St. Matthew's injunction dissolved

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 25            June 28, 2001

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Although it appeared to be a simple change of administration weeks ago, recent reports from several reliable sources lead members of this community to question the future of St. Matthew's University School of Medicine. Last Wednesday in Belize Supreme Court, Justice Abdulai Conteh dissolved the injunction served by St. Matthew's Board of Directors (BOD) on Monday, June 4th. Barred in the injunction were President Jeffrey Sersland; his wife Renae, Vice President of University Services and Director of Student Affairs and Financial Aid; Chief Financial Officer Liz Cechini, and their "agents". Justice Conteh stated that a "failure to disclose material facts"(namely that Dr. Sersland was a shareholder of St. Matthew's) deprived him of his individual liberties. He continued that this matter should have been handled privately and professionally by the board of directors, not aired publicly and furthermore that it was not a "high urgency situation". Although the aforementioned are allowed back on the medical school's campus, Mr. Sersland stated, "I choose to remain off campus at this time in order to maintain peace and ensure the stability of the students and the community." He said his lawyers have contacted the BOD and they will attempt to resolve the matter through professional arbitration.

    At the time of the injunction, Campus Security officers  were "temporarily" relieved of their duties with pay and promised there would be no termination. Last Friday, June 22nd, campus security officers received a letter signed by Interim President, B.D. Owens, stating their "position of employment with St. Matthew's University is terminated effective as of June 11, 2001. Your compliance in a professional manner with this order will be appreciated." It continued, "As you did not work following the last pay period there will be no further pay matters to consider. I hope you will accept this decision as one that is designed to promote the best interest for the growth of St. Matthew's University." There was no reason given for the decision to terminate. Payment of these employees was contested and is now in the hands of the Labor Department.

    This alleged "growth of St. Matthew's" appeared to be the main focus of the Board of Directors. This expansion was the basis for the "need for a more experienced administration," and the explanation for the dismissal of previous President Dr. Jeffrey Sersland's administration. Oddly, the administration of St. Matthew's is now in the hands of people with little or no medical background whatsoever. Newly elected President and Chief Operating Officer of St. Matthew's International, Dr. Jerry Thornton, is a clinical psychologist. The Interim President, B.D. Owens is an economist and reportedly a former employee of St. Matthew's whose services had been terminated. The Dean of Academic Affairs/Registrar/Director of Student Affairs is a historian, Dr. Nancy Adamson. The remaining administration consists of a secretary/bookkeeper and a flight attendant (Board of Director Harris' secretary and wife, respectively). At any given time in the past three weeks, there is reported to be a minimum of representation of any of these parties on campus. At the time of this writing, only Dr. Adamson was available on campus and could not be reached for comment.

    On the other hand, terminated were Dr. Sersland whose past experience includes Director/Administrator of Financial Aid for 35,000 students at the College of DuPage in Chicago, Illinois. He also worked in financing universities through Fortune 500's Unger & Associates as well as being an aid to the late Senator Clinton Burdick of North Dakota in the United States. Another colleague "let go" was Ron Pynn, a doctor of political science with 34 years of experience in upper level administrative management.

     This week, a member of St. Matthew's faculty reported that in an address to the faculty, the reason given for the disruptive mid-semester change of administration was decided on because of "financial mismanagement and shareholder dividends not forthcoming." It was further reported to them that this change was part of a BOD discussion as early as November of 2000 but the board did not act on it at that time. This fact brought up a question as to why the BOD hesitated at that time when the school was temporarily closed due to the hurricane and instead interrupted classes four weeks into a semester this year. Also, it was stated that since the school is in its infancy there would not be a lot of dividends to be had by investors. It was reported earlier that no financial inquiries were known to have been requested by the St. Matthew's Board of Directors and there was no mention of financial problems or a change of administration in the Board Of Directors Annual General Meeting agenda of June 1st. It was confirmed by professional sources that in most situations where financial indiscretions are suspected, the directors hold a meeting to discuss the situation and if "concrete evidence" is provided regarding abuse of the finances of the institution, the BOD may remove the administrator. In this situation, however, this was not the case; the president of the school was also a director on the board at the time and a shareholder in the company which raises legal technicalities.

    Eyewitnesses have reported that before the injunction was served, several people involved in the takeover of administration were seen removing files from administrative offices. Witnesses also observed shredded material in these offices after that fact. The fact that administrative offices were broken into and locks changed before the court injunction was served appeared to some that the "takeover" was illegal. In a letter posted to the Chief of Security on June 2, 2001 Dr. Michael Harris stated, "All property of St. Matthew's University is to be made available to the officers of the Corporation including representatives of Apex Trust Company who will be providing management services to St. Matthew's University beginning June 4, 2001." Upon investigation it was discovered that Apex Trust Company is a subsidiary of the W. H. Courtenay & Co. law firm, and provides offshore services and corporate management. It was further learned that Mr. V. Harrison Courtenay of this company replaced Dr. Jeffrey Sersland as a director on the St. Matthew's Board of Directors and his associate Lisa Peyrefitte is Corporate Secretary to the board.

    Faculty and students have expressed much dismay at these turn of events. As one woman explained, "Things were just starting to get going and the school had good projects in the making." Plans for a medical and marine biology research facility are now questionable. One faculty member stated it was necessary to cancel the closing on a house they were purchasing due to feelings of extreme instability. Another faculty member stated they remained on staff for the benefit of the students even before they were told that if they walked out in protest they would be fired. Additional information received from St. Matthew's University personnel revealed that a director and his associates made visits to the island of Curacao regarding school activities. Students and faculty are questioning if this means the University will be relocating from San Pedro or if it pertains to the possibility of opening a satellite school.

    Another concern regarded a letter received from Dr. Ian Runcie, Vice President of Clinical Sciences in the United Kingdom in which he threatened to terminate affiliation with St. Matthew's unless the current issues are resolved. Dr. Runcie is responsible for third and fourth year students who travel to the United Kingdom to perform their clinical rotations. It was stated that a few students have left the medical school and some are considering leaving St. Matthew's at the end of this semester. It is reported that approximately 20 people are currently unemployed as a result of this action. The future of St. Matthew's is a viable factor in the economy of San Pedro and at this time it is not clear what that future will hold.
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