Facing more than 100 students and staff at Fresno’s Heald College on Wednesday, its campus president began to cry as she broke the news that the college would close its doors if a buyer isn’t found by mid-April.
Its parent company, Corinthian Colleges, was forced to put 85 schools up for sale last year following intense scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education. The for-profit education group was also sued by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Fresno campus President Carolyn Pierce criticized the attorney general during the noon meeting, saying Harris has scared away many potential buyers.
Pierce said she first heard of the mid-April deadline on Wednesday morning from the president and CEO of Heald College, who oversees 10 campuses in California and two others in Oregon and Hawaii.
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“I just got it. I just got that email,” Pierce said, choking back tears. “And the rest of the campuses will get it later on this afternoon. … I can’t believe it because I know how strong Heald is and I just can’t believe one person (Harris) can hurt this many people and not even come here.”
Heald College President and CEO Eeva Deshon wrote a letter to Harris on Wednesday: “Time is running out to arrange a sale. Our parent organization has until mid-April to reach an agreement with a buyer or Heald College will close its doors.”
Later in the day, Heald spokesman Joseph Hixson clarified that statement, saying if a buyer isn’t found by mid-April, the colleges would likely be closed within a few months.
“I don’t want students to think that they’ll show up one day to locked doors,” Hixson said. “We’re committed to keeping them informed about our progress.”
Heald College in Fresno was founded in 1906 and currently has around 900 enrolled students through the campus located at 255 West Bullard Ave. Pierce said students are in finals this week and will receive credit for the quarter soon to end.
Student Andy Fires — scheduled to graduate from Heald’s medical assisting program in January — was overwhelmed by the news. “I’m 46 years old. I have six kids and one grandson and this is my last shot at being a role model for my kids and my grandson — and it’s about to be taken away.”
The U.S. Department of Education accused Corinthian Colleges of failing to provide detailed records about its students. In October 2013, Harris filed a lawsuit against the for-profit education group, which is being investigated for alleged fraud and false advertising, among other things.
“The predatory scheme devised by executives at Corinthian Colleges Inc. is unconscionable,” Harris wrote in a news release the day she filed her lawsuit. “Designed to rake in profits and mislead investors, they targeted some of our state’s most particularly vulnerable people — including low income, single mothers and veterans returning from combat.”
Pierce stressed that Harris’ suit contains only allegations and she urged people to sign a petition to save Heald College at www.saveheald.com.
“The attorney general wants to run for Senate,” Pierce said. “Guess what’s important for people running for office? Votes. Votes. We want 10,000 signatures on that petition. Why? Because that’s 10,000 votes. That’s how you make a difference.”
Pierce said Heald students are also planning to protest Friday in front of the offices of the attorney general in Sacramento and San Francisco.
Pierce said she is largely in the dark about allegations against Corinthian Colleges, saying all she knows is several buyers were interested in purchasing Heald until they met with Harris’ office.
Officials with the Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday couldn’t directly answer “yes or no” about whether a future buyer could be brought into existing litigation, which they say is complex. But Kristin Ford, press secretary for the Attorney General’s Office, said while litigation is ongoing, her office’s approval is not required for the college to be sold.
“Heald had a long history as a nonprofit institution, but since 2009, it has operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges Inc.,” Ford said. “Our office filed a lawsuit in 2013 against Corinthian Colleges Inc. alleging major violations of California consumer protection and false advertising laws across Corinthian’s Heald, Everest and WyoTech brand schools. Alleged violations include misrepresenting job placement rates, misusing official U.S. military seals, lying about the transferability of course credits and specifically targeting veterans and vulnerable, low-income Californians.”
But, she added, “We will continue to act aggressively to pursue relief and restitution for students at Heald and other Corinthian Colleges Inc. campuses.”
On Wednesday, Heald students and staff stood together in support of the Fresno college.
“They are not just instructors. They become father figures. They become mother figures,” said student Victor Griffin, 34, an aspiring attorney. “It’s not like any school I’ve ever been to. It becomes a real, personal relationship.”
Dr. Denise Walsh, who formerly worked as a pharmacist for almost 30 years before becoming an instructor at the Fresno college, said her father graduated from Heald College in San Francisco close to 80 years ago. “He would tell us around the dinner table how much going to Heald meant to him and how it changed his life. … I can attest I would not be here if this was not a quality institution, if it was not ethical.”
Assembly Member Jim Patterson also defended Heald in a letter to Harris. He said the Fresno college donates more than $25,000 each year to nonprofits through sponsorships, classroom space and volunteers.
“Heald College is an icon in our community that at times can be taken for granted,” Patterson said. “In a no-fanfare manner they steadily employ hundreds of employees; they train and prepare thousands of students who in turn work and spend; and they participate by being ‘a part’ of the community.”