FOR YEARS, the campus was a productive garden of innovation, with citrus and eucalyptus trees lining campus walkways on which missionaries and students strode. Then in 2009 Ralph Winter, whom Time in 2005 named one of America’s 25 most influential Christians, died after battling myeloma—and his vision is no longer welcome.
Now, most of the missions-related activity is gone. FV/WCIU (“Frontier Ventures” is the “rebranding” name for USCWM) derives revenue from renting buildings to several schools and churches and renting houses to people searching on Craigslist for vacancies. The tenants have brought new problems that tarnish the reputation of what was a great institution.
We’ve learned about drug and drinking problems. WCIU President Kevin Higgins acknowledged that FV/WCIU “evicted three housing tenants when it was discovered they were selling drugs.” He noted “two incidents on campus involving students who attend schools run by organizations on our campus.” (Out of respect for families who are struggling with the crisis, we and FV/WCIU are not going into specifics.)
We’ve learned about problems involving three charter or private schools—Orion, Celerity, and Excelsior—that rented classroom buildings. Orion was dissatisfied with the condition of its building and left. The Pasadena Fire Department, citing safety concerns, told Celerity it had to move. Excelsior still occupies parts of two buildings: Few of the students are Christians, and the school administration has stifled attempts by evangelicals to invite the students to movie nights and other outreach events.
We’ve learned that FV/WCIU currently faces at least three civil lawsuits from former and current employees alleging harassment, retaliation, overwork without overtime pay, and wrongful termination. The campus’s former human resources director, David Clancy, found FV/WCIU abusing employees, erring in employee benefits, assigning extra work hours without overtime pay, violating whistleblower policies, and not paying state income taxes.
Furthermore, Eduardo Rios, employed from 2007 to 2014 as an electrician, has filed suit concerning “internal wrongdoing, theft, and mismanagement” involving disregard of safety requirements, diversion of maintenance to side jobs at the expense of WCIU, threatened violence, and illegal termination. When WORLD gave President Higgins a list of charges by Clancy and Rios, he commented, “Yes. In each case we have sought to meet with staff and employees to solve these issues. We have made extensive changes in our entire HR department to prevent future problems. I have met personally with one of our WCIU staff, on several occasions, to hear her side of things.”
Eduardo Rios’ legal filing also states that a WCIU manager “required a monetary payment from a prospective applicant applying for a maintenance job. Failure to pay resulted in non-hire or repeated delays in hiring consideration.” Rios alleges “threatening acts to enforce compliance and to create fear within the ranks of the maintenance staff.” When Rios blew the whistle with assurances of confidentiality from WCIU higher-ups, he says the threat-wielding manager and others soon knew about his statements. WCIU fired Rios and retained the manager.
With the maintenance staff a mess, it’s no surprise that maintenance also suffered. According to former housing manager Silvia Rodriguez, who filed a lawsuit against WCIU, some homes have black mold in bathrooms and bathtubs. Some broken windows have remained in disrepair for years. Some heaters have stopped working and consistent plumbing issues have arisen. One single mom had a crack in her wall that caused water to leak in whenever it rained.
WCIU’s Mott Auditorium, which with a capacity of 4,000 is the largest auditorium in Pasadena, is closed most of the time, in part because its heavy doors are difficult to open from the inside. That would be dangerous in case of emergencies, but COO Kerry Jones says it would cost $100,000 to replace them.
We’ve talked with and read depositions from many other employees or tenants—Patty Tessandori, Lesley Baines, and John Cha are among them—who have alleged or spotlighted mismanagement, unfair evictions, and retaliation against complainers and whistleblowers.
FV/WCIU LEADERS and their critics agree the campus has become run-down. They disagree on why that has happened: FV/WCIU executives say the problems show a central campus is no longer useful and they should sell it. Some say the cost of living in Pasadena makes it hard for missionaries to live there. Save the Campus says the problem is not the property but mismanagement of it—and executives emphasizing good stewardship and open accountability could make it bloom once more.
“It’s almost like [FV/WCIU] deliberately wants to atrophy this campus to the point where they have to sell it,” said David Farrow, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who in 2016 tried to bring the headquarters of the missionary organization Iris Global to the Pasadena campus. Farrow said FV/WCIU board members during meetings said the campus had $28 million in deferred maintenance. (Asked about that figure, FV/WCIU responded, “This type of detail will factor in to all discussions with potential buyers and is not being released publicly.”)
Critics say FV/WCIU could have hired a professional property management services company, but instead hired inexperienced people. Higgins, though, says, “No one is deliberately atrophying our campus. We have made a number of significant and routine improvements to properties over the years.” He and FV General Director Francis Patt both insist that the basic problem is not malfeasance but a mismatch of old FV/WCIU goals and new mission realities.
It’s not as if the organization is running out of money. The 990s that nonprofits must submit to the IRS show that each fiscal year from 2012 through 2016 WCIU’s revenue exceeded its expenses by several hundred thousand dollars. Net assets grew steadily throughout that period.
The headline on one of the organization’s press releases reads, “PURSUING A DECENTRALIZED MODEL OF MINISTRY.” It calls for “greater synergy and unity. … The last two decades have radically changed how the world works and collaborates. Real physical space continues to be an important part of our work, but our property needs have shifted from an attractional model with an identity linked to a central location to a vision of a network of communities around the world.”
That’s very abstract. Former employee Clancy, now a leader of Save the Campus, has concrete predictions and objections: “They will sell the campus (unless we can stop them through litigation) and this time around have $55 million dollars. When they sell the other 90 houses, they will earn another $45 million dollars. That will be $100 million dollars at their disposal to run their ministries. These ministries will mostly be research projects. … They are not guaranteeing that ministry will continue, they are guaranteeing that they will have an income.”