The board of trustees of Baltimore International College has signed a letter of intent to merge with Virginia-based Stratford University, a move the board chairman hopes will end an accreditation crisis that threatened to close the downtown culinary college.
"We have much in common," said Baltimore International Chairman Charles Nabit in explaining the proposed merger, which is to be announced Monday. "Our missions are very similar. Our student bodies are very similar in terms of drawing from an urban population. There's almost a 100 percent overlap in terms of identity and interest in culinary education."
Stratford President Richard Shurtz agreed that his existing culinary program is similar to the one offered at Baltimore International. He said his university is perfectly equipped to address the problems cited by a review panel that voted to strip Baltimore International of its accreditation by Aug. 31.
"What we add is a lot of focus on staff development," Shurtz said. "How do you measure how well students think critically, how they solve problems, how well they write? We can enhance their programs in those core areas."
Stratford would assume control of Baltimore International on Jan. 1, pending approval of the takeover by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Stratford's accreditation organization and financial institutions holding the college's debt.
Matthew Barnett, a Baltimore International student from Glen Burnie, was excited to hear of the merger after several months of uncertainty about his college's fate. "I'm all for it," he said. "Any way that we can stay open and our chefs can keep their jobs, I'm happy about it."
Barnett, who would graduate in May, said many of his classmates transferred because of fears that Baltimore International would close, but said he could not have moved because of his family situation.
"I'm just glad I'll be able to graduate from the place where I started," he said.
Stratford is a for-profit university based in Falls Church, with campuses in Woodbridge and Richmond, Va., and New Delhi, India. The 35-year-old institution, which specializes in job-specific training and serves large numbers of international students, offers the culinary and hotel management programs that are Baltimore International's bread and butter.
Stratford is not governed by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which announced in June that it would pull Baltimore International's accreditation at the end of this month. The Middle States Commission could not be reached Sunday for comment. Stratford is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools and the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation.
Nabit said the merger would essentially allow Baltimore International to start over in the accreditation process. "Middle States will have no further jurisdiction over us and that is a blessing," he said.
Without the accreditation, Baltimore International would have been unable to receive the federal financial aid that is its lifeblood.
The decision trapped students and faculty members in a state of limbo as they awaited word of an appeal or merger. The college dissuaded new students from applying this summer because of the unsettled situation.
Nabit said Baltimore International will continue to operate this fall as it awaits the takeover. The college will likely have to file an appeal with Middle States to maintain its accreditation during that time, but Nabit said approximately 100 students who are near graduation should be able to finish their degrees by the end of the year.
Nabit said other students should be able to make fairly seamless transitions to Stratford if they choose to make the switch. He said the college plans to resume recruiting new students by November, when officials hope the takeover will be fully approved.
Stratford representatives will hold information sessions for Baltimore International students on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Shurtz said most academic credits will transfer to Stratford and said tuition will actually be cheaper after the takeover.
Nabit said he also expects many faculty and staff members to be retained. "Their plan is to interview all faculty and all staff to determine who fits their program," he said. "So far, we've heard nothing but positive indications that they see a lot of strengths in our faculty and staff."
Shurtz agreed. "It's really a great faculty," he said. "Our goal is to keep as many as we can. They're just looking for a little guidance as to where they need to go and what they need to change."
A final report by the Middle States review team that visited Baltimore International in late April painted a damning picture of a college with little grasp of how to retain students, measure academic performance or generate revenue from sources other than tuition.
The report gave the college's administration credit for "good-faith attempts" to address concerns raised by the Middle States Commission but portrayed many of the college's responses as thin efforts to stave off the loss of accreditation rather than deeply considered changes. It rated the college as out of compliance with six of the 14 standards upheld by the Middle States Commission and in "serious danger" of falling out of compliance with two others.
Nabit described the report as "overkill."
"Nevertheless, there are embedded in those hundreds of pages of text, some legitimate concerns that need to be addressed," he said.
With its history of operating multiple campuses, Stratford is well-equipped to address the problems, Nabit said.
Shurtz said the new branch campus would likely operate on a provisional accreditation for a year before facing a full review by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. He said Stratford recently went through the same process at its campus in India.
"I'm convinced we can address everything," Shurtz said. "The key is that you have to actually train the faculty."
Stratford will not gain ownership of Baltimore International's real estate assets, valued at more than $20 million according to 2010 tax documents. Instead, Stratford will lease Baltimore International's main building on Commerce Street and its Culinary Arts Center in Little Italy. Other properties, including hotels in Baltimore and Ireland and the downtown Bay Atlantic Club, will likely be sold to pay down Baltimore International's debt, Nabit said. Any leftover proceeds could go to scholarships for prospective students, he added.
The college is also facing a $5 million lawsuit from its founder and former president, Roger Chylinski, who says he isn't receiving the six-figure annual retirement payments he was promised when the board asked him to resign last year.
Nabit said the lawsuit has been on the back burner during negotiations. But he said the board would "make a good-faith attempt to resolve those issues in mutually beneficial fashion" to avoid a protracted legal battle.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun