Bad news is often obvious in retrospect: unremarkable events become harbingers; seemingly unrelated developments become signs.
That isn’t the case, however, for the faculty at Mount Ida College, which announced April 6 that it is closing at the end of the semester. Instead, the soon-to-be-unemployed professors say, there were signals -- including from the administration -- that the college was doing well, or at least better than it had in some time.
The incoming freshman class had the highest grade point average in years, for example. There were also the 12-month faculty contracts delivered in March, assuring annually assigned professors and, by extension, their tenured colleagues, that the college would at least live to see another year.
So the absence of any warning of the abrupt closure has professors feeling an intense sense of betrayal -- along with intense worry about how they’ll pay their bills and support their families come fall.
“Not only did they not tell us this was coming, we didn’t even a have a chance for last-minute applications” elsewhere, said a full-time professor of design who did not want to be identified by name, for fear of compromising a promised severance package.
Mount Ida has promised all professors -- regardless of length of service -- three months’ pay beyond this academic year. But the instructor said colleagues have focused on trying to get Mount Ida to make good on those 2018-19 contracts in terms of a payout, saying they were written in bad faith.
“The faculty believe it was cruel the way they were treated, to give us contracts and not allow us to move forward in our careers -- all because there was a whisper of a chance that the college could be saved,” the professor said. “It was really negligent.”
Of the 12-month contracts, the professor added, “I assume the way Mount Ida will try to get around this is that it doesn’t exist anymore.”
There’s reason to be suspicious of Mount Ida’s intentions, the instructor said: while accompanying devastated students on tours to other local campuses to assess transfer options, several deans at other colleges mentioned they’d been communicating with Mount Ida about taking on students, long before the Mount Ida faculty knew the campus was at risk of closing.
Mount Ida College announced April 6 that it will shut down at the end of this academic year, with its campus becoming part of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Students were shocked, but so were their professors, who found out via email. They knew that Mount Ida had previously been in merger talks with nearby Lasell College. But in announcing the failure of those talks in March due to disagreement over a mutually beneficial deal, Mount Ida said it would remain open on its own.
“The financial situation facing small private colleges nationwide is a difficult one,” the college’s governing board said in a public announcement. “Despite extraordinary growth and progress over the last several years, Mount Ida, like its peers, is vulnerable to the realities of having limited resources. As a result, we have considered multiple options to secure the strongest possible long-term future for our students.”
Mount Ida’s students have been promised admission and the opportunity to finish their degrees at the UMass’s Dartmouth campus. Others will transfer elsewhere.
When a college goes under, students suffer, along with all employees -- not just the faculty. At Mount Ida, for example, the Service Employees International Union-affiliated janitors’ union marched to the president’s office last week, demanding severance pay and possible placement in the transition to the UMass system. Some of those janitors said they’ve worked at Mount Ida for decades and they therefore deserve severance, similar to the in-house maintenance staff.
Faculty members feel a particular burn, however, due to the drawn-out nature of the faculty hiring cycle. Jobs ads for the following year are most plentiful in the fall. And while some jobs are posted later, the 12-month contracts sent out in March falsely assured professors they wouldn’t need to go on a last-minute search.
Mount Ida’s suburban Boston location also presents a job-hunt paradox. While there are many institutions in the area, there are also many academics hungry for faculty jobs.
One longtime professor of humanities who also did not want to be identified by name, citing concerns about securing his severance, said the closure news was so delayed that even many notoriously late adjunct jobs have been snatched up for the fall.
Mount Ida and UMass have announced that the deal will preserve some faculty jobs. “But the liberal arts area? Forget it. Nobody’s absorbing that," the humanities professor said.
And while younger faculty members might eventually have success getting hired on the tenure track elsewhere, he said, “the older faculty, those close to retirement -- no college will hire them full-time, there’s no way.”
No Faculty Say
The broken promises of tenure and shared governance also hurt. While professors say there is a clear chain of command at Mount Ida, with the faculty at the bottom, widely adopted standards on shared governance from the American Association of University Professors afford professors a say in such matters.
Any decision to seek a merger due to a financial exigency “should be made with the fullest possible participation of the faculty in the institution that would be acquired,” according to AAUP policy. “The faculty of the institution that is experiencing severe financial difficulties should be informed as early and as specifically as possible of those difficulties, and that faculty should participate fully in any decision to seek merger as an alternative to possible extinction.”
Even the possible merger was announced in a late-night weekend email.
The humanities professor who wished to speak anonymously said he especially wished that the faculty had been given an opportunity to weigh in on the merger with Lasell before it fell through -- not too soon, risking public confidence in Mount Ida as an institution, but certainly at the "crisis point." The merger of two independent, nonunionized colleges would have saved the most faculty jobs -- whether through a yearlong teach-out or in the long term -- and was the option students were most enthusiastic about, he added.
“My biggest gripe at this moment is that when the crap hit the fan, the faculty were not brought into discussions about the best route to go,” he said. “We’re talking about our lives here. The college made a really bad decision and we were not allowed to have a say, to even get our opinions out there.”
The professor also criticized what he described as “silence” from President Barry Brown, beyond his initial statement about the closure. “Silence leads to rumor and speculation and he's been hugely disappointing as a leader,” the professor said, contrasting Brown’s approach to that of Lasell president Michael B. Alexander, who held public meetings about the failed merger.
Landing Plans and Lessons
In a blog post for WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio station, former Mount Ida adjunct instructor of English Christopher John Stephens cited Brown's statement assuring students and their families, “We have devised a way forward that ensures the well-being of our students, enhances the academic capacity of the region and preserves Mount Ida’s legacy and history.”
By contrast, Stephens said -- and similar to the way adjuncts who work on short-term contracts often feel -- the “faculty and staff have been thrown out of an airplane at 20,000 feet without a parachute or landing plan.”
Wherever and whenever “their feet safely touch ground,” he continued, “I hope it’s in an environment that respects their lives as teachers and professionals.”
The humanities professor said Mount Ida’s story should serve as a cautionary tale to professors at other small, private colleges to keep independently abreast of campus finances, and to maintain a healthy skepticism about institutional messaging.
At the same time, he said, “Trustees at small colleges in particular need to be more accessible. We need more information about who they are -- if I tripped over one I wouldn’t know who they were.”
The design instructor, meanwhile, is applying for different jobs while experiencing the various stages of grief -- sometimes within moments of each other. “One minute I feel like I’ll be fine, and the next, I feel like I’m going to have to sell my house.”
Amy Nagy, a spokesperson for Mount Ida, declined to provide details on what she described as “generous” severance packages, saying they were confidential personnel matters. She said the college will be offering a job fair for faculty and staff members in early May, with UMass and other local institutions.