Thursday, March 15, 2007

Botswana (part 1)

by Uncle Hans
Custom Smiley Wendy and I started going down to Belize in 1999 in search of something fun and interesting to do in retirement. Many of my colleagues do volunteer work in the third world and I thought it would be fun as well, just in a beautiful paradise setting, not in a jungle where someone is shooting at you (duh). We went there several times without success in finding volunteer work for either of us, but we had to keep trying, at least twice a year. It was a painful sacrifice on our part, all that sun and Belikin beer, but that is just the kind of people we are. In 2001 we met a young couple from North Dakota who owned a medical school on the island where we go. The government was building a small hospital there, but very slowly. We figured we had our best chance of finding our niche with the medical school as it grew and students became involved in the small hospital when it opened.

We visited the school and the Serslands each time we went down, bringing medical journals for the library. Occasionally I gave a lecture to the classes. Then, in 2005, we got our ”break”. They were expanding the school and involving Harvard Medical International. HMI is a foundation run by Harvard Medical School to further medical education in the world. They expressed an interest in the Belize school as the students from there had done well in their training after leaving the school and HMI wanted to see how this was achieved. In order to do this, the school needed money and we invested. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

...........This is a picture of the school. There are 30 "offshore" medical schools catering to mostly American students who can't get into American schools because they are too old or have grades only fair or good instead of excellent. There are only 5 of these schools that even own their own buildings, the rest rent space. It is a fly-by-night business. Our new partner, with 25 years of experience in 4 schools is writing a book on his Caribbean school adventures. He calls it "Pirates of the Caribbean". Anyway, we thought the Harvard thing lent an air of respectability to an otherwise unsavory business. Not really. Our school, Medical University of the Americaus Belize, turned out to be just as shady as the rest.

................this is a picture of the Harvard visit in Feb '06. Our partners, the Serslands are on the left and the rest are the review team from HMI. It was an exciting time, those people were fascinating. I was down there to be part of it. We learned a lot about medical education. We were in the process of moving the administration office of the school to Spooner as all of these schools have an American office. All the recruiting and business aspects of the school are more easily done that way. Our school was at a disadvantage, not having an American office. Then disaster struck. We heard of a school in London that was losing it's charter and failing. There were lots of students involved, all of whom stood a chance of losing their records and everything they had worked for. We came in like the white knight, standing to gain a lot of students and a branch location. We got the government of Belize to OK this and it looked like the proverbial "something-for-nothing" deal. The owners of the failing school saw it differently. They were originally grateful for us saving them, then realized they could fight to get the charter for London and ours as well. We entered a hostile takeover battle. The resulting mud-slinging caused us to lose our student lender as they were nervous about some of the charges made by our opponents on Internet chat boards and forged e-mails. Once you have no lender, the flow of money dries up and recruitment grinds to a halt. Only the rich kids can attend and there are not many. We fought and won, keeping the London campus and the bad guys went away, but at a huge cost in money. Wendy and I borrowed in every way possible, since the Serslands had no standing or credit rating in the USA and no borrowing power here as a result...........

................This is the histology lab, those tables are for microscopes and students learn to identify different tissues and diseases by microscopy. The lender finally reinstated us after a 6 month battle but our school had lost it's reputation and recruitment was flogging because students suspected us of being dishonest and shady. The reinstatement was for 90 days only. Then our situation was to be "reviewed". We continued in a death spiral. We could not pay our faculty, and they tired of going weeks without pay. Some students transferred out to other schools. It looked like the end...................

As part of the hostile takeover, some staff from the failing school jumped ship to us. One such guy was a Harvard-trained psychiatrist named Dave Gill. He had been kicked around the "offshore" school business for many years. His interest is quality education, feeling that that will be a draw to better students and eventually long term financial success. Several schools had installed his ideas, at least for a while to make a fastbuck, and he would move on in discouragement. The failing school was the last example. He joined us and could see an opportunity for himself. His problem is that he had never been an owner, just a consultant. Here was an opportunity to be an owner and install his ideas without interference form greedy short-sighted dishonest owners. He offered to buy out our original partners, the Serslands, who were burned out and ready to leave..................

………… This is in the office of the Prime Minister of Belize . He is the short white-haired guy. Now, this seems very impressive, but remember, more people live in St. Paul than Belize and the only thing more crooked than the typical Caribbean medical school is the typical Caribbean government. Anyway, Dr. Gill has a lot of great experience, a lot of academic integrity, and (like us, before we got started in this) a healthy retirement fund. He has been taking over the reins of running the school from his home and office in Gardiner, Massachusetts , 50 miles out of Boston . The lawyers are drawing up the “closing” papers making this all official (more official than ever before) and we are changing the name to Franklin-Grill College of Medicine. (Gill and his extensive ivy league family of doctors are descendants of Ben Franklin)………………….