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January 13. 2013 11:33PM

St. John gets reprieve from vote until March

CONCORD - The state's Higher Education Commission has extended the degree-granting authority of St. John International University until March, pending the report of an evaluation team that visited the school in Italy last month.

A team of educators and lawmakers visited the university in December and will present their findings to the commission at its next quarterly meeting. The commission had been expected to vote on the school's future at its December meeting, but the visiting team did not have enough time to prepare its report, according to Richard A. Gustafson, director of the Division of Higher Education.

Meanwhile, former employees of the school who live in New Hampshire continue to press their claims for unpaid wages and express concern about state oversight of the school.

St. John International is the second overseas school that has received degree-granting authority from New Hampshire, the other being Hellenic American University in Greece.

Legislation has been introduced in the state Senate that would give the American University of Madaba in Jordan, founded in 2005, the authority to grant degrees under the auspices of the state Higher Education Commission.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, sponsor of the bill, was part of the six-person team that visited St. John International near Torino, Italy, in December. The team also included Gustafson; Thomas Rocco, former president of Granite State College; Mark Mitch, a faculty member at New England College; Piero Garofalo, associate professor of Italian at UNH; and William D. McGarry senior vice president for administration and finance at Southern New Hampshire University.

The trip was entirely paid for by SJIU, Gustavson said. None of the visiting team members sits on the Commission of Higher Education, which will ultimately rule on their recommendations.

Stiles, chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee, said she was impressed by what she saw during the site visit. She was assigned to evaluate student services.

"The dormitory and residence hall are more than adequate," she said. "It's a beautiful location, right in the middle of where students have access to everything they would ever need, and without exception, the students I spoke with said they decided to go there because it was a small university."

She said there were about 70 students on campus during the team visit, and that team members met with some of them one-on-one and in small groups.

The financial viability of the Italian institution and the quality of its faculty have been challenged by former employees, including Anne Blake, the school's former dean of admissions and student life. A recent report prepared for the commission shows the school ran up a $523,000 deficit last year.

Blake said she and several other employees remain unpaid for work they did in late 2011 and early 2012.

"When we file in New Hampshire, we are told New Hampshire has no jurisdiction," she said. "When people file in Italy, they are told they must file in the U.S. So where do we go for justice?"

Gustavson said financial strength is among the criteria the commission will use in making a decision on any institution. "We deal with finances and facilities," he said. "It's an institution-wide review."

Some in higher education have questioned the practice of chartering overseas universities through state legislatures in the United States. Gustavson acknowledges that the practice is not widespread, but said it is a "trend that's beginning to emerge."

"I think education is becoming more international as we speak," he said. "There is obviously a hope that as these institutions mature, they will become great sites for New Hampshire students to use for study abroad."

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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