Baltimore International College is facing new questions about its ability to continue operating as the culinary college fights to keep its accreditation until a planned takeover by Virginia-based Stratford University.
The college won a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, protecting its accreditation until Sept. 12. But the college will likely have to return to court next week to seek a preliminary injunction that would extend the protection for an undetermined amount of time. At that hearing, officials will have to defend the quality of the education offered by the college, which has been called into serious question by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Baltimore International was forced to seek the restraining order because Middle States dismissed an appeal in which the college asked for an extension of accreditation until the end of the year.
The legal battle has inspired renewed confusion among students who are about to begin their fall semester at Baltimore International. After a summer of uncertainty, many were relieved when the college announced the Stratford takeover in mid-August, seeming to signal that operations would continue uninterrupted.
"This is definitely shocking for me right now," said Matthew Barnett, a culinary student from Glen Burnie. "It's like we're in a pingpong match, and we're losing."
If its accreditation were abruptly pulled, Baltimore International would lose federal financial aid funding and would likely have to stop operating, even though a Jan. 1 takeover by Stratford looms. The abrupt closure would "irreparably harm" the 130 students who are still taking classes at Baltimore International, the college's attorneys argued at Wednesday's hearing.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis agreed, writing, "An injunction is in the public interest in the instant case to avoid disruption of the 130 students currently enrolled at the College and to protect the jobs of the employees of the College during the pendency of this case."
Baltimore International Chairman Charles Nabit said Thursday that students should begin classes with confidence that the college will continue to operate through the end of the year.
"We feel that the decision made by the judge was the right one," Nabit said. "And we have every confidence in our ability to show that we provide an excellent educational experience."
College officials thought they could buy themselves time by appealing the loss of accreditation from Middle States, which was set to take effect on Wednesday. In fact, the college did not appeal the loss of accreditation but merely asked for an extension until the end of the year, so it could continue educating students while awaiting the takeover by Stratford.
An attorney for Middle States argued that by asking for an extension without appealing the merits of the accreditation decision, Baltimore International failed to follow proper procedure.
Middle States dismissed the college's right to appeal in an Aug. 24 letter, writing that "to find otherwise would simply allow an institution to delay an accreditation action's effective date through a procedural appeal process to the detriment of the students."
But Garbis found the commission's argument "inconsistent with the most reasonable interpretation of the policy."
Nonetheless, in seeking a longer injunction, the college might have to convince Garbis that it is providing an adequate education to its 130 remaining students.
In asking Garbis to reject the request for a restraining order, Middle States argued that "the College will not provide an adequate education for the students and may not even continue operation until December, due to the possibility that it will cease operations mid-semester due to administrative shortcomings."
Like many students who have stuck with Baltimore International through the accreditation battle, Barnett said he has loved his education there. "Our faculty is completely capable of teaching us," he said. "I know that we'll get an adequate education."
He said he would continue to stay at the college and hope for the best.
A spokesman for Middle States said Thursday that he could not comment on Baltimore International beyond the commission's court filings.
A final Middle States report 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.
College officials had hoped to leave their troubled relationship with Middle States behind them when they announced the planned takeover by Stratford, which is accredited by a different organization, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS.)
But it's not quite that simple, said Anthony Bieda, a spokesman for ACICS. Under federal policy, ACICS cannot consider accrediting a college that has lost its accreditation from another organization such as Middle States. In order to receive approval to operate a branch campus on the grounds once occupied by Baltimore International, Stratford would have to show that it had "expunged the residue" from the previous institution, Bieda said.
That would probably entail breaking ties with the governing board and top administrators of Baltimore International and submitting a plan to address the deficiencies noted by Middle States, Bieda said. He said Stratford could probably retain much of Baltimore International's faculty without jeopardizing its accreditation.
Bieda said Stratford has not submitted a formal application to operate a branch in Baltimore.
Nabit said Baltimore International's leadership is well aware that Stratford will have to show accreditors that it has made a fresh start. He said he did not expect the legal battle with Middle States to interrupt the planned takeover.