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Ambassador University to shut doors after 50 years

By Mac Overton

BIG SANDY--Ambassador University, which is marking its 50th anniversary later this year, will close after graduation in May unless a buyer for the school is found.

AU's board of regents reluctantly reached the decision to place the university up for sale during a meeting Dec. 29, according to a press release from the university.

"Based on economic realities and national trends in higher education, the board felt this step to be necessary and prudent at this time in order to best provide for the academic plans of students and career considerations of administration, faculty and staff," the release stated.

The regents cited "lack of sufficient external financial support, the end of the financial subsidy and other support from the Worldwide Church of God, declining enrollment due to decreased membership in the church, and the impact of increasing tuition on the present student body" as reasons for the decision.

If Ambassador cannot be sold as a going concern during its final semester, it will be closed in May and the buildings and grounds sold, the release said, adding that AU has financial resources to meet all its obligations.

"A broker [to handle the sale] will be selected as quickly as possible," said current President Russell Duke, who noted that an appraiser will be retained to set the asking price for the institution.

"We want to act on this right away," Dr. Duke said. "One of our chief concerns is to get it on the market as quickly as possible in hopes that [it can be sold as an existing college] and students won't have to transfer to complete their education.

"If it doesn't sell as a university, it will be sold to whoever would buy it."

If the school closes, Ambassador's radio station, KBAU, which began broadcasting in 1995, also faces shutdown.

Dr. Duke said the university has 130 full-time employees on the faculty and staff, as well as a few part-timers. University officials indicated that the school's payroll runs about $5 million.

An article in the Dec. 31 edition of The Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News stated that university officials said that 39 other faculty and staff members were terminated last year because of a cut in the university's subsidy from the church.

Tom Delamater, AU's director of development, said provisions will be made for alumni to receive transcripts.

Dr. Duke announced the decision to faculty and staff members in a meeting Dec. 30. Some students who were still on campus during the winter break also attended.

Meetings also took place Jan. 2 with discussions centering on the disposition of the university's remaining assets such as library books, computers and other equipment. No decisions were reported.

Ambassador is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Atlanta, Ga., but operated for years with only state approval to grant degrees. During that time it was owned and fully subsidized by the WCG.

"In 1990 the church's cash subsidy to Ambassador was $14.5 million," said Dr. Duke, who has served as president since September 1995.

"University administrators began working at that time on a plan that anticipated gradual annual reductions in subsidy from the church," he said. "By last year the church's subsidy had been reduced to $5 million."

During the current school year the subsidy was eliminated entirely.

"The church's ability to assist the university has been affected by diminishing income in the wake of major doctrinal changes announced by the WCG in late 1994," the news release stated.

The changes involved viewing the annual festivals and weekly Sabbath as traditions rather than requirements and teaching that biblical dietary laws do not apply to Christians. Church members, who in the past were subject to paying or saving as many as three tithes on their incomes, were no longer required to tithe.

Previously the church had also adopted the Trinity doctrine, contrary to the teachings of WCG and Ambassador founder Herbert W. Armstrong.

In December 1994 the late WCG pastor general and successor to Mr. Armstrong, Joseph W. Tkach, announced that the church had been wrong in its understanding of New Testament teachings and that the church would no longer teach that members should keep the Sabbath, tithe or refrain from eating unclean meats.

"Observers in the evangelical Christian community hailed the WCG's decision as unprecedented and historic," the news release stated.

Dr. Duke said Ambassador supported the changes in the WCG.

The release said the defection of ministers who wanted to adhere to Mr. Armstrong's teachings and the subsequent formation of the United Church of God impacted the university in several ways.

"The university was affected by the church split as many students whose families left the WCG chose to withdraw from the university," the news release said.

Enrollment, which stood at 950 in 1994-95, dropped to 750 the next year and 650 this year.

WCG income dropped severely after the split, and that affected the church's ability to support Ambassador, Dr. Duke said.

The WCG plans to emphasize the education of its youth and ministers in settings other than a church-sponsored university.

The Star-News article said the church is investigating partnerships with other educational institutions in which students wanting a religious education could be taught by WCG professors and ministers.

The university administration will work with students to help them transfer to other schools to complete their degree plans, the news release said. Faculty and staff members who qualify will receive severance pay upon termination of their employment.

"This is a sad and difficult time for us, but we have an obligation to complete the academic year and provide for a smooth transition for our students and employees," said Dr. Duke. "We want to make the next several months as positive as we can for everyone associated with Ambassador."

Donald Ward, the former Ambassador president who oversaw consolidation of the Pasadena and Big Sandy campuses at the Texas site in 1990 and the achieving of accreditation and university status, said he was saddened by the news of the closing.

"When I heard the news, I felt a lump in my throat and a tightening stomach as the memories flooded back of all Ambassador has meant to the Church of God and its constituency through the decades.

"I wrote a little memo to the United Church of God council lamenting the closure, saying the spirit of Ambassador still burns in the hearts and minds of those of us who devoted more than a quarter century of our lives to teaching the truth to God's people and that same spirit still burns in the hearts and minds of thousands of Ambassador graduates around the world.

"Who knows what God has in mind for Ambassador in the future. Long live Ambassador."

The Big Sandy campus of Ambassador closed in 1977, when it consolidated with the Pasadena campus at the California site. It reopened as a junior college in 1981.

At one time Ambassador had three campuses: the original one in California, which closed in 1990, a campus in Bricket Wood, England, which closed in 1974, and the Texas campus. The WCG has owned the Texas property since 1953. The Big Sandy property first became an Ambassador campus in 1964.

Mr. Armstrong had announced plans to close the campus at the end of the 1985-86 school year, but after his death, in January 1986, Mr. Tkach decided to keep it open.

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