Last Monday, my alma mater announced it was closing its doors because it couldn’t afford to keep the lights on anymore. It had struggled for decades with financial instability, going so far as trying (in the early 1990s) to sell the entire campus and move 200 miles to Sacramento.
Well, the school’s closed. The alums are frustrated, hurt, many are crying. For several days, I felt no emotions one way or the other because I resigned myself to the fact the place would close quite some time ago. The posts on Facebook’s Bethany Alumni site mostly reminiscent; some sad, some angry, but largely 1600 members of an online family who are all hurting.
So, this was posted by a few days ago by Margaret Shelton, the wife of the current president:
“Good evening Facebook friends.
Many of you have had conversations on Facebook in regards to the money problems at BU. I quote from a reliable source;
“BU students past and present owe Bethany $3,203,981.68.”
Sleep well BU Alumni.”
The post roused a firestorm of anger, speculation, and finger pointing. within an hour there were more than 30 comments trying to figure out what exactly that number meant, where it came from, how it could be so large, and who was responsible for it. Ultimately, people wondered who Shelton was pointing her finger toward. There were several people who said “Hey! I paid my school bill in full, x number of years ago!”
To her credit, she deleted the post in the early hours of the morning, along with all the comments that followed the thread, and she replaced it with an apology.
For a time, I thought no more of it. I thought it was notably good of her to apologize for the inflammatory message. People had been questioning her husband’s decisions as President. She was clearly looking for somewhere to deflect the blame from him. I thought it was both a childish and angry tactic, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t work really well. The larger part of the alumni group wanted to hunt down, capture, and shake the former students by the ankles until $3.2M dropped from their pockets.
But I let the comment go, and chalked it peoples’ upset. I’d be upset too, if there were a roiling undercurrent of anger or toward my spouse’s work at their job.
That was until the post that arrived June 18 (2 days later), also from Margaret:
Alumni has 3,203,981 ways they can help BU
It currently has 51 comments and a dozen or so “likes”. It’s the same tired words. We bad, evil naughty alumni owe $3.2M and the tone insinuates, well, “what were naughty children thinking to ruin your alma mater this way?”
A few people spoke up immediately. They saw the tactic as diversionary. A few noted that $3.2M hardly covers 1/5 the total university debt. Nobody’s mentioned that Bethany operated without a trained Financial Aid staff for much of the last fiscal year, and were, for several months, advertising for a Student Accounts manager. If Bethany were operating in these conditions, it’s not surprising students have outstanding debt totaling into the millions. I’m betting, without knowing the specifics, that a number of students were given a “line of credit”, not for the benefit of the students, but for the staff themselves, who were trying to cope with a heap of insurmountable paperwork, account billings, etc. My guess is an *administrative* decision was made, to do this. If students were given a line of credit by the school on good faith, and then defaulted to the tune of 3.2M, that was a business practice, and a bad one at that. If the college lagged in collecting, they are equally as culpable as the students to whom they loaned the cash. A few Alums made the excellent point that students are not allowed to walk the line unless their accounts were cleared. Hell, I’m pretty sure that in the 1980s/1990s we weren’t allowed to enroll unless our accounts had all payment options arranged. All that to say, Alums aren’t the problem. The banks come after us if we don’t pay our loans, but Bethany already got their money, whenever we signed that promissory note to have our souls sucked out by Corporate America.
I understand the need to keep warm bodies in a chair. Really I do. It’s probably tough to run an educational institution with nobody to educate. But deflective rhetoric, and blaming the one of the groups who cares more than any other about the continued success of the University.
I was quite angry when these two posts were added to the facebook Alum Group. In fact, when I started this post (about an hour after Margaret’s first statement), I was furious, and ready to let her have it with 2 barrels of rock salt. I’ve since settled down. Yet, even a few days away from the post, it strikes me as sad and petty to employ this type of straw-man rhetoric. The alums aren’t the problem. We’ve paid our debt. The faculty and staff aren’t the problem. They gave, in blood, for decades, to keep the place open. I’m also glad to point out that the current president isn’t to blame–he inherited a sinking ship. I’m sorry, Margaret, but the burden of blame lies elsewhere. There’s been a lot of time for finger pointing (although it seems many have a lot more time on their hands than others), and plenty of threads have produced sound, not-so-sound, and “interesting” reasoning as to why any particular group is to blame. But it doesn’t really solve any problems, does it? It doesn’t make the debt go away. I guess, if it makes you feel better, go ahead and blame the Alums. Still, what’s the words in Matthew? “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” or, I might ask, $3.2M of the Alumni?