Mired University

Cleveland's oldest business school just can't do business.

If you spend much time listening to your car radio or glancing at buses, the slogan is likely lodged in your head: "Myers University: My life, my Myers."

It's equally likely you've thought to yourself, What the hell is Myers University?

For 150 years, this has been a valid question. The school has changed names more than Puff Daddy. It's always served a small niche: mostly older, mid-career students hoping a business degree will help them climb the ladder. And it's been hidden from anyone who wasn't looking for it -- in one small building just off Public Square, in addition to a few suburban campuses.

So in 2001, the school hired a president to put Myers on the map. He succeeded beyond its wildest nightmares.

Paul Feingold arrived with what seemed like a decent résumé: consultant for companies like AT&T and Motorola, dean at National University.

In his first gig at Myers -- vice president of academic affairs -- Feingold's innovations were bold and promising. He started a criminology program and a one-year MBA, among the first in the country. "Dr. Feingold was a visionary," says Mike Herzak, chairman of the school's board of trustees.

Herzak was so impressed that in 2001, the board hired Feingold as its new president. They paid him $155,000 a year and, as boards do, let him run the show. They wanted more innovations. "We've always had a very entrepreneurial bent," Herzak says.

But once in charge, Feingold began behaving like a kid riding shotgun in Mom's grocery cart. If the box was shiny and the price high, the president wanted it.

The first change was the school's name. Never mind that it had changed just five years before. "David N. Myers College" didn't pop. Feingold changed the name to Myers University. "People just aren't recognizing us," he lamented.

Then Feingold tried to spread the Myers brand even farther. He hadn't been president a year, but in early 2002, he left on a two-week recruiting trip.

To China.

Myers was in a dogfight for prospective students with Cleveland State, Tri-C, and national chain schools like the University of Phoenix. And it was losing. Enrollment -- which accounts for 85 percent of the school's revenue -- had fallen during the '90s. A few Chinese students, while good PR, wouldn't reverse the trend.

Myers likely wouldn't get them anyway. Feingold's trip occurred just months after the September 11 attacks, when the U.S. government locked away student visas and promptly misplaced the key.

But Feingold hit five Chinese cities. When he came back, he said the trip was so successful, he wanted to recruit in Europe and Africa too. He also signed an agreement to host students from India. (Feingold, it seems, likes to travel. When Scene tried to reach him, his new employer, a recruiting firm called SearchPath, said he was in Russia. The phone at his most recent address was disconnected.)

In Myers' classrooms, students were surely learning that building a business takes patience. Especially if that business is a small, niche college in a crumbling economy like Cleveland's. But Feingold didn't seem concerned about the bottom line.

In the summer of 2002, he announced that Myers had bought the University Club, a ritzy joint operated out of a Euclid Avenue mansion. The club was in the heart of Millionaire's Row, a stretch of city long forgotten as an entertainment destination. But Feingold had big plans.

He wanted an upgraded pub, a conference room, and a grand ballroom. He wanted a gazebo, a promenade, and a fountain. Offices would be renovated and used by the school's senior staff. Upstairs, he envisioned an apartment for himself. Downstairs, he saw a professional kitchen; that way, the school could open a catering business and a culinary institute.

Renovation came with a hefty price tag of $10 million. But the mansion would help raise the school's visibility "by creating a true campus" that would attract more students and revenue, Feingold predicted.

In the past, Myers had built its business by bringing the school to its customers. Inner-city students could take public transportation to Public Square. Suburban students could find a satellite near their neighborhood. And many classes could be taken online.

But Feingold wanted to remake the school as a traditional university in the heart of Cleveland's Midtown. Myers put its Prospect Avenue headquarters up for sale. It bought a shuttered bottled-water plant on Chester Avenue, right behind the mansion. And Feingold fixed his eyes on more property. Another Chester building could hold a new learning center. A vacant parking lot would be perfect for a $4 million field house and gym, with enough seating for 1,200 fans.

A year after buying the University Club, Myers announced it would start a full-blown athletic program, with nearly every sport but football. It didn't matter that less than a third of Myers' students were college-age at the time, that many were part-time, or that fielding a basketball team with 30-year-old students working full-time jobs would be next to impossible. Sports, officials said, were crucial to building a more vibrant student life.

"It's going to be a smashing campus for us," Feingold said at the time. "The whole area around there is going to be a renaissance, and we want to be part of it."

On paper, it was a promising plan -- as paper plans usually are. But at the rate Feingold was going, the only thing "smashing" would be the school's bank account, after it plummeted well into the red.

Here's the thing about the smiles on the sides of those buses: They're real. Aisha Howard's 100-watt smile was among them. An "A" student from Euclid, she was accepted at some prestigious universities. But without financial help, most private schools were out of her price range.

At around $10,000 a year, Myers costs more than Cleveland State, but class sizes rarely exceed 15. Howard landed a scholarship and five years later walked out with a bachelor's in business administration. "At Myers," she says, "I wasn't invisible."

"It's really a quiet gem," Lisa Spieth says of her alma mater. Spieth, 37, enrolled in 2001, after a divorce left her searching for a new career. She recalls a school employee once phoning to ask if she needed a textbook. When she showed up for the first day of class, the book was waiting on her desk. "If I were a philanthropist and I was able to give them lots of money, I would," Spieth says. "I have nothing bad to say about it."

But as Feingold's tenure rolled on, no amount of personal attention could shield students from reality: The president of their business college was running the business into the ground.

Feingold's boorish management style made employees bristle. He micromanaged, meddled, and yelled, say former employees. Twenty-nine administrators departed under Feingold, many not long after they arrived. "You either loved him or hated him," says Don Luscher, Myers' former student affairs director. Others are less forgiving, describing Feingold as a bully. "He let you know he was president and you weren't," says one former employee.

But he wasn't only giving workers reason to flee. Students, too, felt the effect of his leadership.

When Devorah Kirksey-Frost graduated from Jane Addams High, she already had a young daughter. Myers won her over by offering the most aid -- enough to let her enroll full-time and use grant money to cover living expenses.

This is common at Myers. About 60 percent of its students are first-generation college, a higher percentage than at almost every other Ohio college. Most need financial help and receive scholarships or grants. To cover the rest, they take out loans averaging $4,200 a year to pay for tuition, books, rent, and groceries.

But when it came time for Kirksey-Frost's check to come, the school would often have nothing: no money and no answers. "You don't even know if you're going to be able to attend class the next week," says Kirksey-Frost, now an accountant in Indianapolis. "You need gas. you need money to get down there. There's no way."

Once, she recalls, her check wasn't released until the semester's last week. Only the good graces of her landlord saved her from eviction.

She's not the only one complaining. Roger Bryan, Class of 2005, was president of the honor society. He says his aid was held up every semester. "It was just a nightmare. Two semesters, I almost got kicked out of class because the funding wasn't there."

Spieth says her check was held up as long as eight weeks. She wonders if the school was "holding the money back so they could get the interest." (Herzak denies the school had widespread problems distributing aid.)

The school's career office was just as frustrating. Students don't generally attend Myers to ruminate on great works of literature. It's a professional school. They go because they want a job -- or a job that's better than the one they've got.

But under Feingold, the school failed miserably at this crucial task. Bryan once tried to plan a career day, but was shut down by the career services office. He got the impression that the office staff -- consisting of one employee -- thought he was interfering with her territory. Later, when he worked at a local auction house, Bryan tried to post job opportunities through the office. They told him not to bother. "It was basically nonexistent," he says of Myers' job outreach.

Eventually, students started to go to Myers for reasons other than job training. The school began offering partial sports scholarships, recruiting teenagers who still dreamed of playing at college. But when they arrived, they found the same disorganization as the rest of the students.

"You get there, and you're like, 'What is this?'" says baseball player Cory Leonard. "My high school was put together better than that."

He says the athletic director/baseball coach, Chuck Cangelosi, told him about the field house and a budding sports program. (Cangelosi didn't return Scene's calls.) Leonard started commuting from Akron, but found a program nothing like what Cangelosi advertised. "You get sold a dream," he says. "They fill your head with a bunch of stuff."

Monique Crowe came from Indiana to play softball. But the coach who recruited her left after just a few weeks. The team couldn't even find enough girls to play. The replacement coach walked out midseason.

Myers is not exactly a dynasty-building environment, but this shouldn't have been news to administrators. The school fielded a basketball team for decades, but by the 1980s, with the business of college sports booming, the school couldn't compete. The team went 0-21 in 1981. In 1993, after a 1-19 season, basketball was suspended.

John Corfias -- president at the time -- had caught on to an emerging truth about college sports. An athletic department is hard enough to build at a traditional college, where athletes have nothing to do but study, party, and practice. Of the approximately 1,000 students at Myers, 84 percent are "nontraditional" -- in their mid-20s and older -- and long ago gave their lives over to Miller Lites and the couch. Many of them have jobs and families. A tennis scholarship might sound nice, but when little Johnny's home sick, that match against the nubile kid from Notre Dame College takes a backseat.

Besides, the school has no facilities. Feingold's field house was a pipe dream; the plan's been all but scrapped. Instead, teams mostly practice at local parks.

"It was just a disaster," says Bryan.

He's another Myers success story: After five years fixing helicopters in the Marines, he went to Myers in hope of starting his own business. He graduated in 2005 and now owns his own Washington, D.C. car brokerage. At Myers, he learned from his teachers how to run a business. From the administration, he learned how not to.

"Everything that they did didn't work," Bryan says. "They tried to do everything, and did nothing well . . . It just baffles me that a business school could be so backwards at business."

The business students may have seen it coming, but the rest of Cleveland didn't. In 2001, Feingold earned an Innovation in Business Award from Smart Business Cleveland. Four years later, MidTown Cleveland bestowed on him its Historic Renovation Award for his work cleaning up the University Club mansion.

But in early 2005, two teams of educators descended on Myers. The Ohio Board of Regents oversees the state's colleges. The North Central Association of Colleges accredits Midwest schools. Though they evaluated Myers separately, both came to the same conclusion: The school was crumbling.

The researchers' findings reflected students' hellish experiences trying to get financial aid and the "severe financial hardship" caused by the school's disorganization. Myers' job-placement rate was "exceptionally low," they found. Only one or two students landed internships each year.

Academic advising was weak, the reports say, but that was to be expected: Professors were underpaid, teaching loads were "extremely heavy, bordering on unreasonable," and only 17 of the school's 140 professors were full-time. (The school claims that professors prefer to be overloaded so they can earn more money. Union President Darius Navran did not respond to interview requests.) And some of Feingold's innovations -- including the sports-management and international programs -- had never been approved by the state.

There was, of course, a sweet new mansion and a tennis team. But those enticements weren't attracting students like Feingold had predicted. The school was shrinking like a starlet who's recently discovered the wonders of cocaine.

More than 1,220 students went to Myers in 2000, the year before Feingold became president. With him in charge, enrollment fell 18 percent. Graduate students -- the more educated of the bunch -- were quicker to check out: Their credit hours dropped by a third in Feingold's final three years.

The school's retention rate -- the percentage of students who stick around for a second year -- was just 48 percent in 2005, the worst in Ohio. The six-year graduation rate was 22 percent -- the second-worst in the state. In 2003, 12 of its 19 programs had fewer than 10 graduates. Three had none at all.

Because most of the school's revenue comes from tuition, the attrition rate sent Myers into the red. The school had taken on $11 million in debt to move to Midtown. If Myers raised any money under Feingold, it was spent just as fast. The mansion had served up $500,000 in losses, officials say. By the time the reports were delivered in 2005, the school was facing a $1.4 million deficit.

On paper, things looked even worse. The school had valued its former Prospect Avenue headquarters at $6 million. But when it moved to Midtown, a charter school purchased an option to buy the building for $2.5 million less. Myers' books were suddenly $3.9 million lighter.

And there were still no Chinese students.

The Board of Regents published its report on April 29, 2005. The report urged Myers to make changes "to ensure the financial health of the university," and it expressed "serious concerns about leadership at the highest executive level."

Translation: Who the hell's running this place?

Paul Feingold resigned six weeks later.

If he could get away with it, Mike Herzak would probably put his own smile on a "My Life, My Myers" ad. Herzak ditched Kent State for Dyke College, as Myers was called then, in the late 1960s. He's stayed tightly bound to his alma mater ever since, and in 1995 he was elected board chairman.

Myers, in many ways, is Mike Herzak's life. And he's hell-bent on saving it.

When Herzak enrolled, the college attracted many white working professionals. Companies -- at least ones that hadn't yet shipped off to Japan and Mexico -- often sent workers to the college and picked up the tab.

As companies skipped town and the makeup of Cleveland shifted, so did the school's. Money "was tight," Corfias, the former president, recalls. "There were moments when we would get through the year and say, 'Did we make it or didn't we?'"

To grow, Corfias followed a time-tested strategy: "You just go where the action is." He believed the action was in inner-city Cleveland, so he began offering scholarships to low-income black students. It worried the school's board and alumni, he recalls, but it kept the school in business.

He also opened campuses in Elyria, Rocky River, and Wickliffe, where students were becoming less eager to drive downtown for night classes.

But these days, there are no longer any uncultivated fields of students. There is no new action, especially in shrinking Cleveland. And more and more schools are competing for the old action. National chains like the University of Phoenix and DeVry have gained legitimacy. So has online learning. And while Cleveland's population is sliding, the region remains chock-full of colleges just like Myers. Moreover, Myers' biggest competition -- the cheaper and more prestigious Cleveland State -- is now just a few blocks away.

In such a competitive market, schools like Myers have little room for mistakes -- especially mistakes with spending tendencies better fit for an episode of Fabulous Life. But while Herzak acknowledges that Feingold erred -- "He took his eye off the ball" -- the chairman is nowhere near giving up on Myers.

"I'm very passionate about it," he says. "It's my alma mater. Do I think we're going to be here another 100 years? Yes."

Last summer, Herzak's board finally found someone to dig Myers out its hole. He's a former investment banker, literature professor, and president of Hiram College. He is not, as he likes to point out, interested in reliving the past.

"I'm not paid to be an archivist," President Richard Scaldini says, with an appropriate dash of impatience. The past "doesn't much matter to me."

Scaldini started by trying to win over the community. Because of the school's financial problems, the U.S. Department of Education wasn't sure it could survive. So last year, the department froze $1.8 million in federal funds. The school got a $500,000 loan from the county to stay open. But by winter, student loan checks were being delayed, and Cleveland State was forcing Myers students out of its dorm because Myers couldn't pay the rent. "It caused a lot of trouble for our students," Scaldini says.

The president met with The Plain Dealer's editorial board to make his case: Without help from the community, the feds wouldn't release the money.

The paper urged the community to chip in. While the banks were slow, three wealthy businessmen -- Forest City's Albert Ratner and Sam Miller, and investor Carl Glickman -- eventually offered a few hundred thousand dollars each to guarantee a $1.2 million letter of credit.

But Scaldini is hardly finished repairing the school's finances. By slowly rebuilding enrollment, the school has cut its losses and managed to build an endowment of $600,000, he says. "We haven't been standing still." But it will take three years "to restore our balance sheet."

Scaldini says Myers' new Midtown location fits the school's mission perfectly. He imagines the Euclid Corridor soon booming with small businesses. Myers' small business courses are among its strongest, he says, and those students will be an asset to business owners.

Scaldini's less sure about other parts of Feingold's vision: He's scrapped plans for a field house and is vague about whether he thinks sports should continue. "We're reexamining everything."

One thing he promises will change: job placement. He knows it's the best way for Myers to compete with the University of Phoenix and other schools, and to attract local donors. Myers, he likes to say, can help reverse the brain drain. Although the career-services office still has just one staffer, Scaldini will add more. When he can. If he can.

"Everybody's overworked and understaffed. It's a fact of life," he says. "Do I want to add people? Damn right I do. We're not going to get ahead of ourselves."