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Small Utah college with big political ties is going under

First Published      Last Updated Oct 23 2015 12:06 pm

Wythe University » Conservative school burdened by money woes is working with state on structured shutdown.

Guided by mentors, not teachers, students dive into the "Federalist Papers" and swim in Plato's ideas. They wrestle with the role of government and thrust and parry over the boundaries of public corruption.

The education at George Wythe University is unorthodox and undoubtedly conservative, pushing a small-government vision, and has roots in the teachings of Cleon Skousen. In Republican-dominated Utah, it's no surprise this small, unaccredited college has received the support through the years of many state lawmakers, Gov. Gary Herbert, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Mitt Romney and commentator Glenn Beck.

Despite the prominent supporters, George Wythe U. will go down in history as a failed institution, wracked with financial problems and saddled with bad publicity for awarding degrees students never really earned.

The Utah Division of Consumer Protection has negotiated a settlement requiring the university to cease operations by August 2016, an exceedingly rare move by the government entity that oversees unaccredited schools. It could have simply shuttered the university at any time during the past few years, but didn't out of concern for students still in the middle of the program.

The university's current leaders heap praise on Consumer Protection for the way it has handled this mess and agree it is time for the George Wythe brand to die.

Baggage • "How would you like to go to a school that had this kind of baggage?" said Julie Earley, a George Wythe graduate and former board member who is now the acting registrar. It's a volunteer position she has held since 2012, largely because the school doesn't have the money to pay her.

Earley and the rest of George Wythe's leaders are seeking a graceful exit for the university. They have conducted an internal audit of degrees awarded by the school, identifying those in violation of Utah rules, largely because past administrators granted "life experience credits" beyond what's allowed.

The school is seeking to revoke a handful of the most egregious degrees and is contracting with outside academics to review the audit.

In the 23 years this small school has been around it has awarded 286 degrees. Seventy-four of the 99 degrees from its early years are problematic. Since the George Wythe Foundation took over in 2001, only 16 of the subsequent 187 degrees were problematic, according to the audit.

The board's plan is to jettison the bad degrees and keep those fairly earned by students, restoring legitimacy to any degree carrying the George Wythe name. Then the current leaders hope they can attract another school to merge with the university, giving students a way to prove their educational credentials and get transcripts if they want to go to graduate school at some point.

"That," Earley said, "makes it a much happier ending."


Bad degrees • Earley said the school's problems began and ended with the university's founders, Oliver DeMille and Shanon Brooks, and Consumer Protection investigator Liz Blaylock confirms the financial mistakes made by these men have acted like a 2-ton anchor around this tiny rowboat of a university.

Brooks and DeMille, who were jettisoned by the George Wythe board in 2009 and 2010, blame the Great Recession for George Wythe's money troubles, and Brooks said the school never recovered because of the ineptitude of current leaders.

"It is human nature to shift the blame to others in a time of crisis. The closure of George Wythe University seems to be no exception," said Brooks, who after his ouster from the George Wythe board created Monticello College, a similar school in rural Monticello, Utah. Monticello College is also overseen by Consumer Protection and ran afoul of charitable contribution rules earlier this year, agreeing to a $1,500 fine.

DeMille, meanwhile, sells books about his educational model.

"We were not experts in the field of educational start-ups and we made plenty of mistakes," allowed Brooks, "but we steadily grew from an idea to a notable college over a period of 15 years."

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