COLUMBIA — With the order signed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010, Columbia College plans to maintain its education center at the naval base there as long as possible.
Mike Randerson, vice president for adult higher education, said the campus will remain open as long as it is economically viable.
“My mandate is that we not lose money anywhere we are,” Randerson said, “because then it’s an unfair subsidy from students from all over the country who are paying for any particular location.”
The "Gitmo" campus, several classrooms in a former high school on the base, started offering classes in January 2004. It is the only institution of higher learning that has classrooms or professors present on the base. Randerson said about 400 to 450 students are enrolled in classes there each academic year.
Because of strict security regulations, both students and teachers are drawn almost exclusively from personnel and families of military members already present on the base. For example, a math teacher might be a member of the Army Corps of Engineers stationed at the base, or a biology teacher might be a physician at the hospital.
This presents some problems on the teaching side, Randerson said, because the faculty is constantly changing. Military deployments to Guantanamo Bay typically last from six months to three years.
“Because of the conditions, it is, by far, the hardest place we operate,” Randerson said. “It’s a continuous learning curve.”
Randerson said the location of the base on Cuba's southern tip presents additional challenges. When the campus was established, classroom materials had to be shipped to the base on a Navy barge from Florida. When new technology is needed, such as computers, it often must be flown in. It sometimes can be tough to get equipment to the campus because only military transports have clearance to dock or land on the base, Randerson said.
Randerson said that because Columbia College is a not-for-profit institution, it is not essential that the campus makes money, but it must at least break even. He said this could be difficult because a significant part of the base population will leave once the prison facility closes, offering a smaller pool of students from which to choose. Student decreases mean a drop in revenue, which will likely cause staff cuts as well, he said.
The Guantanamo Bay prison has been a focus of controversy for years because of legally and ethically questionable interrogation techniques and jailing practices.
“I think that someone who saw that Columbia College was going to Guantanamo Bay, because of the notoriety of the prison facility, may have raised their eyebrows a little bit,” Randerson said.
But he said the college's commitment to members of the armed forces trumped those concerns. Of the college's 35 campuses, 18 are on military installations.
“It demonstrates where the heart of the college is,” Randerson said. “It would have been much easier to pass this one up, believe me.”