File video: Lindenwood University-Belleville news surprises students
Shock. Disappointment. Concern. Sadness.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert expressed all those feelings after a 45-minute meeting on Monday morning with Lindenwood University officials, who told him that its Belleville campus would stop offering daytime undergraduate academic programs after spring of 2020.
“They just left my office,” Eckert said. “Sadly enough, a lot of other people knew it before they were honest with the city about their intentions. It was very disappointing. It’s a sad day.”
Eckert said he knew Lindenwood had been facing challenges in the past year, but that university and city officials met in late February and agreed to work together to “strengthen” the campus.
The city reached out several times, beginning in March, to resume talks with Lindenwood, Eckert said, but university officials seemed busy and asked to wait until after graduation.
Then came Monday’s news.
Eckert met with Art Johnson, interim president for the Lindenwood University system, based in St. Charles, Missouri; and Dr. J. Michael Conoyer, chairman of its board of trustees. By that time, students and staff had already received notifications about changes to come.
“I am just shocked, and I’m extremely disappointed that they couldn’t have found a way to sit down and work with us,” Eckert said. “It’s as if they had their minds made up for some time.”
The BND asked for a university response to the mayor’s complaints. Lindenwood Communications Director Chris Duggan said officials weren’t making statements beyond what was contained in a news release emailed Monday, announcing the program consolidation.
In the months leading up to the board’s decision, a team had been tasked with “exploring options for the Belleville campus in light of ongoing financial and enrollment challenges,” according to the release.
It continued: “Following a thorough exploration of numerous courses of action, the Board of Trustees and leadership team determined this consolidation was the best long-term strategy for the university and the undergraduate students it principally serves.”
Eckert wasn’t the only city official who felt blindsided by the university’s announcement.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Jane Pusa, alderwoman for Belleville Ward 2, which includes the campus. “We’ve always had a great relationship with Lindenwood. I guess we’ll see what happens. ... Things change all the time. We’ve seen several presidents leave in the past year.”
Pusa lives about a block from Lindenwood, behind Bob’s Barber Shop. She said she enjoys the university and its students.
Carmen Duco, the other Ward 2 alderwoman, declined comment until she gets more information.
“I don’t really know what’s going on just yet,” she said Monday afternoon. “I don’t know what the story is.”
Lindenwood paid $1 to buy the old Belleville West High School in 2003. The city offered $3 million in tax-increment-financing funds to the university, agreeing to pay 20 annual payments of $150,000.
Since that time, Lindenwood has renovated the buildings and expanded academic and sports programs, other services and student housing. Eckert said Johnson told him Monday that the university had invested more than $40 million in the campus.
Eckert said communications between Lindenwood and the city have been “poor” since the university’s board of trustees placed Belleville campus President Brett Barger on administrative leave last fall. Eckert described him as “caring” and “involved in the community.”
Barger left permanently in January. On Feb. 8, the board fired Michael Shonrock, president of the Lindenwood University system.
“The way they’re doing business is extremely concerning,” Eckert said.
The last meeting between the city and Lindenwood was in late February. Eckert said Johnson spoke of the need to “strengthen” the Belleville campus but gave few specifics, leading Eckert to assume that enrollment was down and needed a boost.
“We understand that it’s been a tough time recently for higher education,” Eckert said. “That goes without saying if you watch the news at all.”
Eckert said Johnson admitted for the first time Monday morning that the Belleville campus was having financial problems. Duggan went further later in the day, saying it had “historically underperformed” and lost $2.5 to $3 million annually.
How will changes at Lindenwood affect the city of Belleville?
“It’s going to have a serious affect on that corridor (along West Main Street),” Eckert said. “Having the students in town ... and the sporting events and having their families come visit, et cetera, have all been very positive things, extremely positive.”
Lindenwood plans to consolidate all daytime undergraduate academic programs on its St. Charles campus, leaving only evening classes in Belleville and forcing some current students to drive nearly 40 miles to finish their bachelor’s degrees.
Eckert said university officials on Monday didn’t provide information on what will happen with dorms and other student housing in the neighborhood or how employees will be affected, other than to say, “There will be more changes.”
“Belleville’s very resilient,” Eckert said. “We’re going to have to sit down and figure out how we can turn this into an opportunity. We’re not going to give up. One thing about it, over the years, that corridor has been greatly redeveloped. The properties are all in much better shape today than they were.”
Eckert ended his comments on a positive note.
“(Lindenwood officials) left here making a statement that they were going to wind down the day program,” he said. “But yet they were very unclear about a lot of things.
“I just think we’re going to have to get busy and do some major collaboration with people to partner and see how we can turn this negative into a positive. And knowing the people of Belleville, I think we can and we will.”