Lindenwood University Belleville news surprises many students
The first president of Lindenwood University’s Belleville campus is criticizing the university’s board of trustees for its decision to stop offering daytime undergraduate academic programs after spring of 2020, leaving only night classes.
Jerry Bladdick, 58, now retired and living in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, expressed “sadness and surprise” at Monday’s news in a letter to the editor sent Tuesday to the BND. He called the board’s decision “one of the biggest mistakes that these individuals can and will make in the history of the university.”
“In my opinion, these board members simply do not know how to run an institution of higher learning,” Bladdick wrote. “I believe the closure of the day college programs to be a manufactured situation because of the lack of leadership since the departure of Dr. James Evans, former system president, and the loss of Mr. Jim Shoemake, past chairman of the board.”
Bladdick led the Belleville campus from 2009 to 2015. When reached by phone Wednesday, he said he’s been hearing from metro-east friends and colleagues who are stunned and heartbroken.
“I’m at a loss for words,” he said. “I’m devastated. There are so many men and women over the years who have poured their hearts and souls into that campus.”
Lindenwood officials declined to comment Tuesday about Bladdick’s letter or any information contained in it.
Communications Director Chris Duggan referred to Monday’s press release, which announced the board’s decision to consolidate daytime programs on Lindenwood’s main campus in St. Charles, Missouri; cited “financial and enrollment challenges” on the Belleville campus; and quoted Board Chairman J. Michael Conoyer as saying:
“This decision comes after careful consideration by our board of trustees to serve the long-term interests of our students, faculty, and staff. We believe this plan will best position our students and Lindenwood for the future, and we will work with our students and staff to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible.”
Bladdick became vice president and chief administrative officer for the Belleville campus in 2009, when it went from being a commuter school with only night classes to a full-time, full-service university. He was promoted to president in 2013 and left in 2015 to take a job at a Florida college.
At the time of his departure, Bladdick was credited with significantly increasing the number of students and degree programs in Belleville.
In his letter Tuesday, Bladdick questioned Duggan’s statement Monday that the Belleville campus has “historically underperformed” and suffered financial losses of $2.5 million to $3 million annually.
“I have set in countless board meetings and not one time did anyone share this information with me,” he wrote. “In addition, if these figures are true, it is the board of directors that needs to be held accountable. In simple terms, I, nor Brett Barger, nor any other Lindenwood Belleville employee could make large purchases without board approval. Every penny ever spent on the Belleville campus had board approval. Every dorm built, every house purchased, every major capital improvement needed their approval.”
“If we were hemorrhaging and losing money, then why on God’s green earth were we approving these purchases?” he asked Wednesday.
Barger replaced Bladdick in 2015, becoming the second president on the Belleville campus. He was placed on administrative leave last fall and left the job permanently in January for reasons not being made public.
Barger declined comment Monday on Lindenwood’s announcement about the consolidation.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said Art Johnson, current interim president of the university system, told him in a meeting Monday that Lindenwood had invested more than $40 million in the Belleville campus over the years. Projects have included construction of a new dorm; purchase of a motel and over 50 homes and apartment buildings; and major renovations on the football stadium, cafeteria, theater and other facilities.
“(Before Monday) it was never said to us that the Belleville campus was in any kind of financial hurt,” Eckert said. “It was just that they were looking for ways to strengthen the campus for the future, and we said, ‘We’re all for that.’”
In Bladdick’s letter, he used the word “nonsense” to describe Lindenwood’s statement that enrollments on the Belleville campus had become challenging. It was setting records semester after semester during his tenure, he wrote, making it one of the fastest-growing colleges in the Midwest.
“The outlook for that campus was so bright,” he said Wednesday.
The number of students in undergraduate daytime programs on the Belleville campus have been declining, according to Lindenwood. It went from 1,354 students at the end of fall semester in 2015 to 1,286 students in 2016, 1,269 students in 2017 and 1,243 students in 2018, and is projected at 1,061 students this fall based on admissions activity.
Perhaps more significant, officials say, is the number of Belleville students who get discounts on tuition.
“The discount rate during that same period has been increasing and currently stands at 65 percent,” Duggan said Wednesday. “Seventy-eight percent of students are athletes on some type of scholarship. The discount rate is how much tuition is discounted by institutional scholarships and grants.”
This spring, there were 240 students taking night classes on the Belleville campus and another 63 students at Lindenwood’s satellite location in Collinsville. The university isn’t renewing its lease in Collinsville after this term, Duggan said.
Lindenwood’s news release stated that consolidating daytime programs on the St. Charles campus would allow Belleville to focus on “accelerated evening and graduate programs,” as it did in the beginning, and that undergraduate students attending Belleville in 2020 could complete their degrees in St. Charles with scholarship packages intact.
Bladdick addressed this subject in his letter.
“This should tell anyone that these men and women have no clue as to what the Belleville campus stood for and the type of student that attended the Belleville campus,” he wrote. “These students wanted a small liberal arts campus experience where faculty, staff and the community cared for them and about them.”
Bladdick stated that Belleville and St. Clair County residents should be “outraged” by the board’s decision to move programs from Belleville.
“Many years ago under a different, more experienced leadership team at Lindenwood, there was a deal stuck between the city and university,” he wrote. “It was that deal that brought many leaders to the table, many benefactors that supported the campus and a community that welcomed the stability that Lindenwood brought to the west end, not to mention the economic impact the campus would later have on the community.”
Lindenwood bought the old Belleville West High School for $1 in 2003. The university entered into a development agreement with the city, which offered $3 million in tax-increment-financing funds, agreeing to pay 20 annual payments of $150,000.
Bladdick worked in higher education for 35 years. Before taking the Belleville job in 2009, he served on Lindenwood’s St. Charles campus and at Fontbonne University in St. Louis.
Bladdick planned to leave Belleville in December 2015 and move to Florida, where he owned a second home. He resigned three months early when he was offered the job of assistant vice president and director of continuing studies and special programs at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. He retired in April of last year.
On Tuesday, Bladdick ended his letter to the editor with an apology.
“More than anything I am sorry for the alumni that no longer will have a campus to call home,” he wrote. “I am sorry for the hundreds of faculty and staff members who took a professional chance on starting the outstanding, small liberal art university that Lindenwood Belleville had become. I am sorry for the Belleville residents that had opened their arms and welcomed all of us, only to be mislead and disappointed.”