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Union Institute cancels fall term as financial issues mount

In an email sent to students and staff Friday, Union Institute & University's Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom Frederick announced the Walnut Hills-based school will cancel its first term this fall due to a lack of funds.

The news comes just a few weeks after Union Institute decided to delay the start of the semester until Sept. 11. The university usually starts classes in late August, but now it's planning to begin the year on Nov. 6.

In the message, Frederick insists the school has no plans to close and goes on to say the cancelation is important for the well-being of students and the long-term future of the university. With more time, Frederick says Union Institute can ensure financial aid will be available to all eligible students when classes resume.

According to students and faculty, Union Institute hasn't paid many of its faculty members in months, and students who were supposed to receive their federal financial aid refunds in July are still waiting for their money.

Ph.D. student Le'Marquinta Lowe lives in California. She's been trying to get her refund from the school for almost two months but hasn't had any success. She says Union Institute leaders previously told her they wired the full amount owed to her account, but it turned out not to be true.

"[I] gave it three days because I know wire transfers can take maybe up to three to four days. [I] contacted them back, they confirmed it was sent, waited a week later, still didn't receive it," Lowe told WVXU, "After I reached out a week later, they pretty much said, 'We're sorry. We don't know what happened to the money.' "

Numerous students who spoke with WVXU say they were depending on their refunds to cover their living expenses while they studied. Without it, students say they've had to apply for state grants and rely on friends and family to get by. Lowe says the financial strain and uncertainty have weighed on her the past few months.

"There were days I literally couldn't wake up and even type for my dissertation. I told my dissertation chair, 'I'm trying, but mentally, it's hard to even focus,' " Lowe said.

Students and faculty say some are now facing eviction and other financial hardship because Union Institute hasn't given them the money they're owed.

Previously, Frederick told students the university must send students their federal loan refunds by Sept. 13. If it does not meet that deadline, Union Institute could be barred from participating in federal student aid programs. As that date approaches, students tell WVXU they have little hope the university will give them their money.

On Thursday, Union Institute's accreditor The Higher Learning Commission assigned the school a Financial Distress designation. The designation is a consumer protection mechanism meant to notify the public about an institution's finances and its ability to support educational programs.

The U.S. Department of Education has also placed the school on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2, meaning the department is keeping a closer eye on Union's federal compliance issues and the school is ineligible to receive federal student aid funds until it pays students what they're owed.

Union Institute's students and staff say they're now uncertain about the university's future and are preparing for the worst as the school remains under the control of President Karen Schuster Webb, who hasrefused to resignafter staff voted almost unanimously for her to step down last month.

Faculty tell WVXU that Webb met with employees on Wednesday to talk about the future of the institution. In the meeting, faculty claim Webb pointed the blame at the former CFO and students for not paying tuition. Webb also told faculty that a new CFO has been hired and will start in two weeks.

The Higher Learning Commission will host a focused visit with Union Institute in October to determine if it will remain an accredited university.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.