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March 18. 2013 9:34PM

Italian university chartered in NH gets time for review of financial records

CONCORD - A small university based in Italy but chartered by the New Hampshire Legislature got another reprieve from the New Hampshire High Education Commission, which voted Thursday to extend the degree-granting authority for St. John International University only until June, pending review of financials and other issues at the board's May meeting.

A six-member team that spent three days on the Torino, Italy, campus in December complimented the university on its accommodations for students and nearby amenities, but it raised concerns about the school's financial viability and key positions that remain unfilled.

"The commission was concerned about the finances and enrollment projections for the institution," said Richard Gustafson, director of the Higher Education Commission. "They continued degree-granting authority through June 30, but want to see up-to-date financials and enrollment numbers at our May 9 meeting."

The school reported a loss of $500,000 on its year-end audited financial statement in August 2012 and is facing several complaints for non-payment of wages by former employees. In one of the most highly publicized complaints, former SJIU president George J. Hagerty sued the university in February 2012 in Merrimack County Superior Court after working for months without being paid.

His wage claim was settled, but Hagerty later filed a defamation suit against the school. The evaluation report notes that eight claims for back wages have been filed, and three have been settled. Two key positions, provost and president, remain unfilled after years of high turnover by senior staff, according to the report.

Lack of laboratories was also cited as a deficiency at the school, which has 85 students in all programs, according to the visiting team. By May 1, SJIU has to present the Higher Education Commission with a list of creditors, the amounts owed and progress being made toward payment, and a list of claims associated with former and current employees, and the resolution of those claims.

St. John is one of three overseas universities that get to call themselves American universities because they are chartered by the state of New Hampshire. The other two are Hellenic American University, chartered in 2004, with offices in Manchester and a campus in Athens; and the American University of Madaba, Jordan, which received degree-granting authority from the Higher Education Commission in May 2012. State lawmakers who promoted the legislation for the three schools say they are stimulating study abroad opportunities for New Hampshire students. There is some debate among education experts as to whether it's good policy for a state to assign its name to an institution over which it has little direct control.

While the Hellenic University experience has gone smoothly, and Madaba is just getting under way, the experience with SJIU has been rocky since it started in 2008.

SJIU's four-year approval was up for renewal in 2012. It received a temporary reprieve in May to allow for a consultant report, and another at the end of the year, pending the December site visit.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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