Mid-Continent University is bankrupted. The Christian school choked on more than $11 million in debt.
It closed its doors two years ago and is now trying to settle with the people to whom it owes money. The campus is for sale, but the college is still asking former students to fork over thousands of dollars in loans.
I have followed those chapter 11 bankruptcy hearings and tried for more than a year to get those who ran the university to tell us how the small Christian school, with its roots in Baptist theology, ended up broke. It was one of the seven deadly sins that doomed the school.
Bob Imhoff moved into the president’s home at Mid-Continent University in 1999, but only after Bethel College dismissed him and cut his contract short the year before. His wife, Jackie, was in charge of the school’s Advantage program for non-traditional students. It promised a degree for working moms and busy business managers who wanted to earn a degree outside of a students’ schedule.
In a YouTube recruitment video, Imhoff says: “The growth has been dramatic and great and has afforded the opportunity to develop revenue sources here before impossible.”
Imhoff began looking at his students as a revenue source, touting his school’s success, but two years later, the money was gone and the school closed. Whistleblower and board of trustees member Gale Hawkins says the problem was greed. “The desire to get the cash overrode the desire to operate in a Christ like manner…it was about getting money based on what I see," he says.
That enormous growth and wealth sparked a Department of Education audit. School leaders at the time said the 2011 audit was routine. I contacted all 31 board members to see if this was true. Only two — Hawkins and Bob Sellers — agreed to speak to me. Sellers was on the board for 15 years. About the audit, he told me he knew something was off.
“This was something that was not quite something I understood, but it was explained at the time this was something they were doing and we would make those records known to them. And make them aware, just as you do when you’re audited by the IRS, and this would be corrected," Sellers says. "It was explained to us they were liable to be some fines about, so we were prepared to pay some fines if there weren’t things handled exactly as it should have been.”
Mid-Continent never passed the audit. So, what led to the failed audit? Acting president at the time Ken Winters says the problem was poor record-keeping. He says: “It was the lack of accurate and timely reporting of student data, and also of being so excited about getting someone on board as a student that maybe they weren’t as careful as they should have been with maintaining the kind of records necessary.”
But, when I asked Winters’ successor, Tom Walden, the same question, he was more reserved. “The only thing I can tell you is the people who were there were not involved, and it was a situation where several factors contributed," Walden says.
The university spent two years trying to answer the Department’s audit questions. Even with nine extensions from 2011 to 2013, the audit found too many problems with Mid-Continent’s Advantage program and other payments. The Department of Education decided to cut Mid-Continent off, starving them of any federal funds starting August 2013. Board member Bob Wellers says someone got away with something.
“It appeared, from what I understood, most of the responsibility fell within those for these records, but again when we kept wanting to find out who had done this, lets hold them responsible so they can be disciplined, fired, if that’s the case, or even held accountable," Sellers says. "If this isn’t legal then why shouldn’t they be held accountable nothing of that came about.”
Imhoff was dismissed from Bethel College in 1998. The Cumberland Presbyterian General Assembly purchased the rest of his contract. According to the McKenzie Banner, the assembly asked Imhoff to “exercise restraint in making program, staff, or faculty changes while he remains in office.”
I reached out to the General Assembly to ask why the contract was cut short. They have yet to answer my calls.
During the audit, Mid-Continent spent millions of dollars on consultants to sort it out. The school kept paying money out of their own reserves to keep the school running when the federal money ran dry, including underwriting student loans. All say the students should have been left out of it.
“All we had to do was get the students to sign a piece of paper saying we don’t have direct funding from the department of education any longer, and they sign that. And that would be legit, but they deceived the students. Not doing what they know they should do," Hawkins says.
Winters said he would say to the students: “So, you need to know that, because we’re having difficulty with the flow of money from the U.S. office of education, we’re writing your loans and Pell grants out of our own reserves to make sure you’re successful.”
The school closed in June 2014, and Mid-Continent filed for bankruptcy. The students were told to pay up. “What hurt me is how the trustees, after they realized the criminal activity and everything they doubled down on the students, wanted to get the money like it was their money. It was all fraudulent," Hawkins says.
On the bit about the criminal activity: the Attorney General’s office never charged anyone. Officially, in the release, the attorney general’s office says it reached an agreement with Mid-Continent about how students should pay back the Christian school. Hawkins says: “That was covered up with, absolutely, fraud. The students were lied to and said their accounts were falsified to show their accounts were coming from the department of education, which didn’t happen.”
No one was charged with fraud, but some people were still getting paid. The Imhoffs got paid for two months until they were officially dismissed four months before the school closed. Some leaders want to hold them responsible.
“It seemed to fall within the levels of record keeping, and over that most of us felt like it fell within the parameters of responsibility for the president or miss Jackie his wife," Sellers says.
“The intent was we weren’t going to abide by department of education, that it was going to be done Jackie’s way," Hawkins says.
“The responsibility for any institution rests in its leader," Winters says.
There haven’t been any charges brought against any leader at Mid-Continent, but it’s not completely out of the question. Every university that backs out of a federally-funded education program is required to fill out a close out audit form 45 days after closure. The Department of Education still has not received that, which means they still have not been able to publish their final review. It’s in that final review the department could bring at least sanctions or fines against one or more people with the school. At the most– recommend charges.
But no one will speak to me about what’s happened inside the university since declaring bankruptcy, or the future of the school. Our crews have only been allowed so far inside. Tim Walker, current CFO — who is designated to speak for the failed university — refuses to agree to an on-camera interview despite dozens of attempts.
So, the Imhoffs continue to enjoy life in Florida after two Christian schools dismissed him. Former Mid-Continent faculty and staff have moved on after not getting paid for their work in their final months.
Something went wrong here: A school that boasted thousands of students, and now only three cars parked in the middle of a well-manicured campus. All because leadership got greedy and neglected the rules for records, abandoning their Christian virtues to do so.
I did reach out to Bob and Jackie Imhoff. Jackie spoke to me at length on the phone at one time, but has since refused any interview. Jackie admitted she would have taken different steps. Hindsight is 20/20, but that it was a shock when the school closed. She went on to say she did not believe record-keeping was an issue, but that the Department of Education demands were too complicated and kept changing.
We reached out to the Department of Education about the closure. The Department of Education sent us a statement.
It reads in part:
The Department was not involved with the "closure" of Mid-Continent university. Unlike state authorizing/licensing agencies, the department cannot mandate that a school close.
The Department only has the authority to take action to end a school’s participation in the title IV programs.
Since its closure, department staff has continued to counsel MCU of its responsibility to provide a close-out audit of the title IV programs, which MCU has yet failed to do.
As the department has not publicly issued its final program review determination from its subsequent program review at the institution, we would not be able to comment specifically on any potential issues, findings or liabilities which may ensure from such.
Mid-Continent lost its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December of 2014. The university is still up for sale, and most recently, CFO Tim Walker said they’ve been in discussions with a potential buyer.