Final Steps in the Administrative Transformation of George Wythe University

by Board of Trustees on October 10, 2012

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Introduction

George Wythe University is a four year classical liberal arts college based largely on the Socratic seminar and Oxford tutorial models.  It is similar in rigor and curriculum to other Great Books colleges like St. John’s College, Shimer, Thomas Aquinas College, etc.   Its BA degree prepares students primarily for graduate programs in law, political science, economics and education.  For a number of years it has been undergoing site visits for accreditation through the American Academy for Liberal Education in Washington D.C.  Typically, a dozen or so students graduate each year from its small student body.  Meanwhile, over 20 alumni have now been admitted into ranked graduate programs such as George Washington Law School and Harvard’s graduate school of education.  The MA and PhD programs are rigorous as well, but have not yet been presented to an accrediting agency.  The school has ceased admitting new students into these programs until accreditation of the undergraduate program is complete.  Events in the school’s early years, however, cast a shadow on current graduates that, in fairness to them, has needed to be rectified. With several milestones now complete, the board of trustees is prepared to announce the results of its work.

 

 

Roots of Initial Discoveries

During its first 16 years, from 1992 to 2008, George Wythe [College] had been managed by Oliver DeMille, (Mr.) Shanon Brooks, and Donald Sills.  During the first half of this period the school was a DBA of Coral Ridge Baptist University of Jacksonville, Florida, and initially operated under its policies and procedures.  These operational standards, however, were inadequate and the school became independent in December 2001.  Thereafter, it was governed by the board of trustees of George Wythe Foundation.  Once independent, substantial improvements were implemented through new policies, but a number of troubling leadership habits persisted from its early years.

In mid 2007, six trustees—mostly recent additions—grew increasingly skeptical of the state of affairs they were discovering. This expanded into a majority in the months between December 2008 and February 2009 as the board gained its first accurate view of the situation, first with regard to financial mismanagement, then administrative integrity.  These discoveries led to a major rift between the growing board and the school’s founders that soon led to their removal and the painstaking corrections of their actions.

The most grievous discovery was that Oliver DeMille had, during the previous governance under Coral Ridge, approved two doctoral degrees based primarily on experiential credit and without any coursework.  In addition, DeMille’s own credentials were called into question when critics investigating his past revealed two illegitimate degrees he had received in the early 1990s.  Despite ceasing his use of these degrees at a later date, DeMille’s degrees from Coral Ridge Baptist University also became suspect of being awarded primarily for the same type of experiential credit. This would be consistent with how he himself awarded the aforementioned degrees which have now been revoked by the GWU Board of Trustees.  In any case, DeMille’s awarding of degrees without coursework was improper and inexcusable.  It undermines the hard work and achievements of the rest of the alumni and students who legitimately earned their degrees through rigorous coursework, and we condemn it.

The following account describes the administrative misconduct that necessitated board action.

 

Initial Board Action

The first discovery was that incomplete and misleading statements and financial reports were being presented to the board by the administration.  Details began to emerge in December of 2008 as the previous chair, Don Sills, was replaced by one of the new trustees, Diann Jeppson.  In that same meeting, the board had been pressed by Brooks (then president) to move the entire undergraduate program to Monticello, Utah, claiming that the accreditation agency had given their approval to such a move.  A phone call for verification by the board revealed Brooks’ claim to be false, and that the agency in fact viewed such a move negatively.  Three weeks later, the board was surprised to learn that the school would be insolvent in a matter of months.  In January 2009, Jeppson led a board investigation of the school’s management and operations, including interviews of all faculty and staff and a comprehensive internal audit of all corporate contracts.  Particularly troubling were the discoveries that accounting practices were in disarray and that Brooks had consistently withheld information about contracts and finances regarding the Monticello campus he had proposed two years earlier.

This resulted in a unanimous decision to immediately remove Brooks from administration and appoint an interim president to replace him in February 2009.  DeMille’s chancellor role was also eliminated.  Although these steps were motivated by discontent over poor leadership, the board was also keenly aware of the predicament of the students.  Having worked hard for their degrees, the students deserved that their reputations, now inseparably connected to the institution, be preserved.  Because of this, great care was taken to avoid creating a spectacle during the leadership transition.  Consequently, both former administrators were allowed to remain on the board in temporary, more restricted roles, with Brooks being reassigned over the fundraiser gala where it was assumed he would be harmless but still potentially useful.  Three months later in May, however, despite the advantage of having a national radio personality as keynote, the event failed to net any gains even under Brooks’ supervision.  During this period, the board also drafted a new strategic plan for the school, detailing a set of sweeping corrections that called for the elimination of both real and potential conflicts of interest and numerous other steps that provided no room for Brooks and his previous management behavior.  This was ratified the day before the gala.  With the writing on the wall, Brooks’ resignation from the board followed within a week, sparing the drama of his forcible removal.

As the board continued its investigation, a number of egregious actions were discovered that the board felt could potentially justify legal action. These include Brooks deeding away 50 acres of donated land without board knowledge and concealing his encumbering of the school with $230,000 in debt to private individuals, again without board authorization.  Audits further revealed that he failed to reconcile bank accounts and wrote roughly $20,000 in untraceable blank checks.

During these same months, a minority of board members also gained their first inklings of DeMille’s misdeeds with regard to his own degrees and at least two degrees previously awarded by the school back in the early 1990s.  By 2010, enough evidence had emerged to justify an initial transcript audit of student records, during which a handful of transcripts originating under Coral Ridge were flagged and DeMille was asked to resign from the board.

The remainder of the transformation was a daunting task.  Over the initial two years, the newer trustees replaced all institutional leadership, restructured the board, created functioning committees, banned life experience credit, corrected accounting procedures, refined the curriculum, and executed a detailed plan to resolve all lingering conflicts of interest and other problems inherited from previous administrations and governance.  Today, not a single trustee prior to the group of new arrivals since late 2006 remains.

 

Preserving Viability During the Transformation

The state of affairs inherited from Books and DeMille was severe enough that the school faced closure beginning in early 2009.  For the sake of students and alumni it was essential to preserve institutional viability during the cleanup period that followed.  A few nuances surrounding these preservation efforts warrant explanation.

Given the board’s discoveries with regard to DeMille in particular and his selective compromising of transcripts and degrees, the board’s new leadership faced a serious dilemma.  It is impossible to close a college quietly, no matter how small.  If the school closed at that time, the final label attached to each of the hard working students in the ensuing media spectacle would have been that of a diploma mill, despite the fact that most student transcripts were valid—earned properly and honestly.  After all, a closed school would lose its voice, and, consequently, any opportunity to redeem and vindicate the degrees earned by those students.  Over 200 alumni and 400 other students at various stages of earning their degrees would fall victim.

Soberly, the new trustees made a conscious and deliberate choice.  Only by keeping the school open to rectify the problems it had inherited, once and for all, could each deserving student’s degree and reputation be protected.

This presented a second dilemma.  The board’s duty and commitment was to cleanse the school and its alumni of the checkered past of its founders.  Yet a delicate balance was required between timing the publicity of the founders’ misdeeds and allowing institutional strength to recover from the very damage they had inflicted.  The challenge was that within the GWU community a following of personalities instead of principles had developed alongside the passion for the classical liberal arts.  For many, their first encounter with the standard mentoring models of this kind of education happened to occur through GWU, DeMille or Brooks.  Consequently, many of these individuals had innocently and erroneously assumed that the Socratic seminar and the elements borrowed from the Oxford tutorial model (using classics and mentors) were not available elsewhere.  By means of this particular introduction, a loyalty to personalities had formed among thousands of people.  Given this, the board realized that many would struggle to distinguish the school from its founders.  While supporters with broader experience were able to make that distinction on their own, it became necessary to shift the public’s focus toward the fundamental principles of classical liberal arts education, independent of the personalities delivering the message, and to implement a more calculated and gradual debriefing of the greater GWU community.

For this reason alone, DeMille was nominally retained on the board of trustees during the first year of this period, primarily in a dormant role, which was facilitated by the health problems he was experiencing.  This timing eased the transition for those who still saw him as a figurehead.  He was permanently removed from the board in the summer of 2010 at the board’s insistence.

 

Final Cleanup Steps

Today, the board is comprised of those who performed the cleanup and newer trustees.  It is experienced in nonprofit management and ethics.  All audits are now clean and accounting and transcript systems have been standardized.  A comprehensive corrective overhaul has been achieved.

Revoked degrees
Meanwhile, our internal investigation found two degrees from the early days of the school that have failed scrutiny of the faculty and board. These degrees were improperly awarded by Mr. DeMille and, in accordance with policy, have been revoked.

We are especially concerned that any alumnus would use a credential to misrepresent themselves as an having expertise for which they are not properly qualified. The potential risk for causing public harm is real and justifies a public response.

The first of these degrees was awarded to a book author by the name of Ann Blake Tracy in 1995. Tracy’s student file contains conclusive evidence that the PhD authorized by Oliver DeMille was never earned by any coursework, but was simply awarded for Tracy’s presentation of a book she had already published entitled “Prozac: Panacea or Pandora.” There is no record of Tracy enrolling in, attending, or receiving grades for any regular classes. Notwithstanding this, Tracy’s degree was granted on equal terms with the degrees other students earned by completing formal PhD coursework, practica and supervised dissertations. Records also exist for her payment of tuition fees, which negates the possibility that it was an honorary degree. Still, favors for Tracy were granted, such as a 50% scholarship discount and allowance for delayed payment on her balance. From the correspondence on file, DeMille also displayed strong personal support for Tracy’s activism on the risks of anti-depressant drugs. Based on the available evidence, it is impossible to determine whether this ideological agreement contributed to their motives, but there is no excuse for this type of exception. It is unjustifiable and reprehensible.

The second degree was awarded to former Michigan congressman Mark D. Siljander in 1997, who ultimately became a close associate and friend of DeMille. Convicted in 2010 for lying to federal agents about his collaboration with an Islamic terrorist organization, this misconduct alone is sufficient cause for revoking his degree on grounds of violating the code of moral integrity and character this board requires to bear the name of the institution as one’s alma mater. Our investigation revealed, however, that Siljander’s PhD in International Business was another illegitimate and illegal exception carefully arranged by DeMille, and which never involved any coursework. Instead, Siljander’s file contains conclusive evidence that his degree was awarded for two improper sources of credit. First, Siljander was allowed to apply the same 56 hours of credit for which he had already been awarded his MA at Western Michigan University. Second, Siljander’s dissertation was comprised only of a post facto written description of his startup business venture that relied heavily upon his previous service as a congressman, combined with a marketing packet which the business utilized. For this he received 30 hours of life-experience credit. There is no record of Siljander enrolling in, attending, or receiving grades for any classes. Of particular interest is a letter on file from Siljander in 1994 lamenting the difficulty he had been experiencing while trying to earn a living as a former congressman without adequate credentials. In this letter, Siljander expressly suggested that he and DeMille could arrive at a creative solution with regard to these previously used credits in conjunction with life-experience credit in order to be awarded a PhD. He concluded by underscoring his capacity to benefit to the school in the future.

Again, this is an affront to the other alumni and students at GWU who earned their degrees by enrolling in and completing formal PhD coursework, practica and supervised dissertations. As with Tracy, this is unjustifiable and reprehensible. According to policy, these degrees have been revoked.

Separating non-conforming degrees
The board also discovered that transcripts and degrees earned when the school was under the governance of Coral Ridge Baptist University followed two different protocols. These overlapped for a span of several years leading up to the change in governance in 2001. The older of these protocols is incompatible with current policies, credit accounting and grading structure.  Such records are being separated out and designated as Coral Ridge Baptist University degrees only, and will not bear the George Wythe College or George Wythe University names.  Our intention is to return those degrees to the custodians of other CRBU degrees as their original parent institution.  Transcripts under the more recent system are generally compliant with those generated after 2001 and will be retained.  During the time that GWU remains the custodian of these degrees, they will not be kept in the same system as GWU degrees.

Recovery from inherited debt
With regard to finances, all unauthorized debt created by the previous administrations has either been resolved or restructured. Now that the institution has sufficiently recovered from the negligence inflicted upon it, it can finally speak openly and boldly for the benefit of its students and alumni without also causing them injury.

 

Lessons in Accountability and Integrity

It is the opinion of this board that the public should be safeguarded from the kind of mismanagement, deception and irresponsibility that the school previously suffered under DeMille and Brooks.  We condemn their actions in the strongest terms and without reservation.  The board stands with all who prize accountability and transparency in higher education, especially leaders who steadfastly honor the sacred trust of others and refuse to take shortcuts when pursuing their goals.  GWU students and alumni should look to the mistakes of the school’s former administrators and glean the valuable lessons to be learned.  Meanwhile, the GWU pedagogy continues to bear the same historic legacy as other classical liberal arts colleges—independent of any administrator, mentor or professor, past or present.

While the university’s more recent leaders have sacrificed greatly to right the wrongs of the past, students should look back over generations to the namesake of the school for their inspiration.  The man George Wythe was diligent in all he did.  He served with utter integrity.  This virtue was central to how he raised a generation of equally humble and honest statesmen.  This is the legacy to emulate.  He was grateful and content to serve with no boasting, exaggeration or fanfare, but only for the promise of virtue, diligence and integrity in his students.  Such should be the humble and courageous goal of every alumnus with regard to their classical education at George Wythe University.

 

Concluding Remarks

In short, for the past four years GWU has operated under a fundamentally new governing board.  Our intervention plan toward a viable institution was developed under the helpful guidance of generous individuals in peer institutions, management consulting, state government, and our accreditation agency.  This was the only path to fulfilling our mission—by operating under the best practices expected of all classical liberal arts colleges.  Any other approach would have left the alumni unfairly handicapped for life.  Although difficult, it has been a worthwhile privilege to serve these excellent and deserving students.

The real tragedy, of course, is that none of this had to happen.  Shortcuts are never necessary.  Academic integrity is no secret.  The greatest stewardship of a college president is to protect the honor, credibility and reputations of the students and alumni in his trust.  Anything that undermines this is inexcusable.  Likewise, ethics and best practices in non-profit management are no mystery. They comprise simple, well-established patterns that the original founders of GWU could have implemented decades ago had they only played by the rules, acted honorably at all times and adhered to integrity from the beginning.

Meanwhile, the new trajectory of the school has opened the door to leadership of a higher caliber.  The curriculum, while already strong, has been further refined and fortified.  Accountability and testing standards are also more rigorous, and our alumni continue to place in highly ranked graduate programs.  More than at any previous time, we confidently look forward to a bright future of preparing diligent, earnest students for meaningful lives as humble and capable leaders.  May they continue in their commitment to serve their fellow man with virtue, wisdom, diplomacy and courage.

Sincerely,

The George Wythe Foundation Board of Trustees

Diann Jeppson, Chair
Fred Hunzeker, Treasurer
Julie Earley, Curriculum Committee
Monte Bledsoe, Special Committee on Contracts
Chandra Brown, PR Committee

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Why hasn’t the board pursued legal action against Brooks and DeMille?

This has been considered many times.  A number of egregious actions took place that could justify a legal response. These include Brooks’ subsequent positioning of diverted and lost GWU expenditures and resources to benefit his current proprietary school in Monticello, Utah.  At minimum, this is certainly a breach of ethics.  We determined, however, that neither Brooks nor DeMille possessed the kind of assets that could recover the substantial losses to the school and its students.  We concluded that cutting our losses and keeping resources focused on making necessary institutional corrections during the transition period was the higher priority.  Any need to pursue justice, if actually viable, could wait until after the school had recovered.

 

Meanwhile, Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection has also taken notice.  Even though GWU had dismissed Brooks eighteen months earlier, the Division added a stipulation to the school’s licensing requirements that included the permanent banishment of Brooks from ever returning to a position of authority over handling funds at the school at any time in the future.  The board agreed wholeheartedly and signed the agreement without reservation.

 

Why did it take so long for the board to take action?

The initial board was assembled by DeMille, Brooks and Sills through the appointment of people who already trusted them.  For change to take place, the removal of the school’s founders was essential, but they still occupied the roles of board chair, university president and chancellor.  Additionally, DeMille usually served as “acting chair” due to Sills rarely being present.  This locked in an administrative conflict of interest, which was only questioned as the new trustees began to rise in numbers toward a tipping point.  Once fresh leadership was in place on the board, cleaning up the administration could finally begin.

 

Why were some degrees offered in the 1990s that were not in the catalog?

Under the DeMille administration during the Coral Ridge years, several degrees were named by listing the student’s emphasis as the degree name itself.  This was not only confusing and inappropriate, it violated the school’s religious exemption and was unlawful.  The degrees originally named in this manner were all awarded prior to 2001 while the college was under Coral Ridge.  These are now under review in order to correct them retroactively to a basic “liberal arts” degree, with each student’s emphasis only attached as an appendage.  Florida and Utah statutes are being consulted to ensure that the proper naming rules are applied. These will also be separated and removed from the larger body of GWU degrees.

 

Should there really be a Constitutional Law degree?

Doctoral students themselves were the first to complain about this misnamed degree, citing their frustration having to explain to others that it was not a degree for practicing law.  Today it has been properly renamed Constitutional Studies and officially updated with the state of Utah.

 

A few doctoral degrees are known to have dissertations that appear to be unrelated to their degree names.  Are these included in the degrees under review?

Yes.  Previous administrations took unjustifiable liberties with those degrees and they are included in the group under review.  Misaligned dissertations will require corrective measures to be taken to ensure that no confusion remains.

 

Does the breach of ethics by the founders render moot the value of the mission statement of the school? (To build men and women of virtue, wisdom, diplomacy and courage, who inspire greatness in others and move the cause of liberty.)

The mission statement was not created by the school’s founders, but by two committees of trustees, students and faculty.  The verbiage arose from these committees over separate retreats in 1995 and 1996 for that purpose.  The tradition of reciting it before class arose directly from a student as well.  The mission statement is not the product of any single person.  Its value and mandate are timeless.  For students, alumni and the educations they received, the words are as true now as before, if not more so.

 

What was the financial impact of former leadership’s actions?

In 2007 the previous administration still maintained undue influence over the board of trustees.  Despite growing resistance on the board, with considerable misgivings it ultimately succumbed to pressure to accept a Monticello campus proposal. This was for a more limited campus than what the administration later presented to the public. After lobbying to utilize the school’s modest endowment, the previous leadership encumbered the school with an additional $230,000 in debt related to the project, also without board approval.  Recovering from this while keeping the doors open required exceptionally lean operations in order to maximize cost savings.  This came at great personal sacrifice to faculty, staff and some of the newer trustees to a sum of several hundred thousand dollars.

 

Why couldn’t the school simply raise funds to cover costs?

Although previous leadership injured the school with needless debt, even more serious was how they damaged institutional reputation, and, as a consequence, the capacity to raise funds.  Over time, their misconduct surrounding diplomas and irresponsible management became known in the major business and donor communities.  Despite the founders being removed, such groups and individuals still associated the school with the founders’ names.

It soon became clear to the newer trustees why the school had historically struggled to earn the trust of major donors. It was plain to all that in order to fundraise on the scale of successful peer institutions, a complete institutional cleansing, purging and rebranding would need to take place.

 

Was the board united at all times in these decisions and plans?

Not at first.  It’s important to realize that trustees often became aware of the founders’ indiscretions at the same time as the public.  Quite understandably, some struggled with denial for a time while newer trustees were immediately appalled and highly concerned for the school.  Meanwhile, several of the top alumni had recently entered law school and other graduate programs, with numerous others on similar trajectories.  With all student degrees at risk, this is what prompted those trustees who remain on the board today to take action and make the sacrifices necessary to salvage the institution.

 

Why was Andrew Groft chosen as interim president to replace Brooks?

The mentoring pedagogy at GWU is based largely on the Socratic seminar and Oxford tutorial models. This results in closer administration/faculty/student relationships than usually found in higher education. When the board of trustees removed DeMille and Brooks from their leadership roles, a familiar name to students was needed to serve as interim president as a placeholder.  Due to Andrew Groft’s familiarity in the classroom, he fit this requirement.  He was approached and agreed to serve temporarily for a year while we made other improvements and sought a more permanent replacement.  When that year was completed, his successor, Dr. Schulthies, was asked to replace him.

 

Did Andrew Groft’s legal issues occur while serving as president?

No.  His offense occurred several months after he stopped working for the school.  We have no evidence of such misconduct during the time he worked for GWU.

 

Why was Shane Schulthies chosen as president?

Dr. Schulthies matched the goals of the board more closely than any of the candidates interviewed.  His experience helped the board usher in a potent curriculum enhancement in which leadership ethics became a central focus of classroom simulations throughout a student’s years at GWU.  This unique addition was an extension of his earlier role as chair of the Human Subjects Committee at BYU, which enforced ethical standards in all studies involving human subjects at their three campuses.

 

Hasn’t Diann Jeppson, the chair who led the board’s transformation, also co-authored a book with DeMille and promoted his work?

Diann Jeppson had a business relationship with DeMille in the past, but she has discontinued that relationship.

 

Do you still use Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap in the curriculum?

Skousen’s works are no longer used in our curriculum.  As a classical liberal arts college, we prioritize the use of original sources whenever possible.  The writings of Skousen are too far removed in that regard, generally being consumer texts for the lay reader.

 

Who was Shanon Brooks’ supervisor during the financial mismanagement of his term as president in 2008? Didn’t he act on his own, independently from DeMille?

DeMille was the direct supervisor over Brooks at all times of his employment with the school. Even when Brooks was briefly promoted to President in 2008, he still answered solely to DeMille, whose title was correspondingly raised to Chancellor. At no time in the school’s history has Brooks ever acted without the full legal and administrative accountability to DeMille as his only direct supervisor and employer.

 

Contradictory accounts of DeMille’s resignation from the board have been circulated. Was his departure in fact the result of board action? Didn’t he resign on his own for health reasons?

The following account has been carefully reviewed and verified by the Board of Trustees and the presiding administration at the time for accuracy:

During 2009 and 2010, DeMille served in two positions. One was administrative (chancellor) and the other was on the board of trustees. DeMille’s primary responsibility as chancellor was direct oversight of the president. In early 2009 when the first evidences of administrative misconduct began to come to light, DeMille resigned from this role on his own, citing health problems. The board simultaneously eliminated the position of chancellor altogether and DeMille’s role on the board became more dormant.

By mid-2010 the board had accomplished a great deal of institutional cleanup, written new policies, hired a new president, and was preparing for even more assertive steps. This need intensified when the Utah Division of Consumer Protection performed an audit on GWU that year. Based on the track record of the previous administrations, they put the school on notice that it was going to be closed. By this time, however, DeMille had not attended a board conference call for over a year and rarely answered board e-mails, rendering his role primarily inactive while the rest of the board conducted the cleanup. Despite this, one of the Divisions’ central concerns was that they didn’t believe we were, in fact, truly a new governing body. Since DeMille was still listed as a trustee at that time, and the only remaining trustee who had filled administrative roles during the years investigated, his resignation was a key action necessary for establishing the fact of new governance, and to therefore prevent the closure of the school.

In the board discussions that ensued, DeMille’s health was never cited as the reason for him to resign. Board dialogue exclusively dealt with completing its cleanup goals, redeeming the institution with state authorities and salvaging the reputation of the school. The procedure decided upon to remove him was to first use persuasion by asking him to leave willingly so that he could avoid the public spectacle of being voted off the board. Our primary concern was to spare the students unnecessary controversy and turmoil while we completed this necessary change. The board chair, Diann Jeppson, and recently appointed GWU President, Dr. Schulthies, were jointly assigned the task.

In the board discussion surrounding the decision, however, the board’s intentions were inadvertently included in an e-mail copied to the DeMilles. This was met with a prompt phone call from the DeMilles to the board chair. In that conversation, Jeppson explained that to save the school from closure, DeMille had to resign in order to demonstrate to state authorities that the new governance was, in fact, not under his influence. The chair then repeated this in an immediate follow-up email to the DeMilles. In her response, however, and out of politeness, Jeppson did attempt to soften the demand by adding references to DeMille’s health and acknowledging his contributions to the school. This was understandable, given her personal friendship and her dilemma of still having business ties with DeMille at the time. She still made it clear, however, that the board was insisting on DeMille’s departure for the sake of the school’s survival.

This communication was followed by a phone call between the DeMilles and President Schulthies. In this call, Schulthies repeated the formal request for DeMille’s resignation in clear and direct terms, again with no mention of his health. He expressly informed them that the board was united in their purpose, and that if DeMille didn’t resign, the board would vote him off without his resignation. DeMille then formally resigned via email, although citing his health as the reason. His resignation was then shared with the proper authorities at the Utah Division of Consumer Protection and his name was removed from the board roster. This was an essential step toward restoring trust and credibility with the state of Utah’s authorizing agency in order for GWU to continue operating during 2010.