July 26, 2020; Philadelphia Inquirer
Pathos and intrigue loom large at the now-very-small Valley Forge Military Academy and College (VFMAC), where a rebel group is attempting to dethrone a board that has managed to run through seven presidents—and quite a bit of alumni goodwill—in the last 10 years. A government-in-waiting for a coup also seems to be emerging through a foundation that has been established with Walter Lord, the former president, at its head and the support of a number of former trustees. Lord is a retired two-star Army major general.
With an annual per-student cost of $45,000 for tuition, room, and board, the school’s enrollment has been in steady decline from around 750 in the late ’80s to under 200 today. It just sold the 16 horses that used to make up its cavalry.
The rogue Medenbach Foundation was established to support “the school’s improvement and long-term success.” According to Sam Wood and Erin Arvedlund, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it means to oversee the school and to serve as a parallel administration in exile.
Major General Jessica Wright, a former undersecretary at the US Department of Defense, quit the board in support of Lord, writing, “I empathize with the reason for his resignation—the lack of governance and intensive micromanagement he endured through his tenure.”
Wright, who calls Lord “combat-tested” and an “exceptional leader,” says he “requires no micromanagement. The fact that board members call and instruct VFMAC operational staff is both breathtaking and embarrassing.”
Wright called for the board to pay attention to the report issues by an independent consulting firm, which was hired by the Medenbach Foundation.
A study by the Healey Educational Foundation, a Haddonfield-based consulting firm, found that enrollment at VFMAC had declined by more than 40 percent over the five-year period ending in 2018.
The independent study, paid for by a trustee close to the insurgents and provided to the Inquirer, said the reason was that “the academy was not living up to its promises to parents.”
While praising then-president Lord, the Healey study also warned that “the school will not survive if the board continues in its present form and function” due to its “lack of strategic vision” and inability to put its financial house in order.
The Healey report excoriated the board, saying it had “not executed its fiduciary responsibility to the school” by accumulating $7 million in debt and running a deficit.
Alumni and parents sued the trustees in March 2019 to have Lord reinstated, but the court found them to have “no standing.” But stand they did, continuing in their criticisms until eventually the trustees dissolved the alumni group, saying the school “didn’t need another layer of bureaucracy.” Some are now banned from campus.
“We keep hoping these guys would go away,” said Stuart Helgeson, the current president. “They’re weakening the brand.” That does not sound like an accurate representation of the problem, but who are we to say?—Ruth McCambridge