Ecclesia College has stepped from obscurity into the public spotlight of late, raising relevant questions about that tiny Springdale institution.
It's not often that two former Arkansas legislators, a college president and a business consultant are federally indicted on public corruption charges involving a kickback scheme using tax-supported General Improvement Fund grants.
As those criminal charges make their way through the court, I've become interested in the nature and purpose of this private, four-year college that suddenly is calling itself a church. But if it has been a church since founding in 1975 (Ecclesia's attorneys now argue) why does the sign say "Ecclesia College," rather than Tabernacle?
Why (pray tell) is Ecclesia accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education, complete with boards of regents and directors, while also offering at least a dozen collegiate undergraduate and graduate majors at semester tuition reported at some $7,125 for 12 credit hours?
Joey McCutchen and Chip Sexton of Fort Smith, attorneys for Jim Parsons, a former Ecclesia board member and instructor between 2005 and 2015, have been using Freedom of Information Act requests in their attempt to acquire records that explain how the college spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. But a judge has sealed those records. College attorneys are arguing Ecclesia is exempt from such requests because (in some alternate universe) it's actually a private church.
But if it's always been a church posing as a college, should it then legally have received tax-funded grants?
There are other questions that strike me and others as relevant.
For instance, with current enrollment listed at 209 in the Student Information System tables, the college website says Ecclesia College has an athletic director and assistant athletic director with 11 coaches overseeing seven separate men's and women's sports teams. They range from baseball to softball, basketball and soccer. To fill that many rosters on various Ecclesia Royals teams, what percentage of the small student body does not participate in Ecclesia athletics? And where does the money come from to support scholarships, uniforms, travel, meals, lodging, equipment and other expenses?
Parsons said he doesn't know if he remains listed as a board member since no one has informed him differently. And he's never been told the source of the school's athletic financial support.
Professor Peter Dykema at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville wrote following my earlier column about the scandal at Ecclesia: "I've had my doubts about Ecclesia for years, ever since Arkansas Tech played them in basketball one year. I'd never heard of Ecclesia and thought they must be a Catholic school.
"I looked them up online and learned they were a tiny Bible college ... two hundred students offering associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees? And a dozen of their students were on the basketball team? And they were playing NCAA Division II. I can't imagine they still have a hoops team, at least I can't imagine the NCAA would be happy with their new claim of being a church."
The professor's observations rivaled my own when it came to how many students are needed to fill out competitive athletic teams. "Anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of their student body could be involved in intercollegiate athletics," he said. "That's a huge percentage. They are members of a Christian athletic association yet still play a number of games against NCAA Division II opponents ... somehow Ecclesia is able to fund ... expensive athletics operations.
"I know a lot of Ecclesia's courses are online. But think of the kind of havoc their sports teams' traveling schedules must wreak on any [classroom] courses and even those online ... what happens when the baseball and softball teams are on a four-day road trip at the same time? Even at Arkansas Tech or the University of Arkansas, the athletic tail sometimes wags the academic dog. But at Ecclesia, I can't imagine any other reality."
Dykema said it won't be surprising if, in light of the ongoing bribery scandal and resulting arrest of its president, Oren Paris III, Ecclesia maintains its accreditation.
Meanwhile, Parsons and his attorneys are suing the college for details related to how some $700,000 in public money was spent. He told me how surprised he'd been at how lackadaisically the school operated.
"During my tenure, I think the board met two times and those were to have punch and cookies with the accreditation inspectors," said Parsons. "President Paris wanted to show the accreditation team we had a board. We were never shown the budget, who was hired, who was fired, or any specifics of school business.
"I realized we [Parsons and his wife Jody] were on the board because our credentials made the college look good and because having board members is a requirement. I didn't feel bad about that because I knew the college was a mom-and-pop family owned business. If it succeeded, the family deserved the credit. If it failed ... it becomes a family disgrace."
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 06/11/2017