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Officials, Iowa college hopes to save Sheldon Jackson College

Posted: Monday, June 07, 2010

SITKA - One of Alaska's oldest schools, credited with helping give rise to an influential Native political movement, is being sold off piece by historic piece in an effort to avoid bankruptcy and salvage what's left of its legacy.

The process, which began with Sheldon Jackson College's abrupt closure three years ago, has caused divisions in Sitka, a remote fishing and tourist community in southeast Alaska where the school has been a fixture - and a cultural touchstone - for more than a century.

Some want to see the campus, parts of which are considered a national historic landmark, left intact, remade, perhaps, into a tribal or community college. But some school and local officials don't see that's possible: for all the emotion, there's been no rallying of alumnae, no groundswell of financial support to make that happen.

Officials instead have been working on what could be their last, best option: a proposal by the University of Dubuque in Iowa that centers on Sheldon Jackson's hatchery, a small corner of the 230-acre campus at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It also requires the clearing of millions more in debt, meaning, a need for trustees to sell more assets - property - to help make it happen.

Already much of the plywood-shuttered campus has been subdivided, either listed or sold. Plans call for doing the same with much of the rest including parts of the historic core campus and for conveyance of a cemetery where students were buried.

"It's really difficult, especially for older people in the community, to see the campus split up like this," said Anne Pollnow, who chairs the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission. "But it's the situation."

It was a long, slow skid to this point.

When it closed in 2007, this was the oldest continuously operating educational institution in Alaska. It was founded by the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson in 1878 as a training school for Alaska Natives and evolved, over time, into an open-admissions junior college and into one of Alaska's few private colleges.

Its most significant period, according to National Park Service historians, was during the first half of the 20th Century, when the school's English-only policy and rigid Christian curricula had a major impact on Native culture.

For example, students, many of whom were brought from homes across Alaska to this town accessible only by air or water, were encouraged to marry each other to carry on the lifestyle they'd learned.

And a focus on self-improvement, they wrote in the landmark nomination, helped give rise to the political activism of the Tlingit and Haida.

Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, civil rights groups that included Sheldon Jackson graduates, were considered crucial to winning land and other rights for Native people.

"Growing up, it was something big, something we admired," Gil Truitt said of Sheldon Jackson, which he attended, for one year of high school, in the early 1940s. "... I thought it was a very elite school."

By 1944, non-Native students were allowed, the historians wrote. But the size of the school remained small; college President David Dobler said, historically, it never rose above 276. And Sheldon Jackson failed to change with the shifting educational landscape.

For years, Sheldon Jackson, like many other Presbyterian schools, survived on support from the church and relied heavily on missionaries and volunteers to operate; for much of its life, Dobler said, it had no direct oversight from a board of trustees, no endowment to help carry it.

"It was part of the mindset of the era," Dobler said. Schools of this kind were seen as "part of the Great Call," he said, and looking after one's own interests, as an institution, was frowned upon.

Questions about the school's sustainability cropped up over the last 20 years, he said, leading to a shakeup in leadership earlier this decade.

But it wasn't until 2005 that the board started to realize the depth of the school's financial problems, Dobler said. On the operating side alone, he said, the figure ended up at about $4.5 million, including $500,000 in taxes due to the IRS; millions more was owed in mortgages.

"Much of it had snowballed," said Dobler, who served on the board before being made president in 2006. "It was out of control," he said, and debt service took what money there was.

Trustees abruptly closed the school in 2007 - with staff told late in the afternoon one day not to come in the next, according to a former dean of students - for what was supposed to be a year of regrouping.

Today, the grassy quad where students should be hanging out or studying is quiet. A "No Trespassing" sign hangs from the porch of the admissions office. Plywood covers windows to reduce heat loss and the school's monthly utility bills. Comfy chairs sit overturned, atop study carols at the library (which has been listed, for sale, at $2.2 million).

Dobler's optimistic about the tone of negotiations with Dubuque, a fellow Presbyterian school, and trustees' ability to pay off its main creditor - and further pay down an estimated $8.5 million debt - by later this year.

In the community, there's some of that optimism, too, but some also feel frustration - there are complaints of being cut out of the decision-making process, which Dobler disputes - and resignation.



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