So far, most of the coverage by mainstream news outlets of The King’s College’s financial woes has oddly focused on King’s past donors such as Bill Hwang, the DeVos family and interim president Stockwell Day.
It would be smart for religion reporters, business reporters and education reporters to dig more into Canadian businessman Peter Chung and his involvement with King’s in the past two years as well as his other business ventures through Primacorp Ventures Inc. and the Emanata Group.
In the film “Encanto,” members of the Madrigal family sing, “We don’t talk about Bruno,” as the ostracized uncle, Bruno, lives in hiding from the rest of the family, estranged for his vision of the future. Similarly, Peter Chung lives in a $33.4 million mansion in Vancouver, largely cordoned off from the King’s community and from press about the plight of King’s, an institution he has dramatically affected with his vision — for better or worse — the past two years.
Could it be true that Chung was a philanthropist and a savior for King’s during a time of crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic? Or could it be true that Chung’s failed vision, high rolling approach and turbulent strategy have contributed to King’s weak financial position and potential for closure?
Big plans for King’s
A press release from King’s on May 14, 2021, cited a “fusion of strengths” as King’s signed an agreement with Chung’s Canada-based, for-profit company, Primacorp Ventures Inc., on a wide-ranging and complicated partnership.
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The press release outlined plans for Chung’s Primacorp to take over the marketing, admissions and fundraising functions for King’s. In exchange, Primacorp was offered the lion’s share of profits from four online majors it was going to market for King’s. The idea was that Primacorp would spend millions of dollars marketing the online programs, thousands might attend those programs and drive hundreds to enroll in person at King’s, lifting all boats and creating a stronger business model for King’s.
Many of us inside King’s have felt an enormous amount of whiplash from the subsequent strategy and efforts in the past two years by Peter Chung and his colleagues at Primacorp Ventures. Here are a few of the high points:
Massive, rapid hiring of dozens of staff members in 2021 to ramp up online programs and marketing, often before those programs were ready to launch and market. Then rapid and dramatic layoffs and restructuring of those programs within 12 to 24 months.
Hugely optimistic goals of thousands of students enrolling in King’s online programs, goals that needed to be rolled back. The King’s faculty and staff did roll out dozens of online courses and started to see growing enrollment in the online programs but not at the breakneck pace that Primacorp Ventures expected. King’s in-person enrollment also showed signs of strength heading into the 2023 admissions cycle.
Wildly ambitious ideas such as a Global Rotation program that would involve a set of students studying at King’s in New York for one year and spending a year at other locations in the Middle East, Korea and beyond. Primacorp representatives were still planning this kind of program as recently as last October and advertising an executive director position as late as November.
To those who follow the composition of the board of The King’s College, it’s quite clear that Primacorp took over most of the board seats in the past two years and, therefore, control and governance of King’s.
In November, we were informed of a “right-sizing” of King’s that included layoffs, other cost cutting and a limited footprint of students in New York City. Then, after the holidays in January, we were informed that King’s may either find a mega-donor(s) to keep us afloat, partner/merge with another institution or face closure.
Primacorp Ventures and Peter Chung want to be out, relieved of King’s now. In my view that’s a good thing. I don’t want Primacorp to stick around longer. I just want them to exit in a fashion that doesn’t cripple or kill King’s. I would hope for generosity and reasonability given Peter Chung’s self-professed Christian calling and testimony (see below).
In play is a residential building King’s purchased for a reported $19.2 million in 2018. The college has tried selling the building — a former hotel — at a much lower price without success in recent months. The full picture of debts on that property is not clear to outside observers. It’s also not clear who stands to profit from a sale.
A Christian testimony
Along the way, some at Primacorp presented Peter Chung as a philanthropist, noting he set up a $2.5 million matching scholarship fund at King’s and other financial benefits to King’s. I was personally moved by the story of the Chungs’ love for their late son, Joseph, who was diagnosed with autism and, later, epilepsy. “Joseph was a missionary to our family,” Peter Chung said in a press release from King’s.
In an interview with the Christian Embassy of Canada in January of 2021, Chung explained his previous rise and fall in business after he lost focus of supporting missionaries and focused too much on becoming a billionaire. He said he lost 13 of the 14 companies he owned. He said the experience forced him to recalibrate.
“I started repenting about my arrogance and asking God for forgiveness about not being humble in the sight of God and man,” he said. He also recounted several tragedies in his personal life, including the loss of his son. He noted that suffering builds perseverance, character and hope. He said that tragedies can rebuild our character. The failure also drew a negative cloud of press attention and lawsuits for Chung in California.
“Please do not give up,” he told the viewers of the video. “Move forward. Do not lose hope.”
Those of us who care about King’s — faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, donors and friends — certainly are praying, moving forward and not giving up. Most of us believe that a Christian institution of higher learning should exist in New York City. Most of us believe that King’s provides an excellent education in the liberal arts and Christian tradition.
We know that King’s has had an unusual and eccentric trajectory from Percy Crawford’s early days to a ricochet of locations from New Jersey to Delaware to upstate New York and then to Manhattan. We know the unusual cast of leaders and incredible students, many of whom ambitiously box above their weight class and flourish in pathways such as top law schools, Wall Street banks and elite journalism institutions. Our journalism programs have drawn dozens of donors and experienced outsized success, which I believe compare favorably to any journalism program or school in the nation.
It doesn’t seem right for the school’s journey to end now, to end here.
Thanks to excellent reporting by The Empire State Tribune and public disclosures from King’s, we know that King’s is now having trouble paying its bills, including the rent for students’ apartments.
A cautionary tale of Quest University?
The Vancouver Sun reported Feb. 23 that Quest University is shutting down. The school is another one that Primacorp took over and failed to draw online students into ambitious enrollment goals. Stories indicate Primacorp took control of Quest University and its real estate in 2020, and a press release from Quest explains some terms of the partnership between Quest and Primacorp.
Meanwhile, local officials in Squamish, British Columbia, where Quest is located, issued a statement in 2020 that showed they were squeamish about the arrangement with Primacorp. “We are deeply concerned that the agreement signed does not reflect the District’s interests, creates an uphill runway for Quest that will make it difficult for it to be viable given the ongoing challenges related to the pandemic, possibly reduces student refunds and faculty severances as unsecured creditors, and leaves a for-profit company controlling the lands, instead of a university of significant standing should Quest not succeed,” said Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott. “We know there are other proponents, which include Capilano University, actively pursuing an agreement with Quest which would more closely align with the vision we have supported for those lands for many, many years.”
When Quest University went up for sale this month, journalists reported that Primacorp had “discontinued providing the student recruitment, marketing, fundraising, and other support services that it committed in the October 2020 agreement to acquire the land and buildings.”
News outlets in Canada are reporting that Quest’s spring graduation will proceed on April 29 on the school’s campus, but students not eligible to graduate will receive guidance on transferring to other schools.
A trail of controversy at CDI College
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, often known as the CBC, last fall started investigating alleged fraud at CDI College, which is one of Canada’s biggest providers of for-profit educational offerings and was part of Peter Chung’s Eminata Group.
The CBC said it “uncovered a pattern of using misleading information and questionable tactics to enroll prospective online students. Hundreds of bad reviews reveal students thousands of dollars in debt, and no further ahead in their career. Operating undercover, we document the pressure, the misleading claims about accreditation and reveal the real cost of dropping out.”
CDI College offered three statements in response including a Nov. 1, 2022, statement from Chung: “Student experience is always our top priority. As an organization, we have been helping Canadians change their lives through education for almost 30 years,” he said. “We always strive to prepare our students with industry relevant training, leading them to excel in the field of their choice after graduation. We are sensitive to any complaints that do arise and are continuously looking at ways to improve based on that feedback.”
Another report from the CBC in December pointed to earlier problems from Chung-operated entities in California, such as Wilshire Computer College dating back to the 1990s.
“CDI College has been in operation for more than 50 years, with more than 20 locations in five provinces,” the report said. “It is now operated by Eminata Group, the parent company of a number of private colleges in Canada, including CDI College, Visual College of Art and Design (VCAD), Vancouver Career College and Reeves College. The founder and chairman of Eminata Group is Peter Chung, from Vancouver, who previously operated Wilshire Computer College in California before it was investigated by the state attorney general in the early 1990s, in part for misleading students.”
A positive outcome for King’s?
The opaque nature of King’s financial disclosures and transparency leave many of us with major questions. Peter Chung’s involvement also leaves us with many questions.
Was he a philanthropist who helped King’s in a time of need? Was he a villain who saddled King’s with debt, took over its board and is finding a way to profit on our demise? Was he an ambitious businessman who sought profits for himself and King’s and failed in that quest? Was Chung using Quest and King’s as a real estate play all along? Were the late board member and former CRU president Steven Douglass and others misguided to introduce King’s to Peter Chung? Did the King’s board perform appropriate due diligence on Peter Chung and Primacorp when they signed a partnership?
At the end of the film “Encanto,” the Madrigal family reconcile with Bruno and other estranged members. Their lovely casita is restored, and people are happy.
I don’t begrudge Peter Chung for owning one of the most expensive homes in Canada. I still want to believe he has a deep faith and a good heart. And during prayer meetings King’s has hosted in recent weeks as our financial plight came to light, I have found myself sometimes praying for Peter Chung — that he and other key players would be guided by God rather than greed.
It is clear he is a key player in King’s current predicament and will bear key responsibility — on Earth and perhaps in heaven — for its fate. And I trust he is listening to his own words:
“Please do not give up. Move forward. Do not lose hope.”
This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
Paul Glader is professor and chair of the Journalism, Culture & Society program at The King’s College in NYC. He is also executive director of The Media Project and ReligionUnplugged.com.
2 thoughts on “Why Businessman Peter Chung Matters for the Future of The King’s College”
Online learning, an oxymoron. Most valuable lessons I learned from living on campus in three separate Christian colleges, was how to share ideas in real time. You cannot fake real time. You cannot hire a nefarious organization to pose as you and write your research papers, while you rarely if ever attend an online “course.” And don’t be so naive as to think this is not taking place. Herein resides our number one problem in American Protestant culture. Somewhere along the way, perhaps starting in 1980’s, Protestant churches and colleges considered people as transactional commodities rather than invaluable “Gifted Gems.” Group think, instead of valuing our classmates as a precious and rich resource. We do church now, in same manner. It’s a matter of the heart.
I can see how this kind of financial arrangement is tempting for Bible colleges, which face declining enrollment and closure. How could they say “No” to a Christian businessman with what seemed to be a win-win proposal.
I have a relative in management in a Bible college, and I have been hearing first-hand about the pressure on them. I’ve passed this article on to him.
Thanks for writing this article, so that we can continue to be as wise as serpents.
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