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College president David Dobler was dismissed earlier this year after a proposed rescue by the University of Dubuque fell through.
His replacement, John Holst, serves as an “executive manager” rather than a college president. In an hour-long discussion with the Sitka assembly recently, Holst explained that he was looking for a soft landing for the historic school. He read from a document drafted by the trustees.
“We are intent on finding a way through the catastrophic demise of Sheldon Jackson College, so that the educational goals of Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the first Commissioner of Education for the territory of Alaska can live on not only in a productive way, but in a way that we can feel a sense of pride and dignity.”
In a shift from policy that may have led Sheldon Jackson to pin its hopes too strongly on the University of Dubuque, Holst said that the board was hoping campus would pass to a worthy cultural or educational entity that “may or may not have church affiliation.”
Holst said that Sheldon Jackson’s financial obligations had been pared down to $5.1 million in secured debt, owed to Alaska Growth Capital, and $600,000 in unsecured debt to local vendors and businesses.
With the exception of a couple of buildings, the trustees have not had to dip into their inventory of historic campus structures to pay down the debt. Nevertheless, Holst said there was no way further sales could get SJ out of the red.
“Even if every single piece of property sold… You know, cost of sales, all that stuff gets absorbed. We would just barely get there and we would not be able to take care of the unsecured debt.”
Holst said the trustees were going to travel north to tell their story to the elders and board members of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the parent company of Alaska Growth Capital. Without relief, Holst said Sheldon Jackson “can’t get there from here.” He suggested there were SJ graduates among the corporation’s leadership who might be sympathetic to the request.
With Dubuque out of the picture, the Sheldon Jackson trustees have turned their attention to local organizations that could preserve the educational tradition of the campus. Holst was accompanied by trustee Gary Paxton and Sitka Sound Science Center executive director Lisa Busch.
The Science Center has taken over the former college hatchery and aquatic labs, but does not yet own them. Busch told the assembly that her organization, plus the Sitka Summer Music Festival and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, constituted a possible new beginning for the campus.
“The music festival would like to house its musicians on campus, like it used to do. It was historically there, so was the Fine Arts Camp. It was a wonderful location for both those entities. Meanwhile at the science center we are working on developing programs for undergraduates and research – things that were tipped at in the Dubuque proposal. But the science center is here already and those programs take time to develop. But that’s the beauty of this vision: the camp and the music festival are ready to move in right now.”
Holst said the Sitka Summer Music Festival already has purchased one of the campus buildings. The acquisition of the hatchery by the science center, plus the purchase of the Stratton Library by the state – which at $2.1 million is the largest outstanding sale on the campus – would go far, Holst said, toward avoiding Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He also wanted no more lengthy engagements from Dubuque or other prospective partners.
“One of the things I’m not going to allow the trustees to do is to put all their eggs in one basket again. We did that for two years and now we’re trying to make up for time. We’ve got to have a second and third place.”
Holst stressed that although SJ was in debt, it was not in debt to the city. Its utility bills and taxes were fully paid. As a gesture of support, he asked the assembly to consider suspending this year’s property tax bill of just over $100,000 until the campus was either sold or turned over to a non-profit.
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