My education: Adam Smith University of Liberia

Adam Smith University of Liberia was a fully accredited private university in Liberia, active from its chartering by Act of the Liberian Legislature on 31 October 1995 until the expiry of its accreditation in December 2007.

Adam Smith University was the creation of American educator Donald Grunewald, who earned his Master of Arts in History, and Master and Doctor of Business Administration degrees, at Harvard and held tenured academic positions at Rutgers and Suffolk University. Grunewald served as President of Mercy College, a regionally accredited institution in New York, between 1972 and 1984. In an appreciation of his work (Williams, Lena: Mercy’s President Leaves His ‘Calling’, The New York Times, August 26, 1984, Section WC, Page 11) the facts spoke for themselves:

WHEN Dr. Donald Grunewald arrived at Mercy College as its president in 1972, he found a one-campus college struggling to survive on a $2.25 million budget. There were 1,500 students at the college. Classes were held in one building, which also housed the administrative offices. The college had a full-time faculty of less than 60 – 25 percent of whom had doctorates – a library of 60,000 volumes and offered only one degree program, in education.

Dr. Grunewald resigned as president of Mercy in July, explaining that ”the time has come.” He is leaving an institution that has more than doubled its faculty, raised its enrollment by seven times its original size and expanded its physical plant and library.

Dr. Grunewald’s successor will arrive at a college with an enrollment of 9,400 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students, a faculty of 230 – 56 percent of whom have doctorates – a library with more than 385,000 volumes and a physical plant that includes four buildings owned by the college and several more rented or leased on its main campus at 555 Broadway in Dobbs Ferry, and five extension centers in Peekskill, Yonkers, Yorktown Heights, White Plains and the Bronx. The budget has grown to $25 million.

The New York Times tells us that Grunewald’s success at Mercy “had earned him a reputation as an ”educational innovator and entrepreneur.”’ This pro-active approach was not without its critics. Some were unhappy that Mercy became the first college in the county to recruit students via direct mail. Others questioned the quality of education on offer. Grunewald defended his approach and Mercy’s academic standards vigorously, and the perspective of our present century shows his approach to have been pioneering. President Gerald Ford and the Academy for Educational Development both cited Mercy College as one of the most innovative colleges in the USA during Grunewald’s leadership.

Grunewald did not retire from education when he stepped down as Mercy’s president. He remained at Mercy for two further years as Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, before taking up a professorship at Iona College. But before long he was occupied with what would be his most innovative, and most controversial, educational project. Mercy had catered extensively to adult students; now Grunewald would go on to establish Adam Smith University – named for the father of the free market – in 1991 as an adult university aimed principally at the learner who wished to bring together educational credits from diverse sources and apply them to earning a degree. This process was offered via distance learning, although structured distance learning classes were also available, and in time a number of institutions all over the world began to offer classroom instruction leading to Adam Smith University degrees. Grunewald’s wife, the late Barbara S. Frees, who held a Juris Doctor from Fordham University and an MA from Yale, and who had met her husband while teaching at Mercy, served alongside him as Dean of Adam Smith University.

The 1990s were a heyday for “university without walls” projects as non-traditional distance and correspondence learning for adults in new private-sector universities soared in popularity. Such institutions offered the opportunity to apply learning, particularly at the graduate level, that had been self-directed (and that was evidenced by publication and other permanent evidence of educational process, not simply “life experience” in a nebulous sense). The attraction of this model to the student was primarily its flexibility, bringing about the possibility of a self-designed program and the inclusion of previous project-based or other work in a portfolio. Even today, mainstream institutions offer very limited graduate-level credit for independent work. Since the 1990s, the tendency towards both self-paced programs and non-residential opportunities at the graduate level has steadily dried up as “university without walls” institutions have either gone out of business or been “regulated out” of these practises by accreditors. Traditional institutions have become increasingly concerned at a challenge to their highly lucrative monopoly on university education from an unregulated or lightly-regulated non-traditional private sector that can use distance learning to eliminate the overheads of a campus and tenured faculty, and, usually acting under the pretext of consumer protection, have sought to eliminate or neuter their competition.

Adam Smith University found early praise when it was listed in “College Degrees by Mail: 100 Good Schools that offer bachelor’s, master’s, doctorates, and law degrees by home study” by Dr John Bear (Berkeley, California, Ten Speed Press, 1995).

Adam Smith University would eventually come to encompass three institutions: the parent body Adam Smith University of America, whose authority was derived from charters conferred by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the British Virgin Islands respectively; Adam Smith University of Liberia; and Ecole Superiéure Universitaire Adam Smith in France. Because these schools were under common ownership, shared faculty and resources, and maintained a single website, they were often conflated. However, the criticisms sometimes directed at Adam Smith University of America for choosing to remain unaccredited by a recognized United States authority have absolutely no applicability to Adam Smith University of Liberia, which had sought and gained full accreditation from its national government.

In Liberia, “An Act to Incorporate the Adam Smith University of Liberia, Republic of Liberia, and to Grant it a Charter” was approved by the Transitional Legislative Assembly on October 31, 1995 and thereby passed into law. A copy of the Act and Charter issued by the Liberian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2003 is provided at the link below, together with the letters of confirmation issued by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

>>Act and Charter of the Legislature in favour of Adam Smith University of Liberia and confirmations

Liberia subsequently introduced an accreditation process for universities, conducted by the Ministry of Education. Adam Smith University was granted accreditation by the Ministry of Education on October 8, 2001. The accreditation permitted the offering of degrees in specific majors by distance education as well as the award of honorary doctorates.

The board of Adam Smith University of Liberia included two former presidents of the University of Liberia, one of whom, Dr Frederick Gbegbe (PhD, University of Illinois), served as Chair. The chief of staff, Professor Viama J. Blama, served as a high school principal in Liberia and held a law degree from the University of Liberia as well as  a master’s degree in education from the Tubman teachers’ college in Liberia. In addition to his duties at Adam Smith University of Liberia, he practised law and acted as an advisor to the Ministry of Education.

The campus of Adam Smith University of Liberia was located in Monrovia and consisted of one floor of the Methodist Womens’ Compound building, which was divided into several rooms. The most popular program offered in Liberia was paralegal studies.

During 2004, I undertook some consultancy work for Adam Smith University on a pro bono basis. It came as a particular pleasure to learn that the University had decided to confer the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa upon me, and the letter of citation gave the basis of the award as “in appreciation of your help for Adam Smith University and in recognition of your many accomplishments as a teacher, writer and musician”. I was further appointed to the adjunct faculty.

I had noted that among the degree programs that the Ministry of Education had accredited was a master’s program in History. My previous bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United Kingdom had included significant work in history, and I enquired as to whether I might be accepted to become a distance learning candidate for the Master of Arts in History at Adam Smith University of Liberia as a faculty candidate. The work that I presented for the degree comprised two research reports, a research thesis, two assessed practicums, and assessed field experience based on my history teaching at the school level. The majority of the submission was concentrated in the history of education. Thirty semester credit hours were required for the award of the degree; I transcripted thirty-one, and was awarded A grades in all graded assessments, the degree being awarded on March 15, 2005. My advisor during my candidacy was Dr Grunewald himself.

Some time after my graduation, Liberia announced the formulation of a new national policy on distance education. The National Commission on Higher Education, which had been established as a division of the Ministry of Education to oversee the university sector, issued a statement concerning Adam Smith University of Liberia, which was received by fax on September 17, 2005.

In fact, at the time of the issuing of that statement, Adam Smith University was the only remaining legally operating distance learning university in Liberia, all others having been disclaimed or revoked for academic malpractice. The tone of the statement makes it clear that Adam Smith University was regarded positively by the Ministry of Education, and gave the assurance that the degrees it had awarded would continue to be recognized.

Adam Smith University acquired land for a new campus in Monrovia and construction commenced on April 22, 2007 on the first building, which was intended to include classrooms, a library, administrative offices and an auditorium. This would permit the University to offer courses in Liberia in a traditional classroom environment as well as to facilitate the offering of distance learning and independent study from this campus. Students would have available use of computers and other instructional aids as well as a library of books and CDs for research.

Unfortunately, the National Policy on Distance Education mentioned in the statement was very slow to materialize, largely due to the opposition of traditional educators to distance learning and the fear of competition for jobs for university graduates in Liberia if there were to be more university graduates. At the time of the expiry of the two year temporary permit issued to Adam Smith University of Liberia, it had not yet been put in place. Accordingly, the University ceased offering instruction in Liberia in December 2007, and work on the new campus was also suspended sine die.

In December 2019, the website for Adam Smith University (www.adamsmith.edu) became unavailable, and it would appear that after twenty-eight years, the University had finally closed its doors.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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