Arkansas Baptist College is without a president, but how that happened depends on who is talking.
The now ex-president, Joseph Jones, said Monday that he resigned from the post in an email to the board Friday.
The panel announced Monday that it had terminated him "for cause."
Jones -- who did not share the termination letter because he has hired legal representation -- said the document did not state the cause for termination.
Board Chairman Kenneth Harris said the former leader's "lack of transparency" prevented the board from having the necessary information to make timely decisions that were needed to avoid potential financial and legal risks. In a lengthy interview Monday, Harris spoke of enrollment troubles and financial concerns at the historically black college.
The board has named Howard Gibson, a former Arkansas Baptist College administrator, as interim president, and Harris said the board is looking to permanently fill the presidency by July 1,.
Jones became the private college's 14th president when he started Sept. 1, 2016. He succeeded Fitz Hill, who served at the helm of the four-year school for more than a decade before stepping aside to lead the college's foundation.
During his tenure, Jones took steps to update the college, putting general education courses online for the first time, and updating the student learning management system and student information system. He and the board had recently finished piecing together a plan that would chart the course of the college for the next five years, along with a fiscal solvency plan to stabilize the college's finances.
Monday's announcement by the board came amid more cash flow problems: The U.S. Department of Education still lists the college on "Heightened Cash Monitoring II," which requires the school to disburse federal student aid funds to the student or parent borrower and submit manual reports before it is reimbursed by the government.
That status slows cash flow significantly.
The slowdown affected the college's fiscal obligations, including December's payroll and money owed to its vendors, Harris said Monday. The college was trying to work out payment agreements with some vendors, and others were not paid, he said.
A review of court filings against the college shows a Nov. 30 complaint from Document Solutions and Services Inc. -- a business that provides printers, copiers, ink, toner and services -- saying it did not receive $20,196.20 for its services despite repeated collection attempts.
"Looking at our situation, we have limited money, but we got a lot of bills," Harris said. "And we don't have the donor base that many institutions have. We don't have the endowment. We have a foundation that we are hoping can step in and help us. But the absence of all of those make it difficult for a private institution -- particularly a historically black institution -- to thrive and survive."
Arkansas Baptist College is tuition-driven, he added, so when enrollment drops -- as it did this fall -- it creates a conglomeration of problems.
The college had a high of 1,082 students in the fall of 2012, according to state Department of Higher Education data. In the fall of 2016, the college had 843 students, and this fall it had 575 students, data show.
At the end of fiscal 2016 -- June 30 of that year -- the college listed nearly $5.5 million in net assets, according to its Internal Revenue Service 990 forms. Figures for that year were the latest available online, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette could not reach the college's financial officer to get its latest IRS 990 form.
Harris did not know offhand the college's net assets, revenue or expenditures.
Arkansas Baptist College last had what an official called "a severe cash flow crisis" in 2014 that led to student and staff complaints, prompting an investigation by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits the college. At the time, the college began delaying payments to employees and vendors, reducing or eliminating all nonessential expenses, and taking out loans from local banks to meet immediate needs, the college said then.
Its financial obligations led to a number of civil lawsuits, in which companies have demanded money for unpaid bills. But, in December 2014, the college secured a $30 million federal loan guaranteed through the federal Education Department, which allowed the school to pay back nine lenders and creditors. Arkansas Baptist also refinanced some $27.8 million of debts from construction loans, receiving longer terms and lower interest.
The college last had a hiccup in payroll in July -- what Jones has referred to as "a perfect storm" of submitting pay to the government, government processing time and the holidays, all of which prompted Arkansas Baptist College to pay its employees later than usual. Jones fired the employee who had submitted the pay nearly a week late.
Harris said the board is taking immediate efforts to expedite payroll, but if those efforts fail, employees would be paid Jan. 19.
The board chairman acknowledged that the college's problems did not happen overnight and could not be solved overnight. When asked whether Jones was given enough time as president to fix the problems, Harris said, "it depends on the individual."
"I think we were very candid with Dr. Jones and all of the candidates who applied back when we were searching with regard to the college's status at that point in every avenue of existence," he said. "It was clear what the situation was and what the expectations were in terms of 'this is where we are and this is what we have got to do.'"
He looked for benchmarks along the way to determine whether sufficient progress had been made, he said.
"When you start looking ... and see that you're not yielding results that we're making progress, do you keep going? Or do you stop? Or what do you do?" he asked. "A part of this was that we were looking at some results, and whether there was enough time or not, it depends on the leader, the person looking to mobilize the resources and the people to get things started in the right direction."
Jones said Monday that he resigned after conversations between himself and the board.
"They felt as if they wanted to part ways, and I told them that I was trying to figure out a way to move forward with them," Jones said. "And they were not interested."
Though hesitant to say more because of the potential legal moves, Jones said he wanted to clear his name and that he resigned "under certain conditions" which were not afforded to him at termination.
He added: "I have been more than transparent with the board on all matters."
The news of the departure spread to the campus community. Many people were out of town Monday for the holidays. Dreamer Daniels, the college's Student Government Association president, wrote in an email to the campus that many were shocked about the news and that she did not know what led to it.
"What I do know is that Dr. Jones has done a lot in his short time as president to improve the overall quality of the college," she said. "Dr. Jones will be dearly missed as our 14th president, but I am grateful for the time he served. As we move forward, let's continue to grow hope by improving ourselves and honoring Arkansas Baptist College."
The Arkansas Baptist College trustees and their president, Joseph Jones, have parted ways.
Metro on 12/19/2017
Print Headline: College abruptly without top exec; Board cites ‘lack of transparency’