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Emails about future of Lindenwood’s Belleville campus suggest school is in trouble

File Video: Michael Shonrock introduces Brett Barger as president of Lindenwood University-Belleville

File Video: Brett Barger is excited to be part of Lindenwood University-Belleville’s future.
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File Video: Brett Barger is excited to be part of Lindenwood University-Belleville’s future.

After Lindenwood University unexpectedly dismissed the leaders of its two campuses, several people — especially at the Belleville location — have been left to wonder what the departures mean.

The city of Belleville made a $3 million taxpayer commitment to Lindenwood University’s Belleville campus. So it’s understandable that Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert was concerned about the future of the campus when Lindenwood-Belleville President Brett Barger was placed on administrative leave Nov. 1 without explanation.

The community’s concern was evident in several emails obtained by St. Louis Public Radio under an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request. The emails were redacted and names removed.

One of the emails stated: “I was told by someone who used to work at (Lindenwood University-Belleville) and is pretty well connected that the reason behind Barger’s dismissal was that he and (Lindenwood University President) Michael Shonrock ‘got into it’ at a board retreat a few weekends ago. If the story I was told holds water, they supposedly argued over the future of the Belleville campus.”

Neither Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert nor Lindenwood spokesman Chris Duggan would answer questions regarding the future of Lindenwood’s Belleville campus.

The FOIA request for the correspondence was originally denied by the city in February, but the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor overturned that denial late last week. The identity of the email’s author was redacted as directed by the Public Access Counselor’s Bureau Chief Steve Silverman.

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Michael Shonrock, left, was fired as president of the Lindenwood University System based in St. Charles, Mo. In this photo from 2015, he is shaking hands with Brett Barger, who was the president of Lindenwood University-Belleville until Jan. 22 when Shonrock said Barger had left the university. Barger had been placed on administrative leave last fall. BND file photo

The email goes on to state that Belleville’s enrollment is down and the expenses are high. A proposal was made to eliminate the day-school program and return to night school only at the Belleville campus, according to the email.

“If Shonrock made such a proposal to the board, and Barger was present, I could see how Brett would be in a position to get into a ‘battle royal’ over it,” the email stated. “After all, that would essentially eliminate his job, and those of most of the faculty and staff in Belleville. Again, I’m just repeating a story I was told about the situation and have no idea if it is true.”

In a letter sent to Eckert dated six weeks before the university placed Barger on leave, another writer expressed frustration with university leaders in St. Charles.

“The Belleville campus is, the way I see it, an unwanted stepchild now and a burden to the overall governance of the system. If it weren’t for the income generated by the night school attendance in Belleville, I believe the Board of Trustees would have considered closing the campus,” the email stated.

In 2003, Belleville sold the site of the former Belleville Township West High School on West Main Street to Lindenwood for $1. The city then offered $3 million in tax increment financing funds to the university. The city agreed to pay 20 annual payments of $150,000.

Renovations to the old Belleville West campus totaled $25 million, which included buying the old Econo Lodge and converting the rooms to student housing and improving the football stadium.

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After the president of Lindenwood University’s Belleville campus was dismissed, several people in the community worrying that the campus was in trouble. Beth Hundsdorfer St. Louis Public Radio

Phil Elmore, another city councilman, said he was concerned when he heard Barger was no longer with the university. Elmore felt Barger was committed to Belleville, buying a house and engaging with the community.

The university revitalized not only the neighborhood but the whole town, Elmore said in an interview. When he goes to stores and restaurants, Elmore said he sees Lindenwood students there.

“When I hear people say that: ‘Yeah, it saved the neighborhood,’ you know what? I would go a step further and say it saved Belleville,” Elmore said.

In 2015, Lindenwood became one of the top 25 employers in Belleville, employing 227 people.

In another letter sent two weeks after the announcement of Barger’s leave, Belleville developer R. Adam Hill criticized Lindenwood’s leadership. Hill’s identity was not redacted because his letter was addressed to the Board of Trustees and Eckert was sent a copy as a courtesy.

“Since Dr. Barger’s placement on administrative leave, there have been any number of rumors swirling around the community ranging from the campus is for sale to the campus will only serve evening classes. It’s clear that no decision on what the final outcome is but what is clear, Lindenwood has a campus and a community crisis on their hands,” Hill wrote.

Hill is the developer who is renovating a westside shopping center.

Lindenwood has invested in Belleville

Lindenwood has invested $25 million in the campus, including buying 55 homes in the area. Those homes were renovated from single-family homes to student housing, eliminating the common spaces and making them bedrooms, said Alderman Mike Buettner. His home is one of the few on the block that remain a single-family house.

“If they go under, I don’t know where the market is going to be for all these houses. So, it would be devastating if the school closes,” Buettner said.

Though Buettner has been seen by some as a critic of the university’s Belleville campus, he said that’s unfair. He wants city officials to ensure things are done the right way, to safeguard the city’s investment in the university.

“I just want people to all play by the same rules,” he said.

Buettner lost the election last month. He only has a few more weeks on city council.

Lindenwood announced Barger left the university on Jan. 22.

Less than two weeks later, the St. Charles campus put Shonrock on leave.

On Feb. 5, Shonrock received a letter from Lindenwood’s attorney, ordering him not to have contact with any university employees and barring him from the university.

He was fired three days later.

St. Charles Mayor Sally Faith, Director of Administration Larry Dobrosky, Director of Economic Development David Leezer and Police Chief Randy McKinley didn’t find out about Shonrock’s firing until the media reported it, according to emails they released under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Shonrock’s annual salary in 2017 was $378,764, plus benefits. Barger’s annual salary was $193,619, plus benefits.

Arthur Johnson, the vice-president of Lindenwood’s University Board of Trustees, was named interim president. Johnson, a former AAA executive, does not have a degree. The details of Johnson’s salary package, if any, were not immediately clear.

This story was originally published by St. Louis Public Radio at stlpublicradio.org and is republished by the BND with their permission. Follow Beth Hundsdorfer on Twitter; @bhundsdorfer
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