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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."

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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."

Beginnings • George Wythe University is named after the nation's first law professor, a mentor to Thomas Jefferson. DeMille, Brooks, and a few others created the school in 1992, with the idea of teaching from the classics the Founding Fathers studied and the writings they created.

It distinguished itself from other "Great Books" colleges by infusing its curriculum with the teachings of the late Cleon Skousen, a former FBI agent, Salt Lake City police chief and author, who intertwined his Mormon faith with libertarian views. He became a significant figure in far-right politics, including a posthumous resurgence promoted by Beck's TV and radio programs.

Every George Wythe student was required to read Skousen's "The 5,000 Year Leap," and the conservative thinker regularly visited the classes taught in those early years at a Duck Creek ski lodge at the top of Cedar Mountain in Iron County. While Skousen's interest in the university would soon wane, it would be years before administrators phased out his works from the curriculum, saying they were not academic works.

The university was operating as an offshoot of the Coral Ridge Baptist University in Florida, so students received degrees in biblical studies, even though the education wasn't particularly religious in nature. Students who attended classes had to plow through lengthy reading lists before joining deep discussions led by professors called "mentors."

Many George Wythe students rave about the education they received, first at Duck Creek and then in a space under a dentist office on Cedar City's Main Street.

Neil Schiffman, who is now a financial planner in Riverton, graduated with a degree in statesmanship in 2010.

"The education and the professors were fantastic," he said. "The debates really stretch your belief system."

However, Connor Boyack, who founded the libertarian think tank, LIbertas Institute, and has taken a few distance courses from George Wythe, called it "in essence, a glorified book club."

The university broke away from Coral Ridge in 2001, creating its own charitable foundation to run the school and new protocols that limited the amount of life-experience credit offered. DeMille and Brooks still led the university, though they now answered to a board, made up largely of past graduates.

Brooks wanted to move the school, or at least set up a second campus, in Monticello, on donated land. He then sunk much of the school's roughly $250,000 endowment into the project, telling the board that the move was necessary for the school to eventually get accredited and allow students to get federal loans and financial aid.

The rosy financial picture painted by the founders changed suddenly in early 2009, Earley recalls, when Brooks warned that the school may have to close.

The board removed Brooks from his job as president and eliminated the role of chancellor, shifting both founders to spots on the board. DeMille, suffering from health problems, played a minimal role, while Brooks was asked to lead the school's annual fundraising gala.

Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney • That event took place at the state Capitol in May 2009, and Brooks was able to get Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, to introduce Glenn Beck, who entertained the crowd dressed in tuxedos and gowns.

"We are all united in moving forward the cause of liberty," Romney said, "and building men and women of virtue and wisdom, diplomacy and courage, which is part of the mission statement of the university itself."

The event was a nice party, but it didn't make a profit.

A week after the gala, the school's last such event, Brooks resigned. The university cut all ties with DeMille shortly thereafter.

The financial problems soon caught the attention of Consumer Protection, including a host of questionable loans Brooks signed off on without board approval. The division required the university to sever all ties to Brooks to maintain its registration.

The university's next president, Shane Schulthies, a former Brigham Young University professor of physical education, suggested it was time to close the school. While the board rejected an immediate shutdown, Earley said the wind down began in 2011. But Blaylock, the division investigator, noted the school accepted new students as recently as 2013, after it had shuttered its Cedar City office and moved to Salt Lake City, taking space in an office complex on South Temple.

The division has levied fines due to problems with registration and charitable contributions through the years, including two board members who didn't make themselves available for a personal credit check as required. The board said that was a simple oversight, quickly corrected. The division collected little of the fines for fear it could trigger the school's collapse. In 2014, the division agreed to accept $1,000 of a $20,000 fine and then last month, the division signed off on a new agreement giving the university one more year before it had to close.

Administrators have regularly met with Consumer Protection to work on the tiered "teach out." The graduate programs were closed first and then the undergraduate program stopped accepting students.

Last class • The university, which has no president, now has 30 students enrolled, with undergraduates paying an average $4,600 for tuition and books each semester.

They meet in a mock business boardroom with leather chairs around a dark wood table. At its head is a TV wired for online courses. Prints of famous paintings of George Washington and other Founding Fathers line the walls. There's also a bust of Cicero, the famous Roman philosopher, a painting of Mother Teresa and large replicas of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Here the remaining George Wythe students take courses in everything from government to biology, trying to wrap up their statesmanship degrees before the school goes dark.

In recent years, George Wythe students have held a mock legislature, the most recent took place in May in the Capitol. State Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City, arranged for 26 students and four mentors to take over the Senate floor. They spent the day debating bills the real Utah Legislature rejected or found controversial.

"What I saw were engaged and enthusiastic students who were doing more than surface discussion of the news. They were actually trying to understand policy," said Thatcher, who had no inkling that the school would soon be no more.

At the end of the day, Gov. Gary Herbert addressed the students. It was not the first time. He has occasionally has attended George Wythe events in past years, saying he likes the school's emphasis on the Constitution.

"I liked what they were doing, what they stood for," Herbert told The Salt Lake Tribune. "I'm disappointed in the fact that they aren't finding success in the marketplace. ... But the marketplace should determine winners and losers."

George Wythe administrators, no fans of big government, believe the state should play a role in saving future unaccredited schools.

They are proposing legislation that would make it a felony to give out a fraudulent degree. It is now a misdemeanor. They would also require an unaccredited school to keep an off-site secure copy of a transcript to avoid tampering and make sure that at least three other schools would accept transfer credits.

"We don't want anyone else to have to go through what we have gone through," Earley said. "It is never fun cleaning up someone else's messes."

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham

 

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