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Enrollment shortfall, poor planning, sparked Sofia crisis, new president says

Ellsworth vows to work to preserve accreditation, stabilize budget

Enrollment shortfalls combined with a lack of planning led to the current financial crisis at Sofia University, the school's new president said last week.

In a sometimes-emotional meeting with students and faculty, Frank Ellsworth said he was working to stabilize the budget and preserve the institution's accreditation.

Ellsworth stopped short of promising he would never consider merging with another institution or selling the school, but said that no such talks are underway at this time.

He vowed to work with the school's current three-member board to create an inclusive process for replacing the seven members who resigned in recent weeks amid the crisis resignation of former president Neal King. Before departing, King fired a dozen faculty and staff members, including psychologist Robert Frager, co-founder of the school.

Students at last week's meeting in Sofia's auditorium pleaded with Ellsworth to preserve the school's unique focus on "transpersonal psychology," described as "education for the whole person, probing the mind, body, spirit connection."

"So many of us could have gone to mainstream institutions but, the point is, we came to this institution," a student said, asking Ellsworth explicitly to rule out the possibility of a merger. "We don't want to be part of a school that's no longer transpersonal."

Ellsworth, who was president of Pitzer College from 1979 to 1991, said he would not merge or sell the school without prior discussion with the Sofia community, but declined to rule out any option that "may be in the best interests of students."

"What's been happening to students at this school for some time is very shameful," Ellsworth said.

He said he was surprised to find "an institution of this age that's not done planning, has no endowment, practically no funds for scholarships, and very little money for financial aid.

"There are issues when you create a business model that doesn't work," he said.

Sofia, which last reported a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 526, had the overhead structure for a school with twice that enrollment, he said.

Ellsworth said he was cooperating with the Western Association of Schools and College's, Sofia's accrediting agency, to preserve accreditation while stabilizing the budget.

The 38-year-old Sofia, known until 2012 as the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, offers on-campus as well as online degrees in psychology, with a bent toward the disciplines spiritual, emotional and creative aspects.

The meeting Tuesday, Jan. 14, which was live-streamed to online participants, opened with the ringing of a "magic bell" and a moment of silence in which faculty moderator Christine Brooks asked participants to "take a moment of silence, focus on being mindful, as present as possible and set good intentions that the meeting is productive, fruitful and that we can all hear one another deeply."

Chris Kenrick

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