Why Laureate wants back in the picture at CSF

May 18, 2009 (The Santa Fe New Mexican – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) — It was exactly one year ago today that College of Santa Fe officials announced a possible partnership with Laureate Education Inc., a for-profit organization with college campuses around the world — but at the time, none in the United States.

Since then a lot has changed. Those talks fell through in November, when Laureate’s creditors wouldn’t allow the group to borrow the $35 million it would have taken to buy the campus.

The college appealed to state officials, who tried and failed to acquire the campus through legislative approval.

Now, with the city and state working to buy the campus, Laureate is back in the picture. On Friday morning, Laureate CEO Douglas Becker explained why Laureate was first interested in the college and why it’s now prepared to lease facilities from the city and to run an arts school on the campus this fall.

Becker, 43, has neat black hair parted on the left with spots of gray on the sides. He sat on the edge of his seat as he talked about Laureate’s history and mission, speaking quickly and confidently.

He said he started his first business before he was 20, twice deferring acceptance to Harvard University. He never went.

Instead, at the age of 23, Becker led a group of investors to acquire Sylvan Learning Inc. He became CEO of the well-known tutoring company in 1991.

In April 1999, Sylvan Learning Systems acquired a majority stake in the Universidad Europea de Madrid, a private university in Spain. This marked its first campus-based institution.

Sylvan Learning Systems changed its name to Laureate Education Inc. in 2004, though Sylvan Learning Inc. still runs tutoring centers around the country. Laureate now runs 42 accredited institutions of higher learning in 20 countries, serving more than 500,000 students.

Becker has had a hand in all of Laureate’s acquisitions and approves the plan for all deals. In the fall of 2007, he and his family moved to Hong Kong so he could head its efforts in China. It now has three campuses there.

Becker and Laureate became interested in the College of Santa Fe after hearing about failed talks between the college and Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

Laureate has always wanted a campus in the United States, Becker said. Since its initial talks with CSF, Laureate has acquired two campuses — Kendall College in Chicago and NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego. The acquisitions took place during the CSF talks.

In addition, the college’s arts focus fits perfectly with Laureate’s goal of acquiring "centers of excellence" — institutions offering programs unique from its other campuses.

Now it hopes to do for the college what it’s done for so many other institutions. In the four years since Laureate began a partnership with Kendall — it acquired the school in whole last year — enrollment has tripled, Becker said.

"We know how to recruit students, we know how to tell a good story," Becker said. "We have the marketing budget and the staff to tell people about this treasure."

In many ways, Laureate’s proclaimed strengths have been the College of Santa Fe’s greatest weaknesses. Despite respected programs, the school never had the resources to promote itself and was never able to recruit enough students to sustain itself.

"We know how to listen to our customers and give them what they want," Becker said.

Becker confirmed some of what college officials have said about Laureate, but also clarified what he said are some misunderstandings.

Laureate is interested in the college because of its arts programs — "The faculty is why we’re interested," Becker said — but that does not mean it will not change anything.

"If we get involved, then we would have to be in charge," Becker said.

The company does not micromanage academics, Becker said, but it will choose leaders with an academic background who also understand business management.

Even changing the school’s name is under consideration because of all the news of CSF’s financial problems and closing, Becker said.

Laureate also has not traditionally offered tenure to its faculty, which drew the ire of some CSF faculty during initial talks.

What Laureate does offer is a willingness to began operating this fall. Becker confirmed that Laureate could run a school with as few as 100 students, but said it would prefer as many of the college’s current students as possible to enroll.

Becker met with Mayor David Coss on Friday to discuss the potential partnership, in which Laureate would commit $20 million to subsidize operational losses and to ensure it paid its rent to the city.

Coss said Friday afternoon that he was "impressed with (Laureate’s) programs and approach."

"Working with them is a good way to keep existing programs in the arts going," Coss said.

Becker said Laureate rents buildings for both Kendall and NewSchool, but has not rented from a government other than in China.

Coss said the city’s Finance Committee meets Monday to discuss a possible offer to the college’s creditors. The school owes about $40 million, though Coss is looking to negotiate a decrease in that amount.

"We’re expecting that we can do this relatively quickly," Coss said, adding that he hopes negotiations will be complete by the end of May. (tradingmarkets.com)

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