By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2010
The Legion of Christ priests serving on the board of trustees of Southern Catholic College submitted their resignations the week of March 15, a month before it became public knowledge that the Dawsonville college was in such financial trouble that it couldn’t meet its payroll.
However, Edward L. Schroeder, chairman of the board, said that he did not accept their resignations because the board bylaws state their terms are unlimited and they can only resign when successors are named by Father Scott Reilly, territorial director of the Legion of Christ.
Schroeder asserts that the board is now unable to act due to the conflict between the bylaws’ requirements and the absence of the Legion of Christ priests.
The board effectively does not have a quorum, he said.
“The conflict is that they aren’t coming to the board meetings so they can fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities as needed as to guiding the school,” he said.
It is one of several questions in dispute concerning the college.
Students, faculty, staff and parents learned by e-mail over spring break that Southern Catholic College would be closing early for the semester on April 15 because of a serious funding crisis. The long-term future of the college was described as being in the hands of the board of trustees by school president, Legion of Christ Father Shawn Aaron.
Schroeder, the retired international president of United Parcel Service who has been on the board for six years, said that since July 2009 the college has been a Legion of Christ institution and that the bylaws were rewritten by the Legion then and reflect that identity, including control of the board.
“They took the college over, and it is a Legion school,” he said.
When the transition occurred, the board believed that a development office would be opened and personnel brought on to promote the college, he said, but that didn’t happen.
“It was the understanding of the board that they were coming in for that reason, to help us be financially sound and grow,” Schroeder said.
Jim Fair, spokesman for the Legion of Christ, contacted by e-mail, wrote that the Legionary priests on the board left because of “the reality of the challenging economic circumstances of both institutions and the community as a whole.”
“In light of the difficult financial challenges facing the college—and the Legion—the Fathers believed it best to step down and allow the longer-serving board members to manage the school going forward. We wish the best for everyone associated with Southern Catholic.”
Fair wrote that since July 2009 the Legion has provided the school’s president, Father Aaron, a chaplain and “numerous professional services.”
The order also made “two gifts of $80,000 each to pay the March payrolls for the college.”
However, he wrote, “The Legion has no financial interest, ownership, control or involvement.”
“Any decision on the future of the college will be made by the existing board, absent the resigned Legionaries,” according to Fair. He said Father Aaron and Legion chaplains would remain there.
In response, Schroeder said, “I know that that is their position.”
He added, “I know the existing board cannot operate because the bylaws state that the Legionaries are in total control of the college.”
“Any publication from July 2009 on will state that Southern Catholic is a Legion school,” he said.
He confirmed that the order’s donations covered the college payrolls in March.
The remainder of the board, which includes a number of lay professionals and business people as well as Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama, is intact, he said.
The private Catholic college was opened in 2005, realizing the dream of a number of North Georgia Catholic business people to have a residential Catholic college in Georgia and one with an emphasis on orthodoxy. Supporters put not only work but also funding into the dream of establishing a Georgia Catholic college.
The college graduated its first senior class in 2009 and will hold a simple ceremony to graduate its 2010 class after closing early on April 15 because of its funding crisis. About 170 students are enrolled.
As a longtime supporter of Southern Catholic College, Schroeder expressed his hope that a benefactor or several benefactors could still be found to allow it to reopen.
Ads have been placed in several Catholic publications, including The Georgia Bulletin, seeking $6 million in contributions and pledges by June 30 to allow the college to reopen.
“It is an effort to save the college. It is a great institution,” he said.
Supporters hope that with that level of financial backing they could reorganize and put a plan in place to reopen in the fall.
“Our goal is to find a supporter or supporters that would help us reopen the school in the fall. … If this effort fails, I don’t know what the next step is,” Schroeder said. “The college is very important to the archdiocese. We have graduated almost 90 students who received an excellent education.”
“We were able to make a go of it for four years,” he noted. “I am very disappointed that we haven’t been able to make it.”
In the meantime, undergraduates and faculty are facing an uncertain future.
A meeting was held on the campus April 12, at which about eight other mostly Catholic colleges were represented, according to Father Aaron, college president.
Those colleges “had agreed to accept the credits of the students and in some cases even match some of their financial packages, which was obviously a great consolation for many of the families,” Father Aaron said.
“Having the presence of those different colleges I think assuaged some of the fears of some of the families who weren’t sure what would happen with transfers and credits,” he said.
The colleges included Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey, Benedictine College in Kansas, Steubenville University, St. Thomas More College in New Hampshire and Holy Cross College in South Bend, Ind.
At the same time, faculty and staff were not paid after April 15 and their benefits end April 30.
“If there is anything that truly causes me great grief, it is that,” Father Aaron said. “It comes down to money. There is just not the money there. … The most painful part is that the faculty and staff have had very little notice. It becomes very difficult for them. That is painful for everybody.”
“Every college we asked to come, we also asked, do you need faculty or staff,” he said. “That was an effort and still continues to be one.”
Even though faculty and staff of necessity have to look for other positions immediately, he expressed hope that the college could still be revived.
It is “almost like chemotherapy,” he said. “You reduce it to the smallest possible living organism at this point to see if you can make it grow up again.”