Written by John Face
Photo by John Face
March 19, 2022
When Stephen Greenhalgh reached out to me some months ago, we spoke on the phone confidentially as he wanted to share his concerns for his alma mater, Albion College. Due to him speaking confidentially I was unable to share exactly what his concerns were. I was shocked at hearing about the long-term financial problems of Albion College.
He was disgusted by how a small group of Trustees consisting of Mike Harrington, Don Sheets, Thomas Ludington, Jeffrey Ott and Jeffrey Weedman controlled the Board to the point, according to him, they stifled any criticism from other members including himself. Plus, he would say, most if not all have violated their term limits by remaining on the Board. Greenhalgh did eventually write a letter to the editor in which City Watch Published in this article. As an outsider this writer must admit if the ship is listing and can’t be righted, you find a new crew. In this case Board members who have the ability to make decisions.
I do know that he attempted multiple times to reach out to current and former members of the Board explaining his feelings and as far as I know none, including the acting President of the college Joe Calvaruso has made any attempt to reply. He has however been in contact with Chairperson of the Board of Trustees Joanne Miller.
I have had no connection to his portion of this article, and I will honestly admit that some of his statements bother me. His personal characterizations of Maurie Ditzler I feel are harsh and are opposite of my personal feelings of him (Ditzler), but again they are his words not mine. I will offer Ditzler as well as others mentioned in this an opportunity to reply if they wish. With that said I am willing to read what he states with an open mind as I offered him this forum not to cause trouble or anger, but as a starting point for change and understanding.
We need to start working with the college and try and help them regain the prominence in the country that they deserve. We can start by eliminating the Mat Johnson hold on Albion College, as his cabinet level appointees are in constant contact with him still causing fear among the staff. His contact with city of Albion Council members is obvious in meetings. (maybe they honestly think he was raising money for their pet projects)
As you read the following, allow me to remind you we need an openness from the college. After the Mat Johnson fiasco we need honesty. It’s bad enough that Johnson is still using his “Jim Jones” mind control on his local supporters to destroy our city, we need to step up as citizens and work to stop his influence and his supporter’s willingness to destroy Albion for their own simple-minded agendas.
Written by Stephen Greenhalgh:
From Bad to Worse: The Albion College Board of Trustees Under Chairmen Donald Sheets and Michael Harrington
“It’s hard for a college to be better than its board”. This, in a nutshell, is the problem
with Albion College and the cause of its current misery. The quote says it all. It was written to
me by an old friend who is currently president of one of the world’s most prestigious research
universities. Many of his articles have been published in higher education journals. I regularly
corresponded with this person while serving on Albion’s board of trustees from 2008-2019. Two
of his emails to me, which highlight the failures of the Albion board, are attached here.
The Sheets Chairmanship: Head in the Sand While Losing $100 Million
If “kicking the can down the road” ever becomes an Olympic event, Don Sheets will take the gold. He certainly excelled at it while he was chairman of the board. In the 11 fiscal years beginning in 2010, the College’s cumulative budget deficits totaled over $100 million. No one appears to have told Sheets about this, which is a shame because if he had known he might have done something about it. But wait: Sheets did know about the huge losses. I know that because I told/warned him about them many times. See my attached email messages.
There are many others. Sheets’s response was to ignore the problem and forbid any discussion of it at board meetings. So, the College was losing money at a fantastic rate that was unprecedented in its history, and all he wanted to hear was happy talk. He was willfully blind. This made me lose confidence in Sheets which is the main reason I quit the board in 2019.
Although Sheets insisted on ignoring the deficits, they were real and had to be addressed
one way or another. He chose the easy way out by treating the College’s precious endowment as
a piggy bank-i.e., by raiding the endowment to fund those chronic losses on a dollar for dollar
basis. He did this year after year without special board authorization which was not the practice
under prior board chairs (extra distributions to fund deficits were approved by a special
resolution of the entire board).
Sheets was the chief financial officer of a company with worldwide operations and
annual revenues in excess of $10 billion. So as chairman of the board, how could he ignore the
College’s huge and unprecedented losses and thus “kick the can down the road” by doing
nothing to address the causes of the deficits. That is the $64 question concerning his
performance as board chair.
Did he not care about the College’s financial future? Was $100 million mere chump change for him, not worth worrying about? Did his financial IQ suddenly drop whenever he analyzed the College’s finances? Was it easier for him to ignore the problem and leave the next chairperson holding the bag? The answers to these questions involve Sheets’s relationship with Mauri Ditzler, president of the College.
See the attached email message to me dated February 15, 2021, from the university president.
I was practically begging Sheets to wake up and address the deficits by the end. I suspect that was his goal all along, but I ended up getting nowhere with him. Meanwhile, the deficits kept growing.
One of the most important duties of a college board is to oversee the administration’s
handling of the institution’s finances and address problems before they become chronic or grow
too large. Sheets and the rest of the board failed miserably at this.
Why? Mauri Ditzler had his strengths as president, but he also had one major shortcoming: He
couldn’t balance a budget to save his soul and what’s more, he didn’t care. Now normally a
board will exercise its financial oversight duty when this happens and order the president to fix
the problem or be fired. But neither Sheets nor Tom Ludington (finance committee chair)
acknowledged the problem in a serious way, let alone deal with it.
These two aren’t stupid, so how could this have happened? This issue was the elephant in the room (present but never mentioned) at board meetings. Sheets lost his temper and blew up when questioned about it at a board meeting in May 2018. Ditzler had a curious theory: The College should enroll as many non-paying (i.e., 80+% discount) students as it could find because the small amount they paid “At least paid the College’s fixed costs”.
This made no sense, but Sheets and Ludington took it as Gospel, as received wisdom. And when asked to engage a higher ed consultant to study and report on this novel theory Sheets refused; thus, it was accepted and acted upon with no serious study and no special board authorization. He just did it on his own. As might be expected, nonpaying students only dug the College’s financial hole deeper
and deeper. They were like the old adage, “We lose money on every item we sell, but we make
up for it on the volume”.
So why would Sheets and Ludington (not to mention the rest of the board, which knew better) buy into this bullshit theory? Again, that is the $64 question. And of course, Ditzler is gone now while the College is stuck with the huge losses and reduced endowment. Adding insult to injury, Ditzler probably received a generous bonus or severance payment when he left the College.
After a decade of mammoth losses and wasted endowment, the board awakened just in time to receive final judgment on Sheets’s and Ditzler’s curious economic theory in the form of the EY Parthenon consultant’s report dated March 2020, which stated in part: “For Albion, the long-term implications of continuing to draw down from the endowment to meet operating requirements, remain the same. Albion needs to implement near term and longer-term opportunities in order to achieve financial sustainability”. “Albion’s financial health has been weakened as a result of drawing down the endowment”.
Quoted pages of the report are attached.
(This theory might make pricing sense for an airline with a half-empty flight leaving in one week-lower the price of the open tickets for that flight only. But it does not apply to a college because once the college admits a non- paying student, it cannot raise what it has initially charged and thus has locked in the lower revenue for four years. This makes financial turnarounds much longer and more difficult, like turning around a battleship.)
Sheets failed miserably as board chair. He did nothing while the College was losing
fantastic amounts of money. He has been on the board longer than permitted by the term
limit provisions in the College’s bylaws. He should resign.
Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark
Michael Harrington’s brief but disastrous board chairmanship was a total failure that was characterized by his bad judgment and epic stubbornness. The bad judgment first appeared in the infamous Detroit Free Press article dated February 11, 2021, in which he told reporter David Jesse that the College was unprepared for the minority students it had recruited. This was embarrassing, a rookie mistake for which Harrington would have been fired had he been quoted by a reporter saying something equally damaging about Eli Lilly, his former employer.
But this error was small potatoes when compared to his disastrous and embarrassing handling of former
president Mathew Johnson’s departure from the College in late 2021. Most of the facts about this
sorry episode (although not the biggest fact, which is, “Why was Harrington so blindly
supportive of Johnson, contrary to good judgment and the advice of others, right up until
the bitter end”) are generally known so I will not repeat them here.
Harrington made a fool of himself and the rest of the board over Johnson
This brought on more negative articles about the College in the national higher ed media than had been
published in the preceding forty years. He was quoted slavishly praising Johnson even as
Johnson was walking out the door, never to return. Why? What caused Harrington to
embarrass both himself and the Board over Johnson?
Smart people like Harrington don’t suddenly lose their minds without a reason. There had
to be something in his relationship with Johnson that clouded his previously sound judgment.
But what was it? Methinks “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark [Albion]” here, as
Marcellus said to Hamlet. What this “something” might be remains a mystery to this day. In any
event, Harrington resigned or was removed both as board chair and as a trustee soon after
Johnson finally departed.
The board knows much more about this sorry episode than it has disclosed to date.
Perhaps chairperson Joey Miller or acting president Joe Calvaruso will enlighten the Albion
community on this subject, including whether the board authorized a bonus or severance
payment to Johnson when he left town in disgrace. People deserve to know.
Sheets and Harrington have one character trait in common: They do not listen to people.
Thomas Ludington as Chairman of the Finance Committee
So where was Ludington while the College was losing $100 million, and the board was
raiding the endowment year after year, improperly treating it as a piggy bank? It takes real effort
by a finance committee chairman to do nothing over eleven years while a college loses that kind
of money. What were they talking about at all those (at least 30) finance committee meetings he
chaired? Did no one tell him about these huge losses? (Yes, of course they did). Did he not know
that endowments are not piggy banks, that past generations of endowment donors did not expect
their gifts to be spent on ordinary budget items such as football uniforms and utilities? Had the
endowment donors wanted this, they would have contributed to the annual fund. This is a
breach of trust by the College.
Ludington has failed miserably as finance committee chairman. He has served on the
board far longer than permitted by the term limit provisions in the College’s bylaws. He should
resign from the board.
So this is the result of two bad board chairmen and one bad finance committee chairman:
- $100 million of the College’s precious endowment has been wasted with nothing to show
- The board has become addicted to raiding the endowment to fund budget deficits which
- Ditzler is gone, last seen driving away from Albion with (probably) a handsome
severance payment. When he looks in his rear view mirror he sees the ten car wreck that
is Albion College. In all likelihood, he can’t believe the board was so credulous as to buy
into his novel economic theory, which (not coincidentally) saved him the hard work of
dealing with the deficits;
- Johnson is finally gone (no thanks to his tireless supporter Harrington), pitching his lame
and pathetic “I’m the real victim” story to anyone who will listen to it;
- The College is searching for a new president while its reputation/brand is in tatters and it
is being run on an interim basis by someone (Calvaruso) with no experience in private
higher education administration; and
- There is hereby created the Albion College Trustee Hall of Shame. Inaugural members
are Sheets and Harrington, with Ludington receiving an honorable mention.
The moral of this sad story is that the two board chairmen and finance committee chairman
who accepted responsibility for Albion’s financial and reputational well-being failed the College
and all of its constituents-faculty, staff, alumni, families, host city residents, etc. It will take years
to repair the damage done on their watch, if indeed it ever is.
About the author:
A Pontiac MI native, Stephen Greenhalgh earned his bachelor’s degrees in 1974 at Albion College in anthropology and sociology then earned his law degree from Washington & Lee University in Virginia in 1977. He is now retired and living in Boulder, Colo. with his wife Susan Brochu Greenhalgh, a ’75 Albion Alum. After a career with the Bodman Law Firm in Detroit (where he was a corporate attorney for the Detroit Lions among other clients). He served on the Albion College Board of Trustees for 11 years stepping down in 2019.