The most colorful scheme described by federal prosecutors in the recently completed trial of former state Sen. Jon Woods was a gimmick to direct marijuana tax money to Ecclesia College.
Woods, who was found guilty earlier this month on federal corruption charges related to kickback schemes, including to Ecclesia, tried to sneak language into the medical marijuana amendment that would have directed money straight to the tiny Bible college in Springdale, according to testimony at the trial. “I think it is great to take money from Satan and Kingdom of darkness and put it to Kingdom of God use,” then Ecclesia President Oren Paris III, who pleaded guilty for his own role in the kickback scheme, told Woods.
The novel gimmick — first reported by the Arkansas Blog — would have put language specifically designating some of the tax revenues from medical marijuana to go to grants for federally recognized “work colleges,” an unusual designation that only seven liberal arts colleges in the U.S. have. These schools make up the “Work Colleges Consortium.” The key for Woods was that Ecclesia was the only such college in the state, allowing the senator a mechanism to direct money straight to Ecclesia without ever putting the school’s name into any of the language.
I suspect I am not the only one who had no idea what a “work college” was until it turned up in the news. It turns out…it’s a pretty interesting concept! (Amusingly, some of the seven members of the Work Colleges Consortium are polar opposites of Ecclesia, such as the famously hippie college Warren Wilson). The program is distinct from the need-based federal work-study program; at work colleges, all students are enrolled in the program, with jobs on campus, typically working 8 to 15 hours per week. They receive support from the college for their work and integration of relevant jobs into their academic study. The idea is both to blend work in to the college experience and also make sure students are graduating without burdensome debt (students from work colleges graduate with about half the debt as students from other institutions). Here are the federal requirements to be designated a work college.
Ecclesia is the newest member of the consortium, joining in 2005 (the same year it received accreditation; it now offers degrees both on campus and online, focusing on Bible-based education). The other colleges in the consortium are Sterling, Alice Lloyd, Berea, Blackburn, College of the Ozarks, and Warren Wilson. They’re small, community-focused institutions.
From a recent New Yorker article on work colleges:
As with most work colleges, at the beginning of the academic year, Sterling’s students attend a job fair and then submit applications for the positions they want, which range from tractor driving and firewood chopping to writing for the admissions department. Sterling has five majors, all of them some variation on the theme of environmental stewardship; students can also minor in subjects like sustainable food systems and draft-horse management. Classes and work can look very similar—more so at Sterling, even, than at other work colleges. “If you’re taking animal science, you can sit in the lab here, use the equipment, work with faculty in that setting—and later that day, you’re actually watering the goats, feeding the goats, taking care of animals,” said Derr. “Most students have a shallow experience of college: food that seems to come out of nowhere, heat, lights. Students here understand that they’re making this place work.”
The first of the work colleges, Berea College in Kentucky (a delightful institution, I can report, with a wonderful collection of field recordings of Appalachian music) was founded in 1855. From the New Yorker piece:
He recruited teachers from Ohio’s strongly abolitionist Oberlin College and turned Berea into the first interracial and coeducational school in the South. His goal, as he wrote in the journal American Missionary, was to make Berea for Kentucky what Oberlin was for Ohio: “anti-slavery, anti-caste, anti-rum, anti-sin.” At the school, Fee promoted tolerance through devotion to God and to labor. Students worked not only so that they could afford their educations, but so that manual labor would be embraced as a dignified task, thereby destigmatizing the work performed by slaves.
Here’s another positive review of the work college program from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Of course, the key for Woods’ alleged schemes to funnel money to Ecclesia wasn’t the program itself, it was the fact that it was such a rare designation. For example, in 2015, Woods managed to get two bills passed that allowed for millions of dollars in grants only available to colleges in the Work Colleges Consortium. A slush fund, in other words, just for Ecclesia. This was the mechanism that Woods hoped to use funnel the marijuana money. (Woods also tried unsuccessfully to set up yet another fund for up to $3.5 million via the Department of Education.) It’s not clear just how much GIF money was allotted for such grants in 2015, but Max has reported on $26,000 in GIF grants from five legislators in the summer and fall of 2015 sent to Ecclesia “to assist in the college’s delivery of educational opportunity in the area of workforce services.”
The fact that the work college concept itself is perfectly legitimate likely also made it easier for Woods to scoop up GIF cash for Ecclesia. The other institutions in the consortium have good reputations, and the the “work college” idea represents a ready-made pitch that would appeal to politicians, both on the value of work and on helping students to graduate without debt. Indeed, a number of the lawmakers who helped funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money to the tiny school cited this program as the reason they thought it was a worthy project. Let’s just say that a little due diligence might have been in order, since nearly $700,000 was sent to the college in order to help it make a 50-acre land purchase for a little more than $1.2 million at around triple the estimated appraisal according to the county. As of last year, the college has around 200 students and around half are enrolled through distance learning; the college already owned more than 200 acres prior to purchasing the 50 acres. The land buy might have raised eyebrows for anyone who cared to look, no matter how lovely a work program might be.
The Work College Consortium is so small that I wondered whether they had any take on the Ecclesia scandal — particularly the fact that the college president apparently tried to use its federal designation as a work college in order to funnel in money with the help of lawmakers convicted in a kickback scheme. I have left several messages with the consortium’s leadership and haven’t heard back. Understandably, they may not be particularly excited to chat about Ecclesia College at the moment.
p.s. Here is something that you might not know about Ecclesia: Pat Boone is on the school’s Board of Regents.