WEST FRANKFORT — Tim Morthland feels he and the college that bore his name have been vindicated.
In an radio interview with Tom Miller on June 11 — weeks after Morthland College announced it would close — he told the WJPF host that the allegations and fines from the Department of Education against the school have been dismissed. When asked what was next for the school, Morthland was clear.
“We are sitting in a better position now because the allegations, which have been categorically false, have been dropped and so our name has been cleared,” Morthland told Miller.
A Department of Education Program Review initiated in January 2017 raised red flags over how the private Christian college handled admissions and student aid money. That led the department to place the school on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 status, which required the school pay up front for student costs and send in federal aid reimbursement requests to the DOE.
In August of 2017, the Office of Federal Student Aid initiated three actions against Morthland College, including an emergency action that prevented the college from drawing federal student aid money entirely, a termination action seeking to terminate the school’s eligibility for federal student aid money, and a fine action, totaling about $2 million for alleged misdeeds.
The letter instituting the three federal actions written by Susan Crim, director of the federal student aid administration actions and appeals service groups, alleged that the college violated several rules and regulations pertaining to federal student aid, and that the college did not follow distance education requirements, among other things.
These federal actions also prompted an investigation by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
Morthland has said the DOE actions led to the bankruptcy of the college, and its eventual closure, because it was unable to access federal funds for about 10 months. In a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Morthland contends that the emergency action halting the flow of funds should never have been put into place, citing the Code of Federal Regulations.
“MC’s letter of policy changes should have alleviated any concerns regarding any potential misuse of Title IV funds and should have statutorily protected MC from such an emergency action of August 23, 2017,” he wrote.
Prior to Morthland’s June 11 radio interview, the DOE Office of Hearings and Appeals had dropped the $2 million fine and the two other administrative actions against the college.
Whether these dismissals spell vindication for the college is yet to be seen, though.
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Carbondale-based attorney Rebecca Whittington said the documents from DOE, which were provided to The Southern by Morthland College through the law office of attorney Aaron Hopkins, did not provide a ruling on the merits of the administrative actions.
“It is not a ruling on the merits of what was pending. It is a determination that there no longer needs to be a ruling at all because (the school) closed.” She said this does not prohibit any actions from investigations that have not yet “ripened.”
The documents show that in more than one correspondence, DOE officials said proceeding with the emergency and termination actions would have been “moot” given the college’s voluntary decision to close its doors. The dismissal did not state whether the school had been cleared of any wrongdoings and acknowledged the ongoing program review.
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Crim stated in an email from May 31 that the emergency action and termination action were dropped because of the school’s closure.
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“Based on your notification that Morthland College will cease operations as of July 31, 2018, the Department will be filing a motion to dismiss the emergency action and termination action as the institution’s impending closure renders those actions moot,” she wrote.
Later that same day, Crim stated in an email that the fine action would also be dismissed, but referenced an attachment to that email regarding the fine action. “Please find correspondence regarding the fine action initiated against Morthland.” The attached letter was not included in the packet of information released to The Southern from Morthland College.
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Chief Judge Ernest C. Canellos, who was charged with overseeing Morthland College’s proceedings with the DOE, also noted the potential for other action in his June 4 order of dismissal.
“I note further that my dismissal of the above cited actions will have no consequence on the program review,” Canellos wrote. Canellos’ order also referenced a May 31 correspondence that was attached to the motion to dismiss, which he said indicates that Mothland’s president was notified that while the fine action had been withdrawn, an existing program review action would continue as a separate action.
Morthland contends that the department dropped the fine and actions because of the school’s insistence of stating its case in a hearing. When representatives from the college asked DOE officials for evidence to back up the claims made in the emergency action, Morthland said “they had none” in his interview with Miller.
“Once we took that stand, Tom, there was immediate resolution of this. All the allegations were dropped. The fines were dropped. That $2 million fine they imposed on us were also dropped,” Morthland said.
When reached for comment, a Morthland College representative stated that there is correspondence between the DOE and Morthland College that indicates the DOE initially refused to drop the actions when given notice of the institution’s closing. and that the DOE decided to drop the actions only after they made their May 25 request for a hearing. Morthland College has declined to provide copies of that correspondence to The Southern.
After the actions and fine were dismissed, Morthland went on to appeal directly to DeVos, asking in a June 4 letter for the money that was denied to them because of the emergency action. Morthland told Miller that this would allow them to pay back the Southern Illinois vendors that still have outstanding bills with the college.
Morthland also makes reference in his letter to DeVos that he believed the Chicago-Denver Office would continue to fine the school.
“In a series of attachments, you will find Ms. Crim’s 5.31.2018 letter for reference, where I have inferred that the Chicago-Denver office will still persist in attempting to impose uncollectable fines on our institution, a school whom they have already bankrupted,” Morthland writes.
This refers to the letter the school has not released to The Southern. It is unclear if, after the $2 million fine action was dismissed, another fine was imposed. The Southern has submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Education pertaining to the letter.
Morthland also called on DeVos to investigate Douglas Parrot, who oversees the DOE’s regional Chicago-Denver office, for discriminating against religious institutions.
“There is a clear and present prejudice that emerges from the President Obama leftover office leaders at these regional offices,” Morthland said to Miller last week.
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In the letter, Morthland asks that DeVos also consider the damages caused to the college, its students and the surrounding area — and assess a fair monetary value to them and pay the college.
“MC requests that the Secretary's valuation of the monetary damages which resulted from Douglas Parrot and the Chicago-Denver Office’s actions against Morthland College, be paid to the institution in addition to those dollars already reimbursable to MC under the Department’s HCM2 statutes,” the letter reads.
Morthland told Miller there has been movement in their requests to DeVos — he said school officials have been “promised a conversation, an interview with the secretary of education.”
The results of the program review have not yet been released by DOE. Statements from a Morthland College representative indicate that plans are currently in the works to file an appeal as soon as the final program review determination is released.
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