Tiny Rockford Nabs a London Campus

Times Staff Writer

Global ambitions lurk in unlikely places. An hour's drive from Chicago, for instance.

There--in resolutely Midwestern, industrial Rockford, Ill.--Norman L. Stewart, the cheerful 43-year-old president of tiny Rockford College, has reached across the Atlantic and under the noses of bidders from Hong Kong, Japan and Saudi Arabia to acquire a London campus from the Queen of England.

This fall the first batch of about 100 students from Rockford will begin their semester abroad in Great Britain--a semester that doesn't cost extra because of the elaborate financial arrangements Stewart has worked out with other educational institutions. Moreover, it's the only college in central London with a real campus--trees and grass and all that.

Reciting these facts, as he did on a recent visit to Los Angeles, makes Stewart very cheerful indeed. He has scored an academic coup, it seems, beating out competitors much more accustomed to international enterprise, to lease the 10-acre campus in Regent's Park from the Crown. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a U.S. education journal, called the location "one of the world's choice academic sites, set amid the trees and ornamental gardens of London's Regent's Park."

"It was my idea to promote a large program for Rockford College students overseas," Stewart explained, adding that his initial plan was modest in scope. "Then I discovered this piece of property--a whole college for sale in central London. That had happened only once before in this century, and that wasn't in central London but way out in the suburbs."

Actually, the campus was for lease. It has been a part of the Crown's personal estate for nearly 900 years and has been leased out since the reign of Henry VIII. But that was OK with Stewart, because he snapped up the remaining 27 years on a 99-year lease to the University of London's Bedford College campus. With an option to renew.

Stewart still sounds slightly amazed that his 1,500-student school got the nod last fall over much wealthier bidders, including a Saudi Arabian group that wanted to establish an Islamic education center in London. But he learned that noblesse oblige still plays a part, even in today's economically austere Britain.

"The Crown had little interest in who could pay the most," Stewart said. "I think the primary reason we were given the lease was they liked our proposal for an Anglo-American institution."

Rockford will sublease some of the campus' dozen buildings to British educational associations and universities, using the money to subsidize Rockford students' semester abroad.

Money also will be raised by leasing food, housing, health and other services to American schools with European programs, Stewart said, adding that Michigan State University, Dartmouth College, the University of Missouri and the University of Oregon are among the institutions that will buy services from the school, which has been renamed Regent's College. In all, Stewart estimated that there are about 70 American colleges and universities with programs in London who are potential customers.

In this way Rockford hopes to raise the $1-million annual rent and funds for its own program, Stewart said. Thus, the program won't be the cause of any tuition increases, he said. Tuition is currently $5,490.

Rockford students will be expected to spend at least a semester abroad, studying the English aspects of their majors, he said. Nursing students, for example, will learn about midwifery.

"The problem we saw with many junior-year-abroad programs is that they were designed for students in certain fields," Stewart said. "Frequently students in history and foreign languages would go abroad and students in accounting would not. We wanted a program for all our students. And students would be expected to go, because we've found that people often cite their foreign study as one of the most important parts of their formal education."

When he first broached the possibility of acquiring the campus, Stewart admitted that many on Rockford's "very conservative board of trustees--they're really grass-roots America--said, 'Should we be biting off something this large?' "

However, a few board members, especially businessmen with dealings in foreign countries, were enthusiastic from the start, he said. "Most of the larger companies in Rockford, metal and aviation products, for instance, do overseas business, and they said, 'We'll need people who understand other cultures.' " The assistance of paleontologist Richard Leakey, an old friend of Stewart's and a Rockford trustee, was invaluable, Stewart said.

Once the board was persuaded, the actual deal-making with the board that oversees the Queen's property was largely a matter of hurry up and wait. "I've been there (London) every other month for about the last two years," Stewart said. "There were times when nothing would seem to happen for six or eight weeks. Then we'd get a call and have to respond in a couple of days. I think that was an advantage for us. As a small college we can turn on a dime, but larger institutions had to take more time."

The payoff, he concluded, was a campus in one of London's most exclusive neighborhoods. "The only people who live in the park are our students, the American ambassador and the animals in the zoo," Stewart said.

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