Walden University cofounder Rita Turner dies at 90 in Naples

When Rita Turner, 90, died April 10 in Naples, mourners included  hundreds of thousand of working…

Walden University cofounder Rita Turner dies at 90 in Naples 1

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Greg Adkins announces his retirement as Lee County School Superintendent

Lee County Schools Superintendent Greg Adkins announced his retirement on Friday, April 16, 2021.

Amanda Inscore, Fort Myers News-Press

Rita Turner’s determination to marry social good to higher education made the Naples woman the mother of two groundbreaking colleges — Walden University and Florida Coastal School of Law

When Turner, 90, died April 10 in Naples, the number of mourners included at least 55,000 working people who are earning doctorates at night or passing their bar exams from those schools. More people will miss her:

  • The special education students Turner taught in her early career in New York and who helped her develop an affinity to those facing educational hurdles
  • The Florida ACLU, for which she volunteered and nudged continually to do more to save public education funding from church-school erosion
  • People who cherished open discourse on both sides of current issues, a mission of the the Naples Center for Critical Thinking she cofounded in 2006

First and foremost among the mourners is her husband, Bernard L. “Bernie” Turner, a union organizer turned teacher and then college administrator. People describe the two as a single working dynamo, he the “why-not” and she the “here’s how.” 

“My dad was the visionary. My mom was the one who was the nuts and bolts,” said Amy Turner, their elder daughter. 

“Behind all of their endeavors,” added Tammy Turner Kipp, Amy’s sister. The couple brought their children into their activist milieu, taking them to women’s rights and peace protests.

Bagfuls of responses validated Walden

But Amy Turner remembers in particular the evening her parents called them to the dining room table and asked them to help stuff envelopes. Their parents were sending out a questionnaire to gauge interest in the idea of a correspondence masters/doctorate degree school with in-person summer sessions. 

It was an idea both felt strongly about; Bernie Turner had to give up pursuing his own higher education because he would have had to quit the job that supported his family.

“After that was done, we took some time off and went to Atlantic City,” Turner said. 

“When we got back, there were duffel bags full of responses.”

“They had found a void in the world of education for professionals,” Kipp said.

Dignified farewell: Book burial brings Naples a little-known Jewish custom

 Walden University came to its Naples connection in its inaugural year, when Bernie Turner was driving through Florida looking for locations to hold a summer residency. He chanced on the Cove Inn and struck up a friendship with then-owner Kenny Schryver.

As a result, the first residency of Walden University was offered in the Cove Inn’s conference room in the summer of 1971. 

“The hotel rooms were efficiencies, so their families were coming down and spending this three-week session with the students. The kids were playing at the pool while the parent was studying hard,” said Kipp.

The school quickly outgrew the hotel, and established summer session sites around the U.S.  In 1979, the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board offered to license Walden, so the campus was moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro. But the Turner family had found Naples a hospitable home, and stayed here when the college moved.

Walden University applied for North Central Association of Colleges, known as NCA,  accreditation. It was denied.

“There was a lot of backlash from traditional colleges and schools,” Amy Turner recalled. “My parents were trying to build this school with no walls, no campus, no library, no football team. Every other college and higher education school began to question: Could this be possible?” 

But then, she said, they saw its advantages: Working throughout the year on the students’ own time, meeting with their advisers one on one in summer sessions, using local libraries and cooperative lending systems to get the books they needed.

It still took legal action against NCA to receive the credentials. But not long after that, Bernie Turner was invited to join its board, the daughters recalled.

In 1992 they sold the school to a Don Ackerman partnership. The developing internet portended a major change in communications, and the Turners felt there were people better equipped to incorporate them into Walden University.

“They felt they had taken the university to a certain point, and it was deserving for someone to launch it further from there,” Kipp said.

Sylvan Learning Centers (now Laureate Education in its post-secondary programs) eventually acquired Walden, and Adtalem Global Education, the former DeVrys Education Group, is in the process of acquiring it this year for $1.48 billion. Walden’s mission, however, remains the same: helping nontraditional students earn degrees in programs conducive to social betterment.

Four years later the Turners founded Florida Coastal School of Law, with the same mission. It, too, operates today and is American Bar Association-certified. 

“People talk about disrupters, such as the pandemic being a cultural disrupter. Our  parents were a disrupter in education,” Turner said.

“They literally changed my life,” said Ward Ulmer, current president of Walden University. Ulmer wanted to continue graduate studies at Clemson University, but simply couldn’t meet the class schedule. He graduated from Walden with its first degree in information systems.

Ulmer eventually went back to Clemson for studies — after it had adopted the distance learning philosophy Walden University used.

“Bernie and Rita were pioneers,” he declared.

Another champion: Naples philanthropist Lavern Norris Gaynor gave to community

The school issued its own statement on Rita Turner’s passing, saying in part:

 “Rita was deeply passionate about the power of higher education to create social change. Her vision and tireless work helped transform Walden from a radical idea to a regionally accredited university and created the foundation for the global community of scholar-practitioners we are today.” 

Turners supported other justice issues

The Turners never dropped their enthusiasm for social justice causes. They became the better angel for Howard Simon, recently retired American Civil Liberties Union Florida director. Rita, in particular, nudged him to more action, he  said. 

“She was passionate about education,” he said, recalling the struggle to keep public school funding from being shared with private schools. 

“They were among the serious donors to support our work. They were prompters, cheerleaders, and mentors, and they were very important to me,” he said. 

In their adopted home of Naples the two also organized the Naples Center for Critical Thinking, an organization that creates opportunities for discussion on issues. The organization has not resumed its in-person events during the COVID-19 pandemic, but offers podcasts, webinars and videos. 

Its stated mission reads like a template for the Turners’ lives: “To broaden critical thinking through open-minded discussion of relevant issues and to empower people to become rational thinkers and self-directed learners able to take action.”

The organization issued a statement in tribute to her “long and amazing life,” saying that “Rita was an inspiration to all who were privileged to know her. She will be sorely missed.”

Rita Turner was preceded in death by the couple’s son, David, who died 27 years ago. She is survived by her husband, Bernard L. Turner; two daughters, Amy Turner (Joaquin Hernandez) and Tammy Turner Kipp (Keeth Kipp), both of Naples, and four grandchildren. . 

A Celebration of Life will be held in May, with details to be announced later. Walden University has created a scholarship to honor Turner. Contributions to the Rita Turner Memorial Scholarship may be made by check payable to Walden University, 100 Washington Ave. S., Suite 1200, Minneapolis, MN 55401. This scholarship will be awarded to individuals who, like Turner, exhibit a passion for social change. 

Walden University cofounder Rita Turner dies at 90 in Naples 2

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