New Martin University president draws ire

July 21, 2008

In less than four months, new Martin University President Algeania Freeman said, she hit her two main objectives for the state's only predominantly black university: cut costs and increase fund raising.

Freeman said she has reversed a $653,000 deficit that was on the books when she arrived, in large part by collecting $450,666 in contributions, cutting the 95-person staff 25 percent, and eliminating non-essential expenses.

Freeman in January replaced Boniface Hardin, a Benedictine monk who founded the inner-city school 30 years ago and retired at the end of 2007.

But her whirlwind of activity has not come without controversy.

Employees let go as part of her strategy say the methods she used to downsize were overly harsh and accompanied by shuffling of people into jobs that made little sense.

Freeman, a former president of Livingstone College in North Carolina, said she has been doing the job that needs to be done as instructed by the Martin trustees who hired her and The Higher Learning Commission of NCA, which provides the school's accreditation.

"We gave [Freeman] three jobs to do: balancing the budget, restructuring the curriculum, and increasing gifts and grants," said Bill West, a Martin University board member and head of the search committee to find Hardin's replacement. "She's doing that. Cutting staff is never popular or fun, but sometimes it has to be done."

As of April 30, Martin University posted a surplus of $66,143, according to the school's unaudited financial statements.

A $653,000 deficit was on the books as of Dec. 31, four months before the end of the fiscal year, records provided by the university show.

Trustees say Freeman was hired to wipe out that deficit, though it did not exist when they began the search for Hardin's successor last spring.

It's not clear at what point the deficit appeared. As of the end of the school's prior fiscal year, April 30, 2007, financial statements showed a surplus of $150,000.

School officials declined to explain the eight-month swing.

Of the $450,000 in contributions Freeman raised in her first four months, more than half came from the Earl Harris Trust, according to Gene Sease, chairman of Sease Gerig and Associates, who has served as a consultant to the school for years. Harris, co-founder of Paul Harris Stores and philanthropist, died in April.

During the fiscal year that ended April 30, 2007, Martin collected $1.9 million in grants and contributions, according to the school's Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

It's unclear how much money the staff reductions saved, in part because the university declined to disclose Freeman's salary. As a monk, Hardin drew no salary. According to school records, salaries in the fiscal year that ended this April were $3.7 million, slightly higher than the prior year.

Martin says it also found savings in nonessential business expenses--mostly by eliminating the public relations services that had been provided by locally based Sherman & Co.

Freeman said Martin University had been paying the firm about $200,000 a year, though Form 990s and unaudited financial statements show smaller sums. The documents show Sherman receiving $142,029 in fiscal 2006, $72,000 in 2007, and $182,260 in 2008.

Now that she's balanced the budget and her fund-raising efforts are showing results, Freeman said, the school needs to focus on other issues identified by The Higher Learning Commission to ensure its accreditation continues uninterrupted.

In addition to wanting Martin to strengthen its finances, the commission is seeking improvements in curriculum and governance. The school declined to provide IBJ with the commission's report.

The school has made progress on the curriculum concerns, Freeman said, and has adopted a "shared governance" system that involves faculty and staff in decision-making. She said that, under Hardin, authority had been tightly controlled.

Freeman said she also needs to increase enrollment, which fell from 1,300 students in the 2004-2005 academic year to 716 in the winter 2008 semester.

Controversial start

Many former employees applaud efforts to strengthen Martin, but say they think Freeman is going about them the wrong way.

Nearly a dozen former employees who spoke with IBJ say the new president is prone to outbursts and leveling strange accusations, including that they were sabotaging records.

Freeman told IBJ she does think former employees were sabotaging phone and computer systems.

Former employee Stephanie Lee said she believes she was dismissed because she was too close to Hardin and one of his vice presidents, Jane Schilling.

When Freeman started in January, Lee was serving as the school's facilities director--a post that put her in charge of all the school's buildings--but was working limited hours for medical reasons.

Lee said Freeman told her she couldn't work until she was able to return full time. According to Lee, when she returned on Jan. 21, Freeman demoted her to housekeeper.

Two days later, Freeman fired Lee for what Lee contends were trumped-up charges about cell phone usage. A lawsuit over denied unemployment benefits is pending.

Other former employees told IBJ that, before they were fired, Freeman told them to have no contact with Lee or Hardin. Hardin declined to comment.

Previous presidency

This isn't the first time Freeman has ruffled feathers running a college.

From 2001 to 2004, she served as president of Livingstone College, a small, private institution in Salisbury, N.C.

Livingstone placed Freeman on leave in August 2004, according to stories in the Salisbury Post. Five months later, the school announced her resignation. Newspaper accounts at the time called it a "forced exit" and said Freeman had "set a controversial course for herself at Livingstone."

Martin board members who hired her said they knew about the Livingstone upheaval, but that it didn't detract from their confidence she could run Martin.

"Most of the senior-level candidates that we had interviewed had some kind of issue in the past," West said. "If we were going to use that to eliminate candidates, we wouldn't have had any. She and Livingstone had some philosophical disagreements with the board there.

Freeman agrees and said she left Livingstone when she felt she'd accomplished all her goals. She said her views were not aligned with those of incoming board members.

West said such scrapes go with the territory.

"Being a president of a small, private university is a tough job," he said. "You're frequently asked to do tough things. When you do tough things, some people don't like it. And, yeah, you're frequently going to take the fall for it."

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