One Last Hurrah
Luisa Kroll, 11.28.05
At age 86 Robert Ross still has outsize dreams. But can he attract enough nursing students to his new school in the Caribbean?
"I have almost as much ego as Donald Trump," says Robert Ross. Well, at least as much hot air. Ross claims he has been an entrepreneur for 73 of his 86 years. At age 13, he says, he made $100 a week (that's $1,400 in today's money) as a paperboy in Detroit. During World War II, he goes on, he sold $5 Mickey Mouse watches to Russian soldiers for $1,000 each. By his reckoning he was the first person to sell television sets in the Midwest. These days, he says, he runs a $100 million-a-year commodities trading business called Eastern Europe. (The private company does exist and has been around at least since the 1970s, when it was involved in several suits as both plaintiff and defendant.) Ross is proud of his business card, which reads: "Dr. Robert Ross, Lord of the Manor of Halton Lea, Northumberland." Turns out he received an honorary degree from Tennessee's Southern School of Optometry and paid six figures at a London auction for the British title, which dates back to Henry VIII.
One success he can prove: Ross University, the controversial medical and veterinary schools he founded in the Caribbean in 1979 and 1982, despite having no experience in the medical or education fields. He built it into a profitable $50 million (estimated revenues) institution, with 1,700 medical and 1,000 vet students, and then sold it for $135 million in 2000 to Leeds Weld & Co., a private equity firm whose current chairman is former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Ross planned to stay for a year but was forced out by the new chief executive, Tim E. Foster. "I didn't believe what he was telling me about substantive things," says Foster, who won't elaborate. Ross claims the dispute was over the new owners' not showing him proper respect as the founder. In any event, he wasn't ready to retire. "I play golf one day a week, I don't play cards and I'm too old for broads," he says.
Today he is hoping for one last hurrah. "I want to build one of the world's largest nursing programs," says Ross. He is off to a fast start, having spent $500,000 for 10 acres on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in June 2004 and completed a 50,000-square-foot campus. A couple of problems: The school, which offers a two-year associate degree, has no accreditation yet (Ross can apply for eligibility a year after his first class has graduated) and not enough students.
Ross got on to this idea because of the acute shortage of nurses in the U.S. In 2002 the Department of Health & Human Services reported this country was 125,000 nurses shy, a deficit that would grow to 500,000 by 2015. Ross began recruiting nurses overseas on behalf of hospitals and nursing homes but ran into long waits for H-1B visas, language issues and competition with hospitals themselves. When Ross learned that associate nursing programs rejected 87,000 applicants, he decided to start his own nursing program. He named as president his son Warren, a lawyer who was vice president of Ross University for 23 years and ran most of its operations, admissions and marketing. Ross pushed his son to open International University of Nursing by early 2005. "Warren lost a lot of weight," he says.
The school has signed up 16 faculty members and administrators, offering competitive salaries ($70,000 to $80,000 a year) and a tax break: Under Section 911 of the U.S. tax code Americans working abroad for 13 months or more can exclude up to $80,000 a year of income from U.S. tax. There are state-of-the-art labs, a 210-seat auditorium, 20 plasma screens and four SimMan human simulators, costing $30,000 apiece, that make coughing, vomiting and moaning sounds and exhibit such symptoms as tongue edema caused by a blocked airway.
But where are the students? Since the school opened in May, 55 people have enrolled; the campus can accommodate up to 900. One reason is the hefty tuition--$8,100 a semester, or at least four times the in-state tuition of an associate degree at a U.S. community college. (The highest-paid nurses tend to have a master's degree.)
A further wrinkle: St. Kitts doesn't have enough sick people to allow students to complete their required clinical rotations. To solve that one, as well as to permit his students to take the national nursing exam after graduation and get a license to practice in the U.S., Ross' school must partner with community colleges that offer associate degrees in nursing, pushing students stateside for two of their five semesters. Although he sent e-mails and letters to 800 colleges, Ross has found only one partner: Seminole State College in Seminole, Okla. He nabbed the cash-strapped school by agreeing to pay tuition of $4,500 a year per student, plus an unspecified fee (and pocketing the difference). Two other schools, in Texas, have pulled out temporarily because the state nixed the arrangements for now.
Some students, like ***** Chin, a former health care worker at a New York City fertility clinic, seem happy in St. Kitts. While she took all the prerequisites for nursing school in the U.S., she would have had to be on a two-year waiting list. The program is attracting mostly international students who believe it will provide a route to the U.S. Here, too, there have been holdups: delays in obtaining visas and getting approval for student loans.
So far Ross has footed the entire bill for his latest entrepreneurial fling, $20 million and counting. According to Leeds Weld, the firm that bought Ross University, a broker representing Ross called, looking for investment capital. No dice. Ross claims that none of this ever happened.
Not that he's giving up. To boost visibility in the U.S., Ross is running a poster campaign in 40,000 colleges and high schools this fall. In September he changed the school name to the Robert Ross International University of Nursing, hoping to cash in on his reputation. "It will be a bigger success than Ross University," he insists. He should live so long.