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New College in Virginia Offers Eastern Mormons a Choice

From Associated Press

Like the children of so many Mormon families, Roger Barrus’ daughter looked forward to moving from her hometown in Virginia to attend a church-owned school in the West.

She had good grades, her test scores were high, and her parents liked the idea of a school that promoted strong values and religious principles.

So when she didn’t get accepted at either Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, or Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, “she was devastated,” Barrus said.

“It’s really hard, you know, when kids think there are no other alternatives than those two schools out there.”

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So Barrus came up with a third option.

He and a group of Mormon businessmen and educators have acquired Southern Virginia College--a two-year private women’s college--and plan to turn it into a four-year, coeducational school with a BYU-like honor code and an emphasis on moral and spiritual development.

It’s a big change for the 130-year-old college nestled at the edge of a forest in Buena Vista, Va., and known mostly for the quality of its writing and equestrian programs.

The new managers stress that the college will continue to be nonsectarian and nonprofit. But they expect many of the students will be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We’re counting on it,” said Barrus, a former political science professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and now Southern Virginia’s new provost and academic dean. “But it’s not just LDS kids who want to come to a campus environment that supports religious principles.”

Toby Anderson, a church-employed social worker and the school’s new dean of students, said the goal is to enroll 400 students this fall. He already has received nearly 300 requests for applications, mostly from Virginia-area Mormons.

The idea of acquiring the school first crossed Barrus’ mind when its former president, John Ripley, told him that Southern Virginia was closing because, with long-term debt of $4.5 million, it had lost its accreditation.

Barrus, a second counselor in the church’s Chesterfield, Va., stake, then called his stake president, Glade Knight, “who happens to be a property management-development guy” who had, coincidentally, also been looking for an eastern college congenial to Mormon students.

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“The way the great human resource manager above has orchestrated this is just incredible,” Anderson said.

The new managers will assume the school’s debt, but do not plan to raise the $11,500 yearly tuition or the $6,000 the college charges for fees, room and board. Instead, they hope to raise $50 million over five years from corporate sponsors and individuals.

The group did not approach Mormon Church leaders for financial support, nor does it plan to, said the college’s new president, David Ferrel, a senior analyst at the Wirthlin Group, a public opinion research firm.

The community is no stranger to Mormonism. The first Mormon missionaries came to Buena Vista in the late 1800s during an iron-ore boom. And a Mormon chapel is just five blocks from campus.

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Ripley, a Roman Catholic, will continue at the college as its chancellor. Current students will be allowed to remain, but some are likely to consider the new strictures too severe.

Students will be required to sign the college’s honor code, requiring them “to be honest, to live a chaste and virtuous life, to obey the law, to use clean language and to abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco and illegal drugs.”

Its dress code specifies that shorts and skirts be knee-length and that mustaches and beards be neatly trimmed. Earrings for men are out.

Men and women will be housed in separate dorms, and students will be required to give two hours of community service a week.

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As membership in the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rises toward 10 million, its two colleges, BYU and Ricks, have been forced to be more selective. BYU turned away more than 1,300 freshman applicants for the 1995 fall semester, and Ricks College has already rejected 2,000 for next fall.

That creates a ready-made market for an East Coast version, the school’s founders believe.

And there’s a built-in advantage for Barrus. His daughter--who is applying to attend Southern Virginia this fall--will remain close to home.


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