University moves forward on land deal with SPSU, but president says college keeping its options open

MARIETTA - Life University in Marietta, once the largest chiropractic college in the world, has taken another step in what schools officials hope may be a chance to save the school from its financial and accreditation woes. The Life University Board of Directors approved a written agreement Monday spelling out the details of the exchange of Life's land to the neighboring Southern Polytechnic State University Foundation in return for relieving Life of its $30.7 million in debt. The plan was originally announced in November 2003. "The board voted and agreed yesterday to approve the agreement that they've been working on," Life spokesman Will Hurst said. "It's a reaffirmation. It changes nothing." Now the Georgia Board of Regents must approve the contract. They are scheduled to meet again in March, said Dr. Chuck Ribley, Life board of trustees chairman. The agreement calls for the transfer ownership of the school's 89-acre campus to the fund-raising foundation of neighboring SPSU. Life would still be able to operate as a university and lease back some of its current classroom facilities. Life University officials made the announcement that the board was continuing to move forward with the SPSU Foundation deal at an all-school assembly called Tuesday. During the assembly, university President Dr. Ben DeSpain told students that over the past year the school has been pondering about "three dozen plans to secure and guarantee the financial future of Life University." He said working out the Life's issues is very complex, more so than he anticipated. He said the reality of the situation is that he shares the frustration with students and faculty that have stayed at the school, but that Life is making progress. "There are two, maybe three, strong possibilities to keep this beautiful university intact," he said. During the assembly, he raised the possibility of exiting the agreement with the SPSU foundation. He said that there is a clause in the agreement that would allow either side to back out before July, if necessary. If Life were to back out, they would be responsible for covering the SPSU Foundation's costs of entering the agreement, such as legal costs. After the assembly, he elaborated on his statements and said that the University is still examining other options that are coming forward. "It is not that we want to be unfriendly neighbors, but we want to do what is best for us," he said about the ability to get out of the agreement. "We want to try to look out for what we have a fiduciary responsibility to do." Life, which once had the largest chiropractic program in the world, was stripped of its accreditation by the Council on Chiropractic Education in June 2002. A court has since restored Life's accreditation temporarily, but the school must reapply for permanent accreditation in January 2005. It is still on probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Because of its accreditation woes, Life lost a significant number of chiropractic students, which made up the majority of the student body. Enrollment in the chiropractic program has dropped by about 2,000 students in the past two years, from more than 3,000 to about 1,300. DeSpain said officials from Life also called Tuesday's assembly to clear up recent campus rumors. "There was a rumor we were going to get a deal signed on the 28th," he said. "People have fertile minds so we wanted to put some specifics out there (today)." One of the most recent rumors was a buyout by the Keiser Collegiate System, a private college management company, based out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. DeSpain said there are no written proposals drafted for that option and that it has stalled in the last few weeks because negotiators from both parties have fallen ill. Faculty who attended the meeting said they were glad to hear that there have been options in a venture that at times looked bleak without all the information. "It was somewhat helpful," said Mo Braum, clinic faculty. "I got some sense that we are working together, but the details of what we are working on is a little obscure." He said rumors about potential financial deals at the school have been rampant. "Everybody has a different one," he said." You hear lots of them." Chuck Ribley encouraged students to stay positive. "Will Life University be here next year? The answer is yes," he said. "Don't listen to the rumors out there that the sky is falling. Nothing is falling we are rising." DeSpain said the university would be going out into the community soon to do a tour of civic clubs, laying out what is going on with the future of Life. University officials reaffirmed their pledge to raise the $3 million required to balance the University's annual budget and the student recruitment campaign they are conducting across the country. Student reaction seemed positive for the most part at the assembly. Most of the audience provided DeSpain a standing ovation when school officials presented DeSpain a token of their appreciation for leadership during the university's rough times. This information is reprinted with permission of the Marietta Daily Journal. Copyright 2004.

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