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More questions answered about Vinayaka Missions University in Hagerstown

September 08, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Last month, Vinayaka Missions University announced plans to open its first campus in the United States at the former Allegheny Energy headquarters building on Downsville Pike south of Hagerstown.

Vinayaka Missions bought the building and surrounding 45-acre site last month for $8.5 million.

While local elected officials and business representatives were pleased that the building had been sold after sitting vacant for several years, many said they were surprised to hear that a foreign university bought the property.

"I was shocked, to be honest," Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said. "I didn't know the first thing about them."

Vinayaka Missions became a government-recognized university in India in 2001, 20 years after its creation as a charitable trust and pharmacy college.

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The Hindu word "vinayaka" means "God of learning," said Selvin Kumar, the university's resident agent in Maryland.

According to Vinayaka Missions' Web site, Lord Vinayaka, who is featured in the school's emblem, signifies "wisdom and divine grace."

But, Vinayaka Missions is not a religious school, Kumar said.

The university runs 27 educational institutions, including three medical colleges, and a hospital in India.

It was established as a university in March 2001 by the University Grants Commission (UGC), an arm of the Indian government that determines and maintains educational standards in the country.

Deepa Ollapally, associate director of George Washington University's Sigur Center for Asian Studies, said the UGC accreditation is "a good sign."

"If it's got the UGC accreditation, it's the real thing," Ollapally said.

Higher-education institutions in India not recognized by the UGC are considered illegitimate by the Indian government, which keeps a list of "fake" universities on its Web site.

Vinayaka Missions University has no accreditations beyond the UGC.

During a press conference last month, Vinayaka Missions officials said they want to open a four-year university at the Downsville Pike site. The plan is for the school eventually to offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

They also said they want to open a hospital.

Kumar said Vinayaka Missions officials in India are putting together planning committees to decide who will staff the campus and what courses will be offered.

In the meantime, Kumar said the university plans to open its doors to citizens who want to teach informal, noncredit courses in the building.

To open a university in Maryland, Vinayaka Missions will have to obtain approval from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

A hospital would require a certificate of need from the Maryland Health Care Commission.

Ollapally called the university's decision to expand to the U.S. "interesting."

She said she has heard of Indian universities working to achieve partnerships with U.S. universities but has not heard of an Indian university opening a campus in the United States.

"They are a bit of a pioneer," Ollapally said.

Kumar said expanding to the U.S. has "always been a dream" of Vinayaka's chancellor, A. Shanmugasundaram.

Ollapally noted that the Indian government is giving private universities there increasing freedom to expand. She said some medical schools in India are doing "phenomenally well."

"Higher education in India is becoming a big business," Ollapally said.

Kumar said Vinayaka Missions did not take out any loans to buy the property on Downsville Pike and has not sought any tax breaks to develop the property.

The complex is not in an enterprise zone, so Vinayaka will not get property tax breaks, county officials have said.

The university established Vinayaka Missions America University Inc. as a business in Maryland in February 2008, according to documents on the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation Web site.

On July 17, that company issued a charter amendment that allows it to issue up to $9 million in stock, documents show.

Vinayaka Missions University is a member of the Association of Indian Universities, the Association of Common Wealth Universities and the Confederation of Indian Industries.

It also is associated with Rangsit University in Thailand, Central America Health Sciences University in Belize and Centennial College in Ontario, Canada.

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