Next weekend, Lon Morris College alumni plan to gather to say farewell to their alma mater. After nearly 150 years, the school closed its doors in August 2012 due to financial insolvency.
I began receiving word of a “final homecoming” shortly after Thanksgiving and almost immediately my friends and I began making plans to attend. The way we understood it, the “homecoming” weekend would be built around a ceremony held at a local church, which we figured would involve alumni and faculty paying tribute to the school, a perfect way to say goodbye to a place that had such a tremendous impact on our lives.
This morning I read a press release from the The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church regarding the weekend that makes me question whether or not organizers planned this event for alums, or rather as a final P.R. opportunity for the Conference.
For those of you not familiar with the politics, the Texas Annual Conference acquired the College in 1875, when it was still known as Alexander Collegiate Institute, and claimed ownership of the College until the doors closed in August. Though not solely responsible, the Conference proved both apathetic and negligent in dealing with the College’s financial troubles and played a major part in the school’s ultimate demise.
Long touted as “an institution of the United Methodist Church,” the Conference began distancing itself from the school once bankruptcy proceedings began.
On September 27, 2012, the Longview News-Journal published, as a part of a Q&A series, a question from a reader regarding the relationship of Lon Morris and the Conference. As part of their response, the Journal provides quotes from Paula Arnold, a “spokesperson” for the Conference.
“The Texas Annual Conference itself has no owenership,no authority to step in take over,” Arnold told the Journal.
While I’m not a corporate attorney, I am familiar enough with the school (and Methodist church) to know Ms. Arnold’s statements are definitely misleading. We can debate whether or not the Conference had “authority to step in,” but there is absolutely no debate over who owned the College.
In Lon Morris College’s Student Handbook 2010-2011, the publisher states in no uncertain terms, “Owned by the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Lon Morris College seeks to provide leadership for today’s world.“
More recently, the Conference listed Lon Morris College under “Entities Owned by the Texas Annual Conference,” in the report On Earth as in Heaven: Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church 2012 Pre-Conference Journal:
Why then would a Conference spokesperson deny ownership?
It is the most recent in a series of puzzling moves by the Conference in respect to the College.
My first semester at Lon Morris news broke that then College President, Clifford Lee, had “ordered a change in his son’s transcript.” It embarrassed the students and outraged the local community, but Bishop J. Woodrow Hearn, acting as head of the Conference and as a trustee, gave Mr. Lee a vote of confidence. Mr. Lee remained in power and the Conference established a pattern of gross negligence in dealing with the school’s affairs.
Anyone remotely close to Lon Morris from the mid-90′s forward knew of the school’s financial woes, yet the Conference failed to enact any policies that might encourage fiscal restraint. Instead, by their inaction, they endorsed the plans of unsustainable spending and growth promoted by President, Dr. Mile McCall, which eventually led to the closing of the school and auctioning off of the property.
I find it a bit distasteful that the the Conference would hijack this event to use as an opportunity to promote their brand and attempt to restore their image in the East Texas community. Indeed, inviting the Conference bishop, Ms. Janice Riggle Huie, to speak at the event would be the equivalent of inviting Ken Lay to speak at a gathering of former Enron employees. Yet in this morning’s press release, I read that she will be presiding over the event.
I write not to dissuade those of you who find this type of service cathartic from attending, but rather to to reach out to the sizable portion of the Lon Morris alumni base that believe Lon Morris to be bigger than any ecclesial body, those of us who remember Lon Morris as a sanctuary we came to partake in the sacraments of college, rather than the sacraments of the Spirit. To you I say there are other ways of remembering and honoring the College than bowing down to kiss the ring of those responsible for her demise.