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June 2012
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TOUGH TASK Mid-Continent trustees have difficult decisions ahead

We suspect many people in our region would like to see Mid-Continent University work its way out of the dire financial circumstances it finds itself in. The primary reason of course is that the college's 2,400 students have much to lose if funding woes force a closure prior to the end of the current semester.

We'll also note, in the spirit of full disclosure, that this newspaper and the company that owns it have some associations with Mid-Continent. The college has for several years sponsored this newspaper's Teen of the Week program, which supports our Newspapers in Education program. Two former members of our company's news organizations occupy important roles at the college. Bill Bartleman, longtime political reporter for The Paducah Sun, is the college's chief of staff. And Tom Butler Sr., who was an anchor and news director for WPSD-TV for many years, is chairman of the college's board.

We believe the board did well when it selected Ken Winters as interim president after Robert Imhoff agreed to step aside. Winters was president of Campbellsville University for 11 years, and later spent eight years in the Kentucky Senate, where he chaired the Senate Education Committee. He brings integrity and credibility to the role at a difficult time.

We will say however that we are troubled by the Board of Trustee's reticence, past and present, to take significant action with regard to the broader administration of the college.

The college has serious problems on two fronts, and neither arose suddenly. Mid-Continent has now had three rounds of financial aid paperwork rejected by the U.S. Department of Education, forcing it to pay about $9 million toward its students' education costs in the past five months. The situation has substantially exhausted the college's reserves, and it is unlikely to last the semester unless a fourth filing this week frees up some federal money very quickly.

A second serious concern is that Mid-Continent was placed on an accreditation warning list by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges in December 2012 and remains there at present. The accreditation that allows transfer of Mid-Continent's course credits to other Kentucky colleges and universities is one of its most important assets. The longest a college can stay on the warning list is two years, so that clock is ticking as well.

We think Mid-Continent Trustee Gale Hawkins raised the right issues last week when he questioned why the college's board was not until recently fully aware of the severity of the problems, noting that there were warning signs as early as 2004. Hawkins criticized what he termed inaction on the part of Imhoff and other key decision-makers. Hawkins also questioned the presence of nine Imhoff relatives on the university staff who, he says, are collectively paid in excess of $1 million a year.

We and we think many in the public have similar concerns. Were this situation to exist at a state university or a public company, significant changes in management would already have been made. The fact that the board even now doesn't seem to be considering any beyond moving Imhoff to an advisory role is troubling and we think hard to defend.

We respect the fact that Mid-Continent is a private institution and as such has more leeway in how it chooses to operate than a state university. But it also is the recipient of millions in taxpayer funds in the form of the federal loans and financial aid for its students.

For the sake of Mid-Continent's students, employees, and the communities to which it is an asset, we hope the college finds a way through this storm.

If it does, we think Mid-Continent's board is duty bound to remember its obligation is to the institution, and not any person or persons.

It needs to take a hard, honest look at the management structure that brought the college to this point, and take appropriate action.

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