Laverne's collapse has political implications

The government cannot call the incident a matter for the legal authoritiesalone. Quality of education is a political matter all over the world. Thegovernment needs to review its policy of non-review of private highereducation institutions


JOHN PSAROPOULOS


Laverna was the Roman goddess of thieves and impostors. The manner in which the University of Laverne closed last week gives a strong impression that the goddess still presides over institutions bearing her name.

On September 17, the University of Laverne in California declared its Athens franchise bankrupt and cut off accreditation, ending a quarter-century of academic achievement in financial disgrace and opacity.

Laverne's roughly 600 students were given 48 hours' notice of the closure on the eve of their autumn semester, and offered the option of transferring to the University of Indianapolis in Athens or making their own arrangements.

The college's 100-odd faculty and staff are in an even worse position. They are owed at least three salaries, severance and months of social security. The Somateio Laverne, the college's governing board, refuses to make these payments. It also refuses to issue severance papers that would allow employees to claim state unemployment benefits, clinging to a vague hope of revival. But the facts would indicate that this board is incompetent to run a university and may be criminally liable.

The financial advisors Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu conducted a financial review of Laverne at the behest of its mother institution early this month. Deloitte found that Laverne Athens carries a net debt of 2.4 million euros, which by year's end would rise to 2.7 million euros.

Laverne was not only considered to be the finest non-state university in Greece; it was also the most expensive, charging 10,000 euros a year, and with an annual income of not less than 6 million euros.

This collapse must be investigated by a public prosecutor. To term the college's insolvency 'inexplicable' would be inexcusably charitable under the circumstances. Somateio Laverne needs to be called to account.

Also requiring explanation is the lack of oversight of its Athens college by Laverne University in California. Its president, Stephen Morgan, told students in a letter that the university feels an "obligation to oversee its program in Athens". Unless the present debt arose over the past year, we must assume that Laverne California has exercised no annual review of the Athens campus' finances. Its sense of obligation, therefore, remains a matter of some interpretation.

Laverne originally opened its Athens campus in 1975, mainly to serve the children of US military personnel overseas; but for more than ten years Laverne Athens has been operating as a franchise, under the obligation to send back remittances of not less than 690 euros for every graduating student to Laverne in the United States (1). Since the given cause of the school's closure is financial, Laverne USA needs to disclose the full details of whether the Somateio ever sent those remittances, which could amount to more than a million euros over the years; and if so, what, if any, oversight it exercised in return.

The final liability belongs to the government. Both the past socialist administrations and the present conservative one have said that the so-called 'Laboratories of Liberal Studies' (KES) are a matter of indifference to the state, which recognises only its own university degrees.

Now, with hundreds of distressed students, and thousands more enrolled in franchises, the state can hardly claim indifference. The students and faculty who have suffered from the closure of Laverne are, in their vast majority, Greeks, and they can legitimately call upon their elected government to take an interest in their welfare.

The government cannot call the incident a matter for the legal authorities alone. Quality of education is a political matter all over the world. The government needs to review its policy of non-review of private higher education institutions in Greece. their integrity, financial and academic, affects Greek citizens.

Last May, Education Minister Marietta Yannakou told this newspaper that she was interested in setting up an oversight body for the Greek university system. Now is the time to hasten the creation of this body. The established non-accountability in higher education could be breeding much greater problems elsewhere in the university system.

Just last week a minister lost his job for using his influence to transfer his son from the University of Crete to Panteion University both public institutions. If the government chooses to whistle its way through Laverne's collapse, it will have thrown into sharp relief the difference in government consideration between state institutions and private, and will have drawn the line of the government's interest to act not at the Greek border, but at the line separating the state from the majority of Greeks.

(1) Laverne Athens was contractually obliged to send 2000 drachmas for each college credit. A student needs at least 128 college credits to graduate.

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