Monday, August 27, 2018

Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of Ecclesia College (Pat Boone didn't remember it and he's on their board.) -- UPDATED

Ecclesia College appears to have been the Trump University of Bible colleges. The graduation rates and academic standards would have embarrassed a stripmall business school.

In the meantime, Oren Paris III, who had been installed as president of Ecclesia College in 1997, took the school from roughly 50 acres at the time of his installation to approximately 200 acres by mid-2005. From 2005 to 2013, Ecclesia did not buy any land. By 2013, according to the website, which has since been scrubbed to remove reference to Oren Paris III’s leadership, Ecclesia and Paris had come up with “extensive plans for future growth and development.” According to the federal indictment, however, it is more accurate to say that Ecclesia (through Paris) had come up with a plan to call Jon Woods to talk about increasing Ecclesia’s participation in the Arkansas General Improvement Fund, using the selling point that Ecclesia “produces graduates that are conservative voters.”

That is probably true; Ecclesia graduates likely do vote conservative for the most part. Thing is, there are barely any graduates. Look at 2016, which the most recent complete data available, for example:

That’s an 11.6% graduation rate, consisting of FIVE graduates in 2016. Five is 11.6% of a class of about 43 students. So, of the 43 students who enrolled at Ecclesia College in 2012, five graduated in 2016.

Not that 2016 was an aberration. Depending on where you look — and depending on whether you are calculating based on 4, 5, or 6 year graduation rates — Ecclesia College consistently has a graduation rate between 6 and 15%. Compare that to some of the schools consistently considered the most difficult for undergrads.

MIT has a graduation rate of 91.6%. Reed College has a graduation rate of 80.6%. Swarthmore? 85%.

So why is Ecclesia’s rate so low? It could have something do with the fact that the 25/75 percentile ACT scores for Ecclesia College are 6 and 9. (For comparison, MIT’s 25/75 are 31/35, and a perfect score is 36.)

11.6% graduation rate is, to put it bluntly, abysmal. That graduation rate, combined with those ACT scores, makes Ecclesia easily the worst college (2- or 4-year) in the entire state.

The school's board of advisors featured evangelical luminaries like Pat Boone and revisionist historian David Barton, but when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contacted the members, Boone's first reaction was that he had never heard of the school. It was only after checking his records that he issued a correction saying that he had agreed to serve though it appears he it never actually attended a meeting or went to the campus. (Barton did know about the school but that may have had something to do with its proposal to name the history building after him.) It would be tempting to put Boone's initial denial down to an octogenarian's lapses in memory if two of the other "members" contacted had not definitively stated that they were not on the board.

All of this would probably have gone unnoticed if not for this

On January 4, 2017, Arkansas legislator Micah Neal pleaded guilty to conspiring to direct $600,000 in state government funds to Ecclesia College and another non-profit in exchange for $38,000 in bribes.[1] The plea agreement also singles out the president of the college (Oren Paris III) as being directly involved with the conspiracy.[2]

On March 2, 2017, former State Senator, Jon Woods, was indicted on 13 charges by a grand jury in connection to the kickback and bribery scheme.

Woods is facing 11 counts of honest services wire fraud, one count of money laundering and one count of honest services mail fraud.

The indictment outlined the scheme to steer General Improvement Fund money from the state legislature to projects supported through funding distributed by the Northwest Arkansas Development District.

The indictment also named the president of Ecclesia College in Springdale, Oren Paris III, who is facing nine counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of honest services mail fraud after receiving funding from GIF monies. The college is not listed in the indictment.

An Alma man, Randell G. Shelton Jr., is also listed in the indictment as part of an unnamed consulting company that was used to pay and conceal the kickbacks that Woods and Neal were allegedly receiving.

Both Shelton and Paris initially pleaded not guilty during arraignment hearings.

Paris changed his plea to guilty on April 4, 2018 and resigned as president of Ecclesia College.

Ecclesia College is a perfect example of something I've been meaning to write about for a while, the potentially big role of small state scandals. As we've mentioned before in other contexts (notably over the air television and the rise of terrestrial superstations), a major source of press dysfunction is the disparity of attention paid to different parts of the country. On one end of the spectrum you have New York City (particularly upscale sections) and more recently San Francisco. Stories of even the most limited local interest in these cities will receive extensive national coverage. On the other end of the spectrum you have rural areas in places like Arkansas or Oklahoma. Stories that primarily affect these areas, even if they collectively affect tens of millions of people and have significant economic, political, or security implications, will go almost completely unnoticed by the national press or a shockingly long period of time.

I keep up with Arkansas because I was raised there, I know the state, and I've kept a number of friends in the area. Recently, when I ask them what's going on back home or when I check out some local media online, the news is of scandals, mostly low to mid level stuff but pervasive and disproportionately Republican. This is remarkably consistent with the picture I'm getting from places like Oklahoma Missouri, etc. It also sounds a lot like the corruption cases we've been hearing about from places like California and New York State.

Taken individually, none of these scandals mean much, but taken collectively they suggest a major underlying problem for the GOP. We could spend endless hours discussing the causes, but the short version is that decades of media manipulation, working the refs, putting party loyalty above all, and tolerating a culture of grift (prominently featuring Arkansas's own Mike Huckabee) has created, if you'll pardon a melodramatic phrase, a culture of corruption in the Republican Party.

When you combine a sense of persecution and entitlement with the knowledge that your party (currently the dominant political party) will watch your back and with the suspicion that the bar is about to close, people will start to bend rules and break laws at an ever accelerating pace. If you then combine that with what is likely to be an unprecedented collection of scandals in the White House, all of those little stories have the potential to add up to a very big one.

UPDATE -- A friend from Arkansas just sent me this link

Official: Governor went against advice, signed bill geared toward 1 Arkansas college

Gov. Asa Hutchinson went against the advice of his state budget director when he signed a 2015 bill that would benefit only Ecclesia College in Springdale, the former budget director says.

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