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Union Institute students are missing their loan refunds. Many employees still aren't being paid

Former Union Institute & University Headquarters in Walnut Hills
Zack Carreon
/
WVXU
Former Union Institute & University Headquarters in Walnut Hills

The faculty council at Union Institute & University in Walnut Hills passed a vote of no confidence in President Karen Schuster Webb and Board of Trustees Chair Edgar Smith Jr. last week following a string of missed paydays and financial trouble in recent months. According to faculty members who shared information with WVXU, almost the entire staff voted in favor of a change in leadership.

The vote comes as students have begun to speak out against the institution after they claim the university withheld their federal student loan refunds earlier this month.

Additionally, many workers were supposed to be paid on July 14, but as of Tuesday, say they still haven't received paychecks. Staff members say the administration has not yet shared a plan on how they expect to pay people and get students their refunds.

Students who spoke with WVXU said they expected to receive thousands of dollars from their loan refunds July 7. When that date came and went, they say Union Institute did not give them an explanation or provide more information. After another week passed, students reached out to the school's financial aid and business offices, but couldn't seem to get a straight answer.

Get caught up: Union Institute & University hasn't paid its employees in nearly a month

Ph.D. student Marena Bridges has attended Union Institute since 2016. Bridges says she was expecting to receive around $20,000 from her loan refund. When it didn't arrive, she began to panic.

"It's like $20,000 has kind of evaporated in front of my eyes," Bridges said.

She chose to study at Union Institute & University because its remote learning program allowed her to get her degree and stay in Wisconsin with her mother, who was experiencing medical issues. Her mother has since passed away.

Now, Bridges is still in Wisconsin and taking care of her older brother, who is disabled.

"We're scraping by," Bridges told WVXU. "I really anticipated having that [money] for both of us. It would make things quite a bit easier, especially for him because he's on disability, he doesn't get a lot of money. I pretty much support both of us."

Bridges says the administration hasn't directly told students about what happened to their refunds or informed them about the university's ongoing financial issues. In fact, Bridges says she only found out the situation once she realized her refund wasn't coming. She then began researching and found WVXU's articles about Union online.

According to emails obtained by WVXU, faculty claim the university's leadership team admitted to using student loan refunds to pay a small number of full-time staff members.

Another Union Institute P.h.D. student, Micael Blue, says they heard about the school's financial troubles in March but didn't anticipate it ever affecting students or federal loan refunds.

RELATED: Union Institute employee files lawsuit over unpaid wages

"I really felt like federal financial aid would be a really dangerous thing to touch. I couldn't imagine going there because this is actually a crime at this point. To take our money, it's theft." Blue said. "I didn't realize our administration was that desperate."

Despite all this, Blue maintains Union's faculty have had students' backs, offering support and some even saying they don't want to get paid until students receive the money they're owed.

'This doesn't seem like one person's doing'

Part of what's made the entire situation frustrating for both students and staff is the lack of transparency from Union Institute's leadership. Employees say often it's unclear who is still working at the school since they are no longer notified about staff departures. In some cases, they only find out someone has left when they start their new job at another university.

Workers claim many departments are operating with minimal staff and some no longer have managers in place. Multiple employees have told WVXU Union Institute no longer has a chief financial officer and the position is sitting vacant. Without a CFO, questions about where the school sits financially are going unanswered.

Many of these departures have not been reflected on Union's website, which has only removed one profile from the president's cabinet despite claims from faculty that half of them no longer work there.

Although the faculty has only officially called for the removal of President Webb and the board chair, some feel more people need to be held responsible for the financial turmoil.

"Based on my experience from trying to find out what has happened, I do think that there are other people that should be accountable if they haven't already resigned, which it sounds like a lot of people have," Union Institute student Le'Marqunita Lowe said. "It doesn't seem like this was one person's doing."

RELATED: Union Institute future could be in jeopardy

Ultimately, students and employees who are sharing their experiences want Union Institute's leadership to come clean and communicate so the university can move forward and stay open.

"We can't erase the harm that's been done, but we can create repair," Ph.D. student Blue said. "And I hope that a program that is based on social justice can create a situation where we can come together and create repair."

In an email to staff, the school's faculty council says it has submitted its vote of no confidence to the board of trustees and is awaiting a response. Faculty members say if leadership does not change and their demands are not met, they will continue to submit complaints to Union Institute's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, and elsewhere.

The commission has a special focused visit scheduled for October to go over Union Institute's finances.

President Karen Schuster Webb has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Other members of the president's cabinet have also not responded.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.