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Billings purchased a tract of land straddling Independence and Blue Springs that contained the huge abandoned limestone quarry -- 8 million square feet of underground space. Then Billings argued with officials from the Missouri Board of Higher Education for five years to get permission to run his unaccredited school. "They told us no, you can't do that in Missouri. You've got to have conventional classes, and you've got to be accredited," Billings says. Finally, he prevailed.
According to the school's Web site, students from all over, including Tonga and Russia, have come to attend the school. Last summer, Billings told The Lawrence Journal-World that his academy had an enrollment of 120 students, but he tells the Pitch that today it has about 25. On a recent afternoon, only a few students roamed the cavernous hallways of the school. Billings' assistants show off living quarters that resemble hotel rooms, where some of the students live.
Professor Jay Potter -- another recipient of the school's "doctor of research" degree -- tells the Pitch he was a student for seven years before he graduated last year. Potter, a self-employed computer consultant without a college degree, was living in California when a friend told him about the academy. Fascinated, he made a trip to Independence and signed up to attend the school. "This has been the best thing to ever happen in my life," Potter says. "I can't imagine a better place to work or to learn. The range of possibilities that opened up are breathtaking. Every day, there's something new or something exciting."
Potter says that some students come to the school with their own ideas or are offered the opportunity to work on research and development for Billings' business ventures. Potter himself worked on Billings' Acellus, a computer learning system designed to teach students math, science and other subjects. Other students have worked on Billings' Ethernet devices now manufactured by his company, WideBand Inc., and some students have formed their own ventures to sell Billings' products.
Potter says he came to the academy with a project of his own: a software cookbook. Billings helped him fix some problems with his "One Million Recipes" program, and now it's being sold at Wal-Mart, he says. "He helped me negotiate contracts with distributors, and now we've turned it into a little business that generates me royalties."
Because of the academy's unorthodox approach and lack of accreditation, some have criticized the school. A former friend of Billings reportedly gave a deposition in the Novell case calling the school a "sham" and saying that only children without high school diplomas attend. But Potter tells the Pitch that the students who attend are looking for the academy's style of learning and know they'll be studying in a cave. "We warn them ahead of time," he says.
Now Billings manages WideBand Inc. and Acellus, with many former students and all nine of his children acting as employees and distributors. He also peddles vitamins through a company called Earth Touch Inc. Billings says his vitamins are special formulas based on the work of dentist Emanuel Cheraskin, whose book Billings ordered after watching an infomercial.
"I went to Wal-Mart, and I realized I couldn't find half the stuff he recommended -- for example, chelated calcium. So I started my own little business. It's really just a hobby thing," Billings says.