Articles by JCS

Obit for Dr. Sid

Tale of a Conflicted Chiropractor


The passing of Sid E. Williams, BS, DC, and, most notably, the flamboyant founder and president of Life University, will certainly evoke mixed reactions. Even the comments at  tail of his 
Obit in the Marietta Daily Journal indicated the love-hate relationship he had with the profession and in the public arena.

      His life was a classic rag to riches to ruination story that certainly every chiropractor will long remember.

His life was certainly unique. He often spoke of his itinerant and abusive childhood growing up as a part-Cherokee in the West End of Atlanta during the Depression. He first found fame as a football player at Georgia Tech as a member of Bobby Dodd’s 1951 Orange Bowl-winning team.

A football injury at Tech led him to chiropractic care. So inspired by his recovery, he became a chiropractor in 1953 and began his chiropractic career as a high-volume, low-cost practitioner who operated a chain of clinics in the poorer black areas of Atlanta.

He became a staunch defender of chiropractic care in a time of huge pressure by the AMA to “eliminate the chiropractic profession.”  He later erected a Bell Tower on campus dedicated to the 12,000+ chiropractors arrested in the early days of the medical witch-hunt.[1]

In 1974 he founded Life Chiropractic College in Marietta that grew by 1997 to 13,858 students and soon made him into a multimillionaire. His Waterloo occurred in 2002 in a showdown with accrediting agencies only to lose his regional and federal academic accreditation and, ultimately, he also lost his university.

This was the duality of his legacy. He personally prospered when his college became the largest of its type in the world, but he was not able to alter his unchanging attitude and, therefore, his fundamental view of the profession met with the reality of an ever-changing world.

With his Southern drawl, "Dr. Sid" became the iconic face of chiropractic mainly from national television ads on TBS during Atlanta Braves games. However, his public notoriety as a “strange and self-absorbed” man, according to a two-part series by Bette Harrison in the AJC,[2] earned him the reputation as a loose cannon by the media as well as from his chiropractic colleagues.

However, to his Life students and devotees of his motivational seminar, Dynamic Essentials, he was their unquestioned leader and their outspoken spiritual muse. His motivational seminar and college became known in the chiropractic profession as the hotbed of “chirovangelism.” Some likened him to Rev. Moon or Rev. Jim Jones leading mesmerized followers to the margins of the faith.

Speaking from his fiery ol’ time Southern Pentecostal bully pulpit, he appeared as an Elmer Gantry-styled charismatic zealot with a renowned iron-fisted leadership who left an indelible stain on the academics of his college and upon the image of the entire chiropractic profession.

Dr. Sid  made no bones about his peculiar brand of education when he testified before the federal accrediting agency, “What our profession needs is more pioneers—more evangelists for chiropractic.”[3]

Charles Thomas, former Life College historian, wrote that "He's a genuine American mystic. He actually does hear voices and see things that aren't there and gets messages from the other side."[4]

To mainstream chiropractic educators, he was branded a “wild-eyed philosopher” who resisted upgrading chiropractic education.[5] With his autocratic “rule or ruin” political ploy, he also obstructed broad-scope progressive legislation as well as thwarted efforts by association leaders to unify the profession.[6]

His omnipotence as an autocratic college president was not lost on reporters. “It’s hard to tell where Sidney E. Williams ends and Life University begins,” wrote Welch Suggs for The Chronicle of Higher Education.[7]
 
       His extravagant public persona soon gained the attention of the national media. On April 22, 1979, “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace aired a segment, “Chiropractors” that focused on Sid Williams. Wallace’s skepticism of Williams came through loud and clear when he referred to “Life Chiropractic College as a place where the students can deliver the gospel of chiropractic as well as Dr. Sid.”[8]

Another shot across his bow came in 1980 from the National Enquirer revealing the greedy nature of the Williams’ professional seminar, Dynamic Essentials, in an article titled, “Course Teaches Greedy Chiropractors How to Get Rich by Cheating Patients” written by Lee Harrison.[9]

As a generous lobbyist for his college, he also had the ear of every politician in the state, and in a single edict could change the political landscape for all of chiropractic. In 1982, Dr. Sid began an offshoot state association, the Georgia Chiropractic Council, to rival the mainstream Georgia Chiropractic Association. Also in 1982, he was elected president of the International Chiropractors Association on a contentious vote.[10]

Certainly his biggest accomplishment was the explosive growth of his Life Chiropractic College into a university that grew to graduate more than 500 chiropractors a year. With minimal entrance requirements compared to other chiropractic colleges and a massive TV recruiting budget, Life quickly grew more than any other chiropractic college in history and soon became seen as a diploma mill flooding Atlanta with chiropractors seemingly on every street corner.

With enormous power and prestige in hand, Dr. Sid morphed into a powerbroker not seen since the days of BJ Palmer, his muse while at Palmer Chiropractic College, and was dubbed "Big $id" by outspoken colleagues in chiropractic. Like a Mafioso godfather, he and his close-knit family members  and sycophants who ran his college acted more like a group of henchmen than academicians.

      However, by the mid-1990s, the tide was soon to change when regional and federal academic agencies took a closer look at his college. Indeed, when a storefront across the street from the campus openly sold pirated tests to Life students without any objection from the Williams administration, it was obvious Life had run amok.

For all intents and purposes, Life had become a chiropractic college on steroids with a burgeoning student body that flooded the state with grads—the 2000 census showed Georgia had the fifth-most chiropractors in the entire nation along with the sixth-lowest gross income. In its 28-year existence under Williams, Life had graduated over 12,000 students, nearly 20 percent of all chiropractors worldwide.

As well, Life graduates led the entire nation in student loan defaults in the federal Health Education Assistance Loan (HEAL) program at an astounding twenty-five percent rate, and Life grads led many state licensure exams in failure rates.[11]

The trickle of bad public relation events gradually turned into a tsunami when the Atlanta metropolitan area newspapers also published numerous articles about troubling instances, including an exposé on the huge student loan default problem at Life.

In the January 17-18, 1995, editions of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper appeared a two-part series about “The ‘Life’ and Times of Sid Williams”[12] as well as a revealing follow-up article, “Student DEBT,” about Life University leading all professional colleges in student loan defaults to the tune of $28.2 million.[13] The Associated Press picked up this story and distributed another embarrassing article entitled, “Life University Students Top Federal-loan Default List.”[14]

Williams’ ineloquent response was just as embarrassing: “My students are not skunks or scalawags. They got trapped in something they can’t help.”

Life had also become a cash-cow for his family despite the fact none of them had degrees in higher education or experience operating a college. The editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) revealed the rampant nepotism with four of his family members and Sid’s best friend on Life’s executive staff with their combined salaries in the range of $2.7 million.[15]

Inexplicably, the CHE revealed that Williams’ 1997 salary was $900,923, which was more than the salaries of the presidents of both Harvard and Yale who earned $380,000 and $552,000, respectively.[16]

Unquestionably as the highest paid president of the largest chiropractic college in the world, Williams had every reason to be proud of himself. According to the 1998 IRS filing, Life University’s net assets were $73,299,581, and its total expenses were $53,508,620—a nearly $20 million profit for a non-profit, 501(c) organization.

Students realized that Life was in trouble during the accreditation battles with the federal Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE) and the regional Southern Association of College and Schools (SACS). According to the 2001 SACS report, enrollment began declining at a rapid rate—a decline of 20.7 percent from 13,858 students in 1997, causing a $3.3 million drop in tuition revenue. The report also found $1.9 million in deficit spending on sports and $600,000 for TV ads.[17]

Few chiropractors will ever forget the turmoil in 2002 when Life University lost its accreditation causing thousands of students and faculty to flee to other colleges despite the hallow claims of the embattled Life administration blaming both accreditation agencies that had placed Life on public sanction for numerous academic violations.

Williams’ camouflage of the real issues was obviously designed to hoodwink students and his DE followers. Even after Life had lost its accreditation, Williams remained in denial of his shoddy educational program despite the obvious irregularities when he said, “Students get a superior education.”[18]

Not all students were misled by Williams’ spin as evident by the massive exodus of hundreds of students, some of whom filed class action lawsuits against Williams and Life as noted in the Marietta Daily Journal, “75 Join Suit Against Life—Seek Class-Action Status.”

“We believed we were paying a tremendous amount of money for graduate program. We expected a first-rate education. And as it turned out, we were getting a second-rate education. The pulling of accreditation only confirms the fact that we were getting a second-rate education.[19]

Rather than a blessing for the Southeast, this charade at the world’s largest chiropractic college became an embarrassment that terribly set back the image of chiropractic.

Instead of admitting the academic inadequacies and financial irregularities, Williams accused the CCE of being a rogue accrediting commission that had “run amok” despite the fact that the CCE had afforded Life multiple opportunities over a period of more than seven years to address concerns about its compliance with accrediting standards.[20]

The faculty at Life knew the CCE Commission on Accreditation had spoken the truth since they saw the administration’s incompetence and miserly wages. Despite the inflated salaries for the Williams clan, reportedly PhDs at Life earn twenty-five percent less than junior high school teachers in Cobb County.[21]

The CCE and SACS reports also noted complaints by the faculty about the repressive academic environment at Life.  Williams banned books, censored instructors, purged dissidents, and prohibited rival leaders from addressing the student body, including the president of the American Chiropractic Association.

Both the SACS and CCE also noted the lack of budgeting for genuine research at Life. In its first 25 years, Life published a grand total of 7 peer-reviewed papers while National College of Chiropractic near Chicago published over 220 in the same time period.[22]

Tired of the untruths and misinformation coming from the embattled Williams’ clan, disgruntled staff and faculty members also filed lawsuits allegedly for wrongful dismissal and anti-Semitic remarks made to Jewish professors by Williams.[23], [24]

An appraisal of this sad situation appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal, “An Open Letter to the Chiropractic Profession and the Public in Response to Dr. Sid E. Williams & his Supporters,” of which an excerpt appears below:

“We as faculty are tired of the ivory tower policies. We are tired of watching our school and countless individuals suffer due to selfish interests. We admonish those still in a position to do something about this predicament to take Dr. Williams’ example as what NOT to do. It’s time to change. It’s time to move beyond Sid Williams. The past is just that and we feel a call to arms in the name of what is right. 

“The argument is not about philosophy of chiropractic, but about the level of quality of chiropractic care the public deserves.”[25] 

Nonetheless, the pleas from the faculty fell on deaf ears. Williams’ stance proved defenseless, the college lost its accreditation, students fled like rats off a sinking ship, some students filed a class action lawsuit against Williams, faculty and staff jobs were lost, and the image of the entire chiropractic profession suffered when its largest college went down.

With the public opinion turning against him, many of Williams’ advisors urged him to step down, including the editors of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“In order to save Life University, the school of chiropractic founded by ‘Dr. Sid’ Williams, the entire family must surrender control. Williams' resignation alone is not enough...If the school is to survive, it can no longer be the family business. The founder and his family must separate themselves immediately from the day-to-day operations. Otherwise, the school will die, along with Williams' dream and the careers of thousands of students.”[26]

According to the AJC, Williams never accepted responsibility for the chiropractic program’s losing its accreditation, but he finally resigned as President of Life University and the corporate board that had loosely governed the university was dissolved. [27]

After his ouster, his settlement nearly bankrupted the struggling college when he received $5 million settlement for his interest in the college. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Charles Ribley, noted in a Marietta Daily Journal article, “I think it showed a lack of integrity, and I don’t think he is being responsible to the school he founded…It’s a large expense for the school. It is causing a considerable dent.”[28]

Life was given a reprieve on February 10, 2003 after a lawsuit filed by Life against CCE in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Judge Charles E. Moye, Jr. granted an injunction retroactively restoring Life’s accreditation.[29] In June 2003, both parties reached an agreement whereby the University maintained its accreditation while completing a special accreditation process over the next 19 months.[30]

After a change of the guard at Life and a lot of work to upgrade its deficiencies, on November 12, 2005, the CCE’s Commission on Accreditation formally re-accredited the Doctor of Chiropractic program at Life University College of Chiropractic.

From a November enrollment that had fallen to 865 students in 2003, by the Fall of 2012, enrollment had risen to 2,615 students. More importantly, under the leadership of President Guy Riekeman, DC, and Provost Brian McAulay, DC, PhD, the academics at Life as rated by national board scores are now in the median or higher range of all chiropractic colleges, a vast improvement.

A fighter all his life, Williams’ 28-year reign came to an unceremonious end not as the glorious president of the largest chiropractic college in the world, but as a broken man seen by most as a greedy demagogue and academic imposter. His tragic flaws of arrogance and stubbornness proved to be fatal and his so-called “Lasting Purpose,” his raison d'être, had proven to be the university’s lasting problem.

This academic coup d'état was the final nail in his professional coffin. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Williams finally admitted, “I’ve had some...defeats in life. This is one of the more bitter of those, because it comes from my colleagues, the chiropractors.”[31]

The paradoxical Dr. Sid was best characterized by his longtime compatriot, Ian Grassam. "Dr. Sid doesn't operate in the world you understand. He left the world a long time ago. He operates from spiritual beingness. He's not influenced by the world. You know that old phrase, ‘in the world but not of the world’? Well, that's Sid Williams."[32]

Now resting in peace on “the other side”, Dr. Sid might find solace that his university has survived despite his own failures.

 

About the writer:

JC Smith, MA, DC, graduated from Life in 1978 where he also worked as Dr. Williams’ ghost writer and sports director. He has authored a new book, The Medical War Against Chiropractors. Much of this article was excerpted from his article, Demagogues & Scalawags. He has practiced for the past 33 years in Warner Robins.



[1] Russell W Gibbons, “Go to Jail for Chiro,” Journal of Chiropractic Humanities 4 (1994): 61–71.

[2] Bette Harrison,  “The ‘Life’ and Times of Sid Williams”, The Atlanta Constitution (Jan. 17, 1995)

[3] S. Williams, “It's Time to Put People First,” Today's Chiropractic (March/April 1999):6-12.

[4] Charles Thomas, “Life College: Inside an American Cult,” unpublished manuscript, (1993):9-11.

[5] Mark Goodin,  “Winning The Battle In Legislative And Regulatory Arenas,” Journal of the American Chiropractic Association, (July, 1929):45-47.

[7] Welch Suggs, “At Life U., an Omnipresent President Pushes the Institution and Its Specialty,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 1999.

[8] “60 Minutes Visits Life College, Dr. Williams,” Today's Chiropractic (March/April 1979)

[9] Lee Harrison, “Course Teaches Greedy Chiropractors How To Get Rich By Cheating Patients,” National Enquirer, (Nov. 18, 1980)

[10] http://www.chiropractorsforfairjournalism.info/What_Went_Wrong_ICA_.html

[11] The Associated Press, “Life College Students Lead Federal-loan Default List” (Jan. 19, 1995)

[12] Bette Harrison,  “The ‘Life’ and Times of Sid Williams”, The Atlanta Constitution (Jan. 17, 1995)

[13] MAJ McKenna, Ann Hardie, “Student DEBT”, The Atlanta Constitution (Jan. 18, 1995)

[14] The Associated Press, “Life College Students Lead Federal-loan Default List” (Jan. 19, 1995)

[15] Welch Suggs, “At Life U., an Omnipresent President Pushes the Institution and Its Specialty,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 8, 1999)

[16] Welch Suggs, “At Life U., an Omnipresent President Pushes the Institution and Its Specialty,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 8, 1999)

[17] Chris Joyner, “Accreditation Agency Cites Problems At Life,” Marietta Daily Journal (6-22-01)

[18] “Life University Founder Steps Back From Helm,” AJC (6-15-02 )

[19] Phillip Giltman,  “75 Join Suit Against Life * Seek Class-Action Status,” Marietta Daily Journal (November 1, 2002)

[20] Phillip Giltman, “CCE Responds In Open Letter to Life Criticism,” Marietta Daily Journal  (November 15, 2002)

[21] From staff reports, “Life U. Bias Suit Set To Go To Court,” Marietta Daily Journal (September 13, 2003)

[22] DM Marchiori, W Meeker, C Hawk, CR Long, “Research Productivity Of Chiropractic College Faculty,” J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 21/1 (Jan 1998):8-13.

[23] Jeffrey Widmer, “Former Professors Suing Life,” Marietta Daily Journal (January 12, 2001)

From staff reports, “Judge: Ex-Life U. Professors Can Sue University founder,” Marietta Daily Journal, (December 20, 2002)[24]

[25] Phillip Giltman, “Faculty Members: Only Life To Blame: Dispute Notion School Was Unfairly targeted,” Marietta Daily Journal (November 2, 2002)

[26] Our Opinions: “University no longer one man's life,” AJC editorial  (6-14-02)

[27]“Life U Severs Ties To Leader Williams Quits, At Least For Now,” AJC  (7-9-02)

[28] “Chair Blasts Life Founder's Compensation Williams, Wife Will Receive Nearly $5M,” Marietta Daily Journal (Feb. 21, 2003)

[29] "Judge Charles Moye Jr. Ruling Against CCE", PlanetChiropractic.com, March 6, 2003

[31] “Life to Team with Chiropractic College,” AJC (6-26-02)

[32] Bette Harrison,  “The ‘Life’ and Times of Sid Williams”, The Atlanta Constitution (Jan. 17, 1995)

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