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Students react to turmoil after decision to close Hiwassee College

Students hold protest signs and wait while a closed meeting between staff and leaders happens April 5.

MADISONVILLE, Tenn. (April 9, 2019) – The county police came to Hiwassee College on April 5. Nicole Fritz was one of several students who was not happy about that or any of the other turmoil related to the leadership's recent decision to close the school.

“They’re treating us like we’re trespassing when we have paid all this money to be here,” said Fritz, age 19, a sophomore from Alcoa, Tennessee.

As Hiwassee winds down its final days – a casualty of “financial reasons,” according to a press release – the college reportedly has an enrollment of 225 students. On April 5, about 40 of those students gathered on campus to hold up protest signs, commiserate, or witness the commotion with their soon-to-be-former classmates.

The 13 deputies from the Monroe County Sherriff’s Office, including some who said they were off-duty, were a curious sight on this pastoral 400-acre campus. The officers stood guard while the students, media from three Knoxville TV stations, and a handful of alumni and former faculty swirled outside Barker Learning Center.

They were outside in the misty rain because inside, a closed meeting was happening between faculty and staff, board members, and President Robin Tricoli. A statement from Richard Beaubien, vice president for enrollment management, explained the meeting was closed because staff needed “dignity and respect” as they asked questions about the board of trustees’ March 28 decision to shut down the 170-year-old college on May 10.

“Many things are in motion, and those things are complicated by the large amount of rumor and conjecture appearing on social media and other venues,” said Beaubien.

Shunn Moorer, age 21, ambled up the sidewalk to join fellow students in watching the media do interviews. He said he was a junior from Chattanooga, majoring in business, and an outfielder for the baseball team, ranked fifth this year by the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA).

The Hiwassee Tigers (now 20-8) are eligible to play in the NCCAA regionals, two days after their college closes.

“It gives us more motivation to leave a legacy, to remember Hiwassee by,” Moorer said of his winning team.

The students who talked to The Call shared their appreciation and love for the college along with their frustration for what they said was an abrupt decision to close and inadequate communication from the leadership.

“It was a big surprise,” said Moorer, who learned about the school closing on social media. When Hiwassee closes, he will return home to join his family’s vintage resale and janitorial businesses. “I pray about it every night. But I don’t stress about it because I think it’s going to work out. God’s got a plan.”


Lives changed

Hiwassee College, one of three United Methodist-affiliated colleges in Holston Conference, has a mission for offering higher education to students who might not otherwise get the chance to attend college. (The other two Holston-related colleges are Tennessee Wesleyan University and Emory & Henry College.)

“My student athletes definitely had their lives changed at Hiwassee,” said Will Raby, head basketball coach. “Some of these young men came from big cities and rough neighborhoods. By the time these same men graduated, they were working in the community. We have had a handful of former players stay in Madisonville and call it home.”

Maria Jimenez Fullam, age 28, said she was one of many international or undocumented students who benefited from the Hiwassee experience, graduating with an associate degree in pre-nursing in 2012.

“It gave me the opportunity to further my education when other colleges and universities wouldn’t accept a student without legal status,” said Fullam, who went on to pursue additional coursework at Pellissippi State Community College and Lincoln Memorial University. “Hiwassee opened its doors and I got to experience many things.”

On the morning that the police and media came to Hiwassee, one 23-year-old basketball player (who did not want to be identified) said he appreciated the contrast between his urban home in Chattanooga and the rural campus. At Hiwassee’s final commencement on May 10, the student athlete will graduate with a degree in social science and interdisciplinary liberal arts.

“I got a lot of time to think here,” he said. “You make peace with your thoughts. I hate to see the younger people be deprived of that.”

While standing with her teammates outside Barker Learning Center, freshman Kassidy Holloway, age 19, said she came to Hiwassee as a recruit for the volleyball team. It was the first she had ever heard about the United Methodist college in Madisonville.

“The first time I came here, I told my mother after we left that [this] was where I was going to school and where I wanted to be,” said Holloway, a Presbyterian who attends chapel on Mondays and Wednesdays with her classmates and teammates. “I just felt immediately connected.”

Although her coach has helped her find transfer options at Tusculum College and Bluefield College, Holloway said she’s disappointed that she has to leave: “I planned to be here for the next three years of my life.”

Painful for everyone

In an email sent to The Call earlier this week, President Tricoli said she understood the many emotions expressed by the college community.

“We know, and certainly knew, the entire campus would be impacted,” she said. “For all, this has been ‘home,’ longer for some than others. It is painful for everyone, including the board of trustees, the entire administration, and me.”

Students have been encouraged to meet with representatives of the 25 institutions invited on campus to recruit and help with transfers, Tricoli said. “We are very proud our students chose us first. Now, they have many more options to consider, with a variety of academic programming and athletic opportunities.”

On Friday morning, April 12, Tricoli will meet with students and parents. “Like the meeting last week was to focus on faculty and staff, this week we will be meeting with students only, as this is their time," she said.

Tricoli has served as Hiwassee president since 2011. “Our mission was to thrive,” she said.

Some students said they have met with college representatives, but are still upset about the trauma experienced since March 28, when they received a five-minute notice to attend the meeting in which the closing was announced. Some students and staff said they learned about the closing later on social media.

Ethan Carroll, the women’s softball coach, said his 18 players were in the middle of a game when the news began to spread.

“I had to tell them after the game,” Carroll said. “They all started bursting in tears. And then they went straight from the dugout to tell their parents, who came back to me, asking questions.”

Cierra Gaines, age 21, a junior from Athens, Tennessee, said she feels bad for the faculty (“They are just as much in the dark as we are”) and wants to transfer to a state school.

“I don’t know if I want to go to a Christian-based school again,” Gaines said, “because they’re not funded by the state, and this could happen again.”

Leslie Summit, age 20, is a native of Madisonville. Her mother graduated from Hiwassee. The hometown college was a “super ideal” choice for her, she said, because she’s a volleyball player on scholarship who was preparing to apply for Hiwassee’s dental hygiene program.

“We’re still in shock and haven’t had time to process, and we’re all being asked to up and move away from what we planned to do,” said Summit, a sophomore. “It’s just a lot of stress that a college student shouldn’t have to encounter.”


Holston Conference includes 872 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


See also:
Hiwassee College closing in May (UMNS, 3.28.19)

Tenn. Wesleyan creates transfer policy for Hiwassee (TWU, 4.11.19)