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St. John International University's future uncertain as debt looms

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 21. 2012 1:10AM

The clock is ticking for St. John International University, an American school that opened in Torino, Italy, four years ago thanks to state legislation and approval from the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission.

The school celebrated its first graduation ceremony in May, with five students awarded degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The state Higher Education Commission will soon decide if it gets to award any more.

A recent report prepared for the commission shows the school ran up a $523,000 deficit last year. Employees have filed claims for unpaid wages in the U.S. and Italy. The former president of the university, a well-respected New Hampshire educator, has sued for compensation and defamation of character. The state Securities Bureau is investigating an investor complaint. The former dean of admissions and student life attended a recent meeting of the Higher Education Commission to ask why the board has not intervened more aggressively.

It's not the most advantageous situation for the university as it faces a Dec. 31 deadline for renewal of its approval to operate from rented office space in Concord. The Higher Education Commission at its Sept. 27 meeting reviewed a lengthy report compiled by the university in response to 13 specific concerns, as a prelude to a site visit in Torino some time in early December.

After that visit, the board is expected to vote on the fate of an institution that started with significant support from political and academic figures in the state, but whose viability is now in question.

In May, the commission ordered the school to hire a consultant to help it address commission concerns. The 13 questions included the identification of investors and their viability, the status of litigation against SJIU and the sources of what the board called 'apparent dysfunction.'

Kathryn Dodge, former executive director of the Higher Education Commission, was engaged by the SJIU Board of Trustees to assist in the assessment. The board had its own consultant, Jim Craiglow, president emeritus and chancellor emeritus of Antioch University New England, review the assessment and advise the board on how to proceed.

At the Sept. 27 meeting, Craiglow recommended that the commission vote to accept the report and 'reaffirm a fall visit that will review the institution's degree-granting authority against the commission standards, as well as continued progress on the issues identified in the report.'

Anne Blake, the school's former dean of admissions and student life, is among those pursuing a claim for unpaid wages through the state Department of Labor. She attended the Sept. 27 meeting but was not allowed to ask questions while it was in session.

She said she waited until the meeting was over and then addressed any commission members who cared to listen. 'I stood up and said, 'Excuse me, as you know I am a former dean at SJIU and you have to know what's going on here. People are not being paid. There are lawsuits. There are claims to the Department of Labor. I know people who still work there, and they are behind two months on their pay.''

Blake said she told the board, 'This is a mockery of higher education, and I cannot believe that this is allowed at a school in New Hampshire.' One of the commissioners suggested that Blake write a letter detailing her concerns and send it to each member of the commission, which she said she intends to do.

Concord attorney and lobbyist James Bianco serves on the school's board of directors and has acted as spokesman for Lorenzina Zampedri, chairman of the board and founder of the school. He declined to respond to questions submitted via email and by telephone.

The process of getting the school licensed as an American university started with much hope and significant high-level support in January of 2009, when state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, introduced SB 26, a bill 'relative to degree granting authority for St. John International University,' subject to the approval of the Higher Education Commission.

D'Allesandro is now on the SJIU Board of Directors, as is state Sen. Sylvia B. Larsen, D-Concord, and the Rev. Jonathan DeFelice, president of St. Anselm College in Manchester. DeFelice is also a member of the Higher Education Commission, although he has recused himself from SJIU deliberations.

D'Allesandro said he sponsored the legislation in the hope of offering New Hampshire students more opportunities for studies abroad, and he hoped the new university proposed in Italy would be modeled on the Hellenic American University in Greece, which was also chartered by an act of the state Legislature about 10 years ago. In May of this year, the commission approved the American University of Madaba, which has a campus in Jordan.

Richard Gustafson, director of the Higher Education Commission, said state approval for overseas institutions is a coveted designation for several reasons. Approval by a state means that the institution can eventually apply for and hopefully receive accreditation from one of the American accrediting agencies, which would make its students eligible for U.S. financial aid packages.

Even without accreditation, students attending one of the approved institutions for a semester of study aboard would be able to retain their financial aid eligibility from their state-based institution while studying abroad, as was the case when some Plymouth State students studied in Torino last year.

The prospects seemed strong enough that George J. Hagerty, president of Franklin Pierce University for 14 years, agreed to serve as first president. According to Blake, she and another former FPU administrator, Marybeth Benbenek, agreed to sign on as deans of admissions and academic affairs, respectively, in late 2011.

By early 2012, all three had either resigned or been fired, and began to pursue claims against the school. Hagerty's lawsuit over compensation and defamation of character has been widely reported and is working its way through Merrimack Superior Court. Benbenek filed a wrongful termination suit in Italy.

Blake, of South Burlington, Vt., is one of five former employees to file complaints with the state Department of Labor. She is seeking $3,990 for wages from January and February, and made her case at a Sept. 17 hearing, where two attorneys for SJIU showed up to contest her claim. The ruling is still pending.

Patrizia Parpajola of Italy, who served as marketing director filed a complaint for $27,900 in unpaid salary on Aug. 23. Lucia Hannau of Italy, an Italian instructor, filed a complaint on Aug. 24 for $4,000.

Andrea Brode of Walpole, former dean of international programs, settled an $8,650 claim, while Joan Epro of Troy, associate dean for curriculum, settled a claim for $1,166 in June.

Blake feels that state oversight of the school has been lacking. She is concerned that foreign-based universities are going to be coming to New Hampshire for approval in greater numbers, and are being held to lesser standards.

'Those of us who agreed to come on board and work for SJIU did so, in part, because the school had been approved by the DOE and NHHEC,' she said. 'Can you imagine if Keene State or Plymouth State were not paying their faculty and staff? Do you think that this would be allowed or ignored as it is at SJIU?'

The status of staff salary payments was number three on the list of 13 concerns SJIU had to answer in its report to the state. 'SIJU has been able to successfully resolve several outstanding issues and continues to address others,' the report states. 'One matter related to salary has resulted in litigation and although SJIU has paid the salary in question, that litigation is ongoing. The parties are working toward scheduling mediation in the fall. Anticipated costs or liability for SJIU cannot be accurately determined at this time, but increasing legal and consulting costs are evident.'

Financial statements provided by SJIU indicate the school would have actually lost $840,676 in its last fiscal year, if not for an infusion of cash from various investors. Identifying those investors and their viability was number two on the state's list of concerns. The investors are identified in the report either by name, such as Philip Lyon, or by institution, such as MIR Europe, with no detail as to their location or financial viability.

The state Bureau of Securities Regulation is investigating one investor's complaint. Earl Wingate, a bureau attorney, said the case is still open. 'There has been movement in the matter,' he said, 'and we expect it to be wrapped up in the not-to-distant future.'

The school's report to the state board sounds an optimistic tone.

'With all outstanding debt paid off, SJIU expects to have approximately $800,000 from investor revenues in SJIU's bank account by Dec. 31,' the report states. 'SJIU's goal is to be able to be self-financed by student enrollment revenue by fall of 2013.'

The High Education Commission's consultant urged the board to dig deeper on those assertions. 'What is the relationship, if any, of those investing in SJIU beyond that of stockholder,' he wrote in his analysis of the report. 'SJIU indicates that their hope is to be self-funded by fall of 2013. Is this goal realistic?'

The next commission meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13, after the site visit to Italy and further review of the school's financial situation. A vote on renewing the school's state authorization is likely come at that time. Blake said she intends to be there.

'The amount of money I'm owed is very modest,' she said. 'I am doing this for the principle of the thing, and I'm not going to back down.'

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Dave Solomon may be reached at

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