped away from our support of Webber/St. Andrews.” He said that “pandemic recovery, alumni discontent and coordinated opposition, and the continued difficulties of operating small liberal arts colleges made a long-term collaboration unworkable.”

When I contacted Bernhardt, she declined to answer my questions. “I really have nothing but great memories of St. Andrews and I don’t want to talk about issues that were out of my control,” she said. “I am choosing not to be part of your story.” 

‘Thrown in the Deep End’

Each spring, St. Andrews University’s theater department puts on a show. In late March, it was the rock opera “Godspell,” and the cast, like the campus, was replete with athletes. The role of Jesus went to a sophomore defensive end. Judas was a soccer player. 

The show highlighted the value of a small school where a football player can try his hand at musical theater. But it also displayed the college’s tenuous state. The theater was still missing its wooden floor, seats, and the lower part of its walls to hurricane damage. 

At the Friday night performance, a few dozen audience members sat in metal folding chairs arranged on concrete. Among them, in the back, was St. Andrews’ new president. 

Tarun Malik had arrived March 1 following a lightning-speed presidential search. He’d previously spent two years as president of Charlotte’s Johnson & Wales University, which offers culinary and hospitality programs and business and liberal arts degrees.

Not long after arriving, he’d spoken frankly about the challenge he’d accepted. “I think it’s fair to say I was thrown in the deep end. I have been figuring things out very quickly,” he told a local group, according to The Laurinburg Exchange. “I was on campus for maybe 10 minutes and already I was thinking to myself, ‘Have you lost your marbles?’”

In May, Malik announced to employees that the college was dropping women’s golf and both men’s and women’s cross-country and track and field, sports that he said had difficulties fielding teams. 

Webber also closed the three St. Andrews satellite campuses that had shared space with Keiser’s Southeastern Colleges. Not only had they failed to produce revenue, they were “a dollar drain all the way through,” according to Strickler.

The campus of St. Andrews was designed around a lake. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Strickler said Keiser had been “a very good friend” to both campuses. “He gave us some very good advice. Some worked out, some didn’t.”

Malik didn’t respond to my interview requests, but in June, he met with Meisel, the former Alumni Council president who’d been ousted after criticizing the school. 

Afterward, Meisel shared with alumni a summary of their conversation. He wrote that many current students had unpaid bills, and Malik worried some were accepting financial aid packages without understanding their obligation to repay loans. Malik estimated that the college needed a minimum of $100 million to address hurricane damage, deferred maintenance, and academic programs. 

Meisel wrote that his heart was heavy when he thought about “many individuals at the school—truly kind-hearted people who are facing an incredibly challenging situation.” He described Malik as a capable leader, “engaging, gracious, forthcoming, and knowledgeable.” 

But “let us be realistic,” Meisel concluded. “Where will the necessary funding come from for our beloved alma mater to overcome a crumbling infrastructure and national trends that have put a school like St. Andrews in the precarious position it finds itself in today?”

If the Time Comes…

Fall classes start at St. Andrews on August 29. The football team is back on campus, and it finally has a locker room, completed last fall, six years after the program started. 

The last time Strickler visited the college, at graduation, he thanked faculty and staff. “The things that you have gone through for the last few years to keep this campus operational and the things you are doing now to keep us operational are extraordinary,” he told them. 

Strickler admires St. Andrews. It does “a tremendous job” of educating students despite its lean budget, he told me. But in interviews in June and July, he said that St. Andrews hasn’t been in the black since Webber took over, “and recent factors have just made it horrendous.” Its chronic deficits now threaten Webber’s future. He said trustees would be discussing whether to close the school. 

Scenes from the May commencement. (Andrew Craft for The Assembly)

This past spring, the news site Inside Higher Ed hosted a webcast that speaks to the current state of higher education and to the predicament at St. Andrews. Its title: “If The Time Comes: How to Close a College Wisely.” 

The program, which attracted several hundred attendees, offered mostly practical advice: Don’t close mid-semester. Don’t wait until the money runs out, because closure has costs. But one panelist, Jim Newberry, a Louisville lawyer who has represented colleges dealing with closure, also talked about emotion.

“This is a very emotional decision for people. An incredibly emotional decision,” he said. “It’s one that causes people to not think in as rational terms about what’s in the best interest of the institution as you would hope.”

Laurinburg Mayor Jim Willis, who says the community’s relationship with the college has never been stronger, expressed surprise when I told him recently that closure was being considered. 

That would devastate Laurinburg, he said, because of the loss of jobs and revenue, as well as employees and students who enrich the community. The college, he said, is “one of the things that sets us apart from other rural small towns.” 

Strickler had told me in June that the decision to close would depend on fall enrollment. He hoped to enroll 700 on-campus students. That would be a 34 percent increase over last year. 

But in early August, in an email, he said that closure was off the table. “We are not currently considering” closure, he said, and “are working on a business plan to grow the enrollment and cut costs.”

“Dr Malik & staff have made tremendous gains with enrollment,” he wrote. “It is not where it needs to be, but we are hoping it shows how we can grow.”

I asked if we could talk. I wanted to know what had changed. He responded that he was too busy. 

“But I can tell you that the focus is not closure, but continuation,” he wrote. “Part of the reasoning is the cost of closure. When the cost of closure is nearly as much as the cost of continuation, then we must focus on continuation.”