Casualties of the future: college closures and queen sacrifices

For years I’ve been thinking about ways of explaining higher education’s present and future.  My peak higher education model is out there, for example, notorious and grim.

Beyond that, I wonder if we should think of our time as a transition period between two different ages of American academia.  We can posit that there was a certain phase of the college and university experience from around 1990-2010.  It had certain characteristics: massively increasing enrollment, growing curricula, decreasing public funding, booming financialization, faculty adjunctification, expanding administrative staff, etc.  That phase needs a name, which is doesn’t yet have.  We can also posit that that phase has passed, coming to an end around 2008-2012 with the financial crisis and the end of total enrollment growth.

That academic phase hasn’t been clearly replaced yet. The new phase’s nature isn’t fully evident. Perhaps its outlines will become apparent after several years of change.  I’ve speculated on what that next higher education phase might look like here and elsewhere.  But for now, let’s consider the present as a moment in between those two phases.  That’s our time, right in the midst of a switching period, a liminal space, marked by uncertainty and instability.  We’re in a boundary zone.

bricks in transition

In that spirit, let me offer one of my favorite Antonio Gramsci quotes:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (one source)

If this transition state metaphor is right, it helps explain some morbid symptoms: the current tide of college closures and queen sacrifices*.  Change is rarely painless, and institutional transformation without wide-ranging growth means cuts in certain areas.  Increasing overall financial and demographic pressures place more stress on campuses, some of which can no longer bear up.  The future is arriving and there are casualties.

Let’s consider examples.

Over the past month there have been several stories of colleges closing.  The president and board chair of the College of New Rochelle (New York) announced they will probably shut down by the end of summer or calendar 2019.  Why is this happening?  It comes down to money, of course, but not how you might think.  CNR is unusual in that enrollments there have actually been healthy, due to a strategic pivot towards a health care focus.  What is killing them is a financial scandal from several years ago, one which saddled the college with a debt they simply couldn’t repay.

At the same time Bennett College, a historically black women’s college, is battling its accreditor in court, trying to retain accreditation in order to allow its students to receive financial aid.  The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) removed its accreditation, deeming Bennett financially unsound, and Bennett immediately filed suit to keep it.  A student-led petition calls for Bennett’s chief financial officer to resign:

The Vice President of Business & Finance, Mr. LeRoy Summers Jr… has failed to progress under his finical guidance. He has continued to fail to keep the board properly informed which insight, has gotten us to this place of accreditation status. His nonchalant attitude, towards the students for which he works for, can no longer be silenced, tolerated, or ignored.

Why does this struggle matter?  Immediately, losing accreditation will most likely end Bennet.

Other closings and threats of closing are in the air.  The Oregon College of Art and Craft (noted previously) has scheduled its closing for the end of this May.  On the east coast, Hampshire College is enrolling a handful of new students this fall amid public pleas for a supportive partner.   Given its small endowment and persistent funding strains, Hampshire could well shut down.   Enough Massachusetts colleges have recently closed or threatened to do so (Mount Ida College and Newbury College; Wheelock College merging with Boston University in a radical bid for survival) that the state government is developing policies to ease the passing of the next ones.

transition zone

Meanwhile, queen sacrifices* and related strategies of cutting have been cropping up.

Linfield College in Oregon will cut tenure-track and tenured faculty.  On the table are apparently around 20-25 jobs, or about 15% of Linfield’s full-time faculty members.  The reason is, unsurprisingly, declining enrollment, which means reduced revenue.  Oregon Public Radio shared an email apparently from the college president, explaining that:

“A part of the college’s restructuring and academic prioritization process will be to eliminate some faculty positions that were consistent in a time when we had more than 1600 students, but are not sustainable in our present circumstances [1,240 students]…”

Apparently the administration sought to launch a program prioritization process, but the faculty balked, so the cuts will proceed from the top down.

In Montana Carroll College‘s leadership set in motion a plan to cut a number of programs and some faculty.  Note the language; this is a “program prioritization plan.”  On the block:

The five majors that will be eliminated are classical studies, ethics and value studies, engineering science, environmental outreach and interpretation, and environmental policy and project management.

The 10 minors that will be cut are anthropology, arts management and administration, classical studies, economics, European studies, Latin American studies, music, public relations, social media, and TV production.

The three certificates being discontinued are geographic information systems (GIS), project management and social media. The associate of arts degree in English, which currently has no students enrolled, is also being eliminated.

As usual, lots of humanities are on the chopping block.  I’m surprised at the science and business cuts; perhaps the programs failed to enroll students or ran into other problems for local reasons.

Why the cuts at Carroll?  My readers know the drill: “declining undergraduate enrollment contributing to a loss of revenue.”

Further east, Maryland’s McDaniel College announced on Facebook (interestingly) the end of five majors and three minors, plus one graduate program.  The humanities really bear the brunt here:

Art History, Religious Studies, French, German and Music. Minors in German, Music and Latin will also no longer be offered. At the graduate level, we are also suspending enrollment in the M.S. of Deaf Education.

Once more, this is a question of shifting campus resources from underenrolled majors to those more likely to attract students:

Any savings from this evaluation will be re-invested to strengthen our academic programs. Investments will support the reorientation of existing programs to better meet the needs of the 21st century, and to create new programs that will expand the curricular offerings of the College.

This might not be a classic queen sacrifice if no faculty are let go.  No word on that yet.

In Florida Bethune-Cookman University, another historically black institution, saw its president call for cuts across the board.

B-CU interim President Hubert Grimes called for salary cuts, employee layoffs, and an unpaid furlough — measures he said were needed to rescue the embattled university.

B-CU lately stopped participating in a dual enrollment program with local high schools and is also on academic probation.

…and so on.  There are more cases, which I faithfully record in the FTTE report.  But this is enough for now. My point is made and readers may be depressed.

American higher education may well be in a transition stage.   These cuts, closings, and crises are signs of a system in flux.  Clay Shirky called the previous stage a Golden Age, and perhaps the next stage will have such a recognizable character that we come to agree on its name.  Maybe its nature will be divided or simply unclear, given the breadth and diversity of our sector.  Either way, for now we must cope with the uneasiness and instability that comes with transitions.

In this post’s title I used the word casualties.  That’s because I don’t want readers to lose track of the human suffering involves in these stories: careers upended, student work sapped of its reputation, unemployment, local spillover effects, depression, and the fading of delicately wrought cultures.

I also used the word to draw attention to the fact that these things are occurring, and that American academia is not a shiny happy city on a hill right now.  All too often the national conversation about higher education focuses on a handful of elite institutions, which are faring quite well.  Instead, we should look at the whole sector.  I’m using the above examples to shift our gaze.

Today’s final words on transition and change are from the criminally underrated 1990s tv series Babylon-5:

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

*Queen sacrifice: my term for when a campus removes tenured and tenure-track faculty.

(thanks to Stephen Landry on Twitter and many people by email and DM; bricks in transition by Alan Levine; mountain to lowland photo by the European Space Agency)

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18 Responses to Casualties of the future: college closures and queen sacrifices

  1. Paul says:

    As usual a prescient perspective on the past, present and FUTURE of higher education. Fortuitous Universal Teaching Under Realistic Expectations

  2. Joe Essid says:

    I think the losses at these schools in STEM is actually not surprising: if you want to work in these fields, you choose a school with a large faculty and good labs. STEM is growing at my employer because we offer students rich (and enriching) opportunities for undergraduate research.

    That’s one reason the Humanities have been in trouble. For a long time during that “Golden Age,” we Humanists would insist that our students could not help us with our research agendas. What a ridiculous and self-imposed disaster that has been. I’ve a student helping now with our book. Admittedly, it’s grunt-work of checking APA citations, but that’s not much less glamorous than what many research assistants do in a lab.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      So the STEM-losing campuses just don’t have the rep and/or capacity to do it right?

      Good point about undergrad research in the humanities. I think digital humanities is one way forward. And what’s your book about?

      • Joe Essid says:

        Our book, Writing Centers at the Center of Change, should publish in 2020. It looks at 11 different writing centers (5 international, 6 US) with a focus on how recent consolidations of student-support services (one of the perils of success, in other words) have changed us. Centers are now noticed, our turf and mission contested by others eager to control this particular form of academic capital, and that is not always good. As higher admin changes, their calls for data-driven outcomes are often shallow and at odds with the very pedagogy that made centers so noticed in the first place!

        Yes, I think students are savvy shoppers, and they know things about undergrad research. My sample size is my own school, but students choose STEM there largely because we market student-faculty collaboration heavily. It is not cheap, either, even with grants.

  3. Joshua Kim says:

    Bryan…whenever I read about college closings, I keep asking myself “what should these schools be doing?”. Are the demographic and economic trends that are destroying the business models of tuition-dependent small private institutions so strong that these schools have no chance? I’d like to have a conversation about positive examples. Schools that have pivoted and are thriving. What examples do we have?

    Happy that you are settling in in VA. We miss you here Up North Beyond the Wall.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’d be happy to have that conversation.

      What should they be doing?
      Partly it depends on the nature of a given institution. New Rochelle is dealing with a financial land mine that most colleges haven’t experienced. Coping with it is partially unique. Linfield, for example, has a burgeoning wine studies program. That’s unusual and successful – hard for many others to replicate. So leaning into it is a particular, not too replicable strategy.
      But generally? Plenty of things, almost all of which I’ve written about:
      a) Get into digital humanities.
      b) Emphasize the allied health sector.
      c) Market internationally.
      d) Reach out to seniors (people over 65, not fourth year undergrads).
      e) Make a different case for supporting public higher ed to states.
      f) Partner with K-12.
      g) Do inter-campus teaching with other campuses.
      h) Support humanists who want to engage in public intellectual careers.
      i) Develop a full-range approach to the digital world: CS, robotics, new media, digital ethics, history of technology, the works.
      j) Embrace open education resources and OA.
      k) Actually listen to and empower students.
      l) Dive into the emerging science of learning – then support its implementation.

      That’s off the top of my head, in between meetings.

      • Jennifer Gunter King says:

        As a former member of the Hampshire community, I would argue that Hampshire College did most of the innovative ideas on this list, with the exception, possibly, of allied health, seniors, and making a different case for the value of public higher ed. And in fact, the actual listening to and empowering students is what the institution is best known for. Thanks for this broad and helpful overview, and good thinking on this topic.

  4. Maria says:

    No doubt, HE is in the middle of ending one era and not yet beginning another. The biggest issue I see is that the competition for decent jobs on the other side of a diploma is so ferocious that it’s driving a lot of the trends we see on the nearside of getting a degree. Students can’t afford to spend too much time wandering, exploring, and/or sampling. They’ve pretty much got to hit the pavement running and nail down a decent internship (or 2 or 3) while they’re at it. I would expect to see schools find a less expensive, more expedient and supportive pathway through the university to attract students. Simply dishing up the same timelines in the same grooves (even with a rock climbing wall or two) just isn’t enough.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Agreed about that fierce career pressure – and, to be honest, we’re not handling it well.
      We still make onboarding adult learners unnecessarily painful.
      Many academics complain about students being too focused on jobs – this can be seriously tone deaf if not openly ahistorical.

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  6. I think of the phase that is ending as the commodification of education. When culturally, education became the thing you need to get a job, rather than the thing you need to live a meaningful life, it was logical to source that commodity for the least investment possible. Cheap adjunct labor was a part of this as was the slide in student investment of time/attention on their studies that we professors like to bemoan. What was priceless now has a price, so it makes sense to look for a bargain. ROI rules.

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  8. sibyledu says:

    I also believe we are living through a time of transition between models. I think the current wave of closures of not-for-profit institutions is an indicator of this. The colleges that have closed, or nearly closed, in recent years have all fallen because of financial management stresses. They had all taken on too much debt, or deferred too much maintenance, or allowed expenditures to grow too much, because they believed that they would always outgrow their problems. They believed the old model, with its assumption of steady and unending growth and expansion, was still operating. However, when they encountered enrollment declines — sometimes persistent declines, sometimes just one bad year — they lacked the reserves to survive.

    To be sure, there are real pressures on higher education. But those pressures don’t lead to closures unless there are also management problems. Institutions with robust per-student endowments aren’t closing; institutions with smaller endowments that are conservatively managed are adapting and surviving.

    Public institutions are largely shielded from the threat of closure as a result of these pressures. It only takes a few key legislators to keep a struggling public college open. To be sure, at the same time, public institutions can and do face different kinds of pressures from state government. However, in the main legislators need to keep colleges open because their constituents want someplace to send their children. So there will be a new model of higher education public policy too, although I’m not at all sure what it will look like. I have my eye on Tennessee, Indiana, Virginia, and Massachusetts as potential leaders.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point about management, sibyledu. That can be decisive.
      And we’re still learning how to do it right.

  9. Pam Roy says:

    You are correct to point out that old systems are dissolving and new ones have yet to form. This is not unique to higher education, it is just reflecting the change in the larger economy. The skillsets needed to enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution are much different than those required to climb corporate ladders. Clay Christensen, Todd Rose, and Anant Agarwal all describe the need to unbundle higher education. In the meantime, we have a generation of students caught between two worlds.

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