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How to Save a Program

March 29, 2005

Two institutions in New Jersey are seeking to put a new spin on an old saw: When one department closes, another one opens.

The presidents of Montclair State and Seton Hall Universities have jointly written New Jersey's governor asking that the state provide $1 million a year to help Montclair State keep alive a doctoral program in audiology that Seton Hall has decided to close.

All parties say they'd win in the unusual cooperative effort: Montclair State would gain a program that its officials say would enhance their current offerings and help the public institution achieve its goal of becoming "more research intensive." The students would have lower tuition bills and be enrolled in a program with a future; the four full-time professors would keep their jobs for the long haul.

And Seton Hall, which has promised to see the existing students through their degrees, would unload what it says is a money-losing program sooner and -- not unimportantly -- might forestall a lawsuit that students, professors and would-be students in the audiology program filed last December.

For everyone, "this could be a good solution to this difficult issue," said Thomas White, assistant vice president for public relations and marketing at Seton Hall. Adds Richard A. Lynde, provost at Montclair State: "This fits in well with the direction we're heading in, and obviously the folks at Seton Hall are hopeful that this pans out, because it would relieve an awfully big headache that they have."

The Roman Catholic university in South Orange, N.J., announced last spring that it would stop admitting students to its five-year-old doctoral program in audiology because, White said, the program was losing "hundreds of thousands of dollars." The 16 students in the program did what people often do these days: hired a lawyer. They sued Seton Hall in December, accusing the institution of misleading them about its intentions and doing a poor job of planning the phaseout. 

Richard M. DeAgazio, a lawyer for the faculty members, current students and four students admitted and then turned away for fall 2004, says Seton Hall "way, way overstated" the program's deficits and engaged in "bad faith" by announcing the program's suspension in February, temporarily reinstating the program (and sending out admission letters for fall 2004) in the wake of an outcry, and then ultimately deciding in June to stand by its original plan not to admit more students. 

White strongly denies that Seton Hall acted in bad faith. "The university did what it could to try to salvage this program," White says, "but the numbers just wouldn't add up."

As they sought help in the courts, students and faculty members in the Seton Hall program worked other avenues as well. Last fall, they contacted their counterparts a dozen miles away in Montclair State University's master's program in speech language pathology about a possible partnership. In December, Lynde says he was "sitting in my office minding my own business" when the chairman of the Montclair's communication science and disorders department swung by to ask whether the university "had any interest in picking up" the Seton Hall program.

Lynde says he and others at Montclair were intrigued, even though Seton Hall had failed to make its program viable. Montclair officials knew that as a public institution, they would be able to charge tuition that was about a third lower than Seton Hall's, amounting to about $9,000 to $10,000 a year over a four-year program.

That knowledge, together with the facts that (1) clinical professionals in audiology will, beginning in 2007, be required to have a doctoral degree and (2) the Seton Hall program is the only program offering such degrees within a 150-mile radius in the populous Northern New Jersey area, made Montclair officials confident that they could build enrollment. And "economies of scale" with the facilities and staff Montclair uses for its existing clinical master's program would also help, Lynde says.

Hurdles remain, though. First, although the Seton Hall program is professionally accredited, Montclair State must seek the approval of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, which is expected but won't come before June, Lynde says. Second, and more importantly, Montclair says it needs the extra $1 million a year in state funds to set up the program and sustain it for the future.

"We really aren't in a position, without getting support from the state, to pick this program up," says Lynde, who adds that "the fact that we're starting this very intensive paper process suggests we have reason to believe the state will be supportive of this program."

A spokesman for Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey told the Newark Star-Ledger that the governor is "open to discussion on how to preserve" the "unique and important" program.

DeAgazio, the lawyer, says his clients are "hopeful that the Montclair State possibility will go forward, and glad that Seton Hall appears to be cooperating." He said it was not at all clear, though, that the transfer of the program would "moot the lawsuit." 

 

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