St. Matthew's changes administration

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 23            June 14, 2001

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An interruption of classes last week had tongues wagging about the island's medical school closing down. Malicious rumors were circulated regarding embezzlement which all parties involved, in and outside of Belize, categorically denied. This week, an announcement from St. Matthew's International conveyed that at their June 1st Annual General Meeting in San Pedro, the board of directors (BOD) voted for a change in administrative appointments on the island's campus. Subsequently, a controversial Supreme Court injunction barring the following people from entry to the school was served on Monday, June 4th: President Jeffrey Sersland; his wife Renae who is the Vice President of University Services and Director of Student Affairs and Financial Aid; Chief Financial Officer Liz Cechini and their "agents". Others barred were University Coordinator Terry Anderson, faculty member Dr. Mary Beth Downs and campus security.

    Statements were issued from both parties and questions remaining were to be battled out in court starting Wednesday, June 13th. The San Pedro Sun conducted its own interviews and learned the following facts.

   According to the newly elected President and Chief Operating Officer of St. Matthew's International, Dr. Jerry Thornton, the proposed interim President of St. Matthew's University will be Dr. B.D. Owens who is scheduled to arrive this Friday. Dr. Owens' experience includes being a past president of two universities: University of Tampa (1971-77) and Northwest Missouri State University (1977-1984). He most recently acted as a consultant to educational institutions and healthcare corporations in the United States. Dr. Thornton explained that as an economist, Dr. Owens will also serve as the Chief Financial Officer for the medical school. Named as Director of Financial Aid was Gloria Miranda-Avila who works out of the Orlando, Florida office and will perform quarterly visits to our local university.

    Dr. Thornton continued explaining the board's decision for the recent appointments was based on the need for a more experienced administration due to the rapid growth of the local school's enrollment and its plans for expansion. He praised Dr. Sersland and the work he has accomplished since the opening of the school in 1997, but emphasized the specific need for an academic administrator capable of managing a large university. Quoting Dr. Thornton's press release, "This decision for change should in no way affect any prior relationships with the community."

    Appealing the injunction, Dr. Sersland took time to speak to the San Pedro Sun offering his concerns which are mainly for the education of the students, the employment of the faculty and the economy which affects the residents of this island. In his statement he quoted, "It appears this act is merely a personal campaign to smear my name and the names of other respected colleagues from the university." His claim is that this "act" was unlawful and he hopes to prove this in court. Mr. Sersland stated he had no notice of this change of administration prior to the BOD meeting, nor did his faculty or administration. The subject was not included on the meeting's agenda and because of this, he feels it to be a "hostile takeover" based on personal vengeance. As one of the board of directors, he revealed his vote did not count and questioned the legality of this. (The actual vote count could not be confirmed as of press time.) As the founder of St. Matthew's, director and owner, he vowed to "legally fight this takeover attempt to my fullest ability and to protect our students, faculty, administrators, employees and the people of Belize and the founding principles which I have personally instilled upon the university from the onset. I will do this in a professional manner with the utmost respect for all." 

    In an interview with the only local San Pedro BOD member, Seferino Paz II stated, "I was shocked and surprised because it was not on the agenda. I did not agree with the changes or the way it was implemented. My concern is with the welfare of the school."

    The main issue was resolved when students resumed classes on Thursday after a brief three-day interruption. Concerns remain as to monthly reports not being made to the BOD in a timely fashion, but there was no report of a previous investigation being requested by St. Matthew's International. Dr. Sersland replied that a report was given at the November meeting, but because of the hurricane and understaffing another report was not given until June. He claims the information for the interim months is available. Other information received by this newspaper was that the last completed audit for the local university was completed December 31, 1999. A financial statement for the past fiscal year has been drafted and awaits verification of shareholders' balances.

   The legal outcome of this dispute will be announced in the San Pedro Sun as soon as it becomes available.
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