Virginia college’s president resigns in another sign of school’s uncertain future

Virginia Intermont’s president Clorisa Phillips cites personal reasons for leaving, as day-to-day operations are delegated to a management firm.

By Robert Dilday

In another sign of what appears to be Virginia Intermont College’s impending closure, the Baptist-affiliated school’s president resigned May 5 to be replaced by an interim president and “restructuring agent.”

In a statement on Virginia Intermont’s website, Clorisa Phillips said she was leaving “voluntarily for personal reasons.”

“Despite the obstacles for VI and our ensuing struggles, I am proud of what we have accomplished together,” said Phillips, who became president in 2010. “We have had so many successes against incredible odds.”

Phillips ClorisaFinancial difficulties for the 130-year-old college in Bristol, Va., reached a crisis stage last month when a proposed merger with a large Florida university abruptly ended. Virginia Intermont has faced daunting fiscal challenges for years, jeopardizing its accreditation and resulting in a 35 percent drop in enrollment since 2010.

Some employees say they haven’t been paid in weeks and the Bristol Herald Courier reported May 2 that the school owes nearly $13,000 in past due real estate taxes and that the local utility company has set a deadline for electricity bills to be paid or service will be cut off.

Last month the school launched a “teach-out plan,” a recognized agreement to allow students to complete their academic programs elsewhere which often is a sign of an institution’s imminent closure. One Baptist-affiliated school — Bluefield (Va.) College — has been identified as a teach-out location and two others have expressed interest — Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C., and Shorter University in Rome, Ga. About 15 additional colleges and universities may participate in the teach-out plan.

Though Virginia Intermont’s trustees have not officially announced plans to close the school — an official message from the governing board on the school’s website said the college’s future is “unknown” — others associated with the institution are increasingly acknowledging that reality as inevitable.

During commencement exercises May 4 for 90 of the school’s 375 students, faculty president Robert Rainwater cited “profound unhappiness that VI was closing,” the Herald Courier reported.

“It was not pre-ordained that VI must close … but we followed our leadership and it led to complete institutional failure,” the paper quoted Rainwater as saying. “As a result, the school we love is coming to an end.”

Anticipated protests at the commencement ceremony — probably the school’s last — never materialized, but observers reported heightened security and Phillips, who presided at the event, left immediately afterward escorted by police.

On May 6 trustees announced that day-to-day leadership of the school has been delegated to Compass Executives, a Nashville, Tenn.-based management consultancy. Art Rebrovick, a Compass management adviser, will serve as interim president and restructuring agent.

“Art has already been a huge help in guiding us through this past month of operations,” trustee chair Kathleen O’Brien said in a web statement. “He has been on-site several times to meet with staff, and has a good understanding of the issues at hand. His business acumen and expertise will help us determine the next best course of action. The board of trustees will work with Art to find the best possible solution that hopefully provides a future for some or all of the college.”

Phillips assumed Virginia Intermont’s presidency in 2010 after a 30-year administrative career at the University of Virginia. Her election was praised by then-UVA president John Casteen III, who gave Phillips her first job in 1978.

Though some have blamed Phillips for Virginia Intermont’s declining enrollment and inability to fundraise — in April the faculty overwhelmingly voted no confidence in her leadership — others have said she inherited an untenable situation. Her predecessor, Michael Puglisi, resigned at trustees’ request, coinciding with a cost-saving plan that reduced the school’s faculty and staff. He had averted a school shutdown in 2004 but the institution failed to find a secure financial footing.

Virginia Intermont has been affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia since its founding in 1884, and receives an allocation in the BGAV budget. The school has reportedly withdrawn its request for BGAV funding in 2015.