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Cabrini University is seeking partnerships as it struggles financially.

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Years of dwindling enrollment and ongoing financial challenges have led to deep cuts at Cabrini University as administrators seek long-term stability. Following the latest wave of cuts, university leaders are making an appeal for partnerships. And while a merger isn’t their first choice, they say all options are on the table.

Deep Cuts

Cabrini administrators put current enrollment at roughly 1,500 students, both undergraduate and graduate. That’s a big drop from 2016, when a total of more than 2,300 students were enrolled. For the tuition-dependent private university in Pennsylvania, the drop-off has taken a financial toll; Cabrini is currently running a $5 million to $6 million deficit in a budget of $45 million.

To help shore up its finances, Cabrini cut 46 positions in early 2021. Another round of cuts followed last month as part of a reorganization, this time targeting top administrators. Though it’s a smaller number—university officials said eight jobs were eliminated in the latest round—the cuts include Cabrini’s provost, associate provost and three deans. The university will also downsize from 18 department chairs to eight.

And Cabrini will make a big structural change, shrinking from three colleges to two, with the School of Education moving into the School of Arts and Sciences.

Helen Drinan, Cabrini’s interim president, who has been at the university for less than six months, said administrators had tried a number of unsuccessful strategies in recent years to boost enrollment and revenue, such as emphasizing international recruitment and online education. But nothing worked; Cabrini has run at a deficit for roughly the past decade, ultimately forcing university leaders to make hard choices, Drinan said.

“We kept making investments that at the end of the day resulted in significant financial losses,” Drinan said. “And then, of course, the pandemic hit. And while we were fortunate enough, like every other college and university in the country, to receive government funds, those essentially masked continuing financial losses and declines in enrollments. Once the government funds were no longer available, there they are in plain sight. Now the financial losses and declining enrollment have converged to create a situation that can no longer be considered resolvable once one of the good ideas succeeds, because we are now at a place where none of those ideas have taken off to solve the problem, yet the losses remain, so it requires immediate attention.”

The cuts—with more likely to come—are expected to save Cabrini about $1 million. Drinan justified the move by arguing that Cabrini is top-heavy at the administrative level, given its shrinking size.

“If you see that that overhead is just at a level that is disproportionately high relative to your student population, I think you have to do something about that. Not every small university needs to look like a big university in terms of the number of academic leadership positions, or the number of institutional advancement positions. We’ve heard lots of talk over the years of what’s called administrative bloat. Well, administrative bloat doesn’t only occur in staff functions—it also occurs in academic functions. And that’s what is reflected in many of the decisions we made here at Cabrini. We are not reducing student-facing services in any way. What we’re reducing is a lot of the academic overhead that, frankly, an institution like Cabrini just can’t justify,” she said.

The cuts have prompted questions from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Cabrini’s accreditor, which has requested a report from the university on its restructuring plan.

Drinan said she understands the reason for the request and noted that Cabrini is cooperating.

Beyond cuts, Drinan and other administrators are looking at other ways to remain viable. She said that although trustees have approved a financial plan that aims to move the college past its operating losses, she’s also actively seeking partnerships and is open to the idea of a merger with another institution. However, Drinan emphasized that a merger is not the preferred outcome.

“Cabrini’s first choice is to find an independent path forward,” she said.

Meanwhile, faculty members are warily watching the latest cuts and wondering what is still to come, said Paul Wright, a professor of writing and narrative arts and chair of the Faculty Assembly.

“The faculty understand the need for some of those cuts,” Wright said. “I think what they don’t know yet is how much more extensive budgetary cuts will be going forward, and how much that will impact not only faculty jobs, which of course are on their minds, but also their experience as faculty—their course sizes, class loads, etc. We’re all kind of waiting for the next developments on that front, which could well come after this semester. And I don’t know what if any further cuts will happen, but the anxiety is certainly pronounced. Our faculty feel that anxiety, our staff feel that anxiety and I’m sure administrators feel that anxiety. We have a tough challenge ahead.”

Wright noted that other small institutions are facing the same challenges as Cabrini, pointing not only to enrollment—which is on the decline nationally—and financial struggles, but also to the declining numbers of U.S. high school graduates and rising education costs.

He described faculty opinion as mixed on the idea of courting partnerships or a merger.

Public Appeals for a Partner

Though Cabrini’s leaders downplay the potential for a merger, Drinan wants to be clear that she is open to partnerships and is actively meeting with potential benefactors. Partners could come from private enterprise, philanthropic organizations or another university.

With mergers and affiliations on the rise in higher education, some colleges have openly courted partners to stave off likely closure. To take one recent example, Bloomfield College will officially become part of Montclair State University in June. That merger came about after Bloomfield president Marcheta Evans actively sought a partner last fall, making it clear that the small private college was at risk of closure without immediate help.

Such transparency can pay off for struggling institutions, said John MacIntosh, managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners, which manages the Transformational Partnership Fund, which was established by a number of philanthropic foundations to help colleges explore collaboration. (MacIntosh is also an Inside Higher Ed opinion contributor.)

If closure is a risk, MacIntosh said governing boards owe it to their institutions to be transparent about the problems and the potential solutions—something he sees as an ethical duty.

“With Bloomfield, and I think to some degree with Mills College, we have examples of schools that were open about their desire for a partner, and where ultimately it worked out, I would say, for the best. I wouldn’t be surprised if people see those examples and are open to following suit,” MacIntosh said.

While mergers seem to be the more common route, MacIntosh pointed to other instances where graduates came to the rescue to bail out institutions—including at Hampshire College, which faced a prospective merger, and Sweet Briar College, which threatened to close.

While corporate partners haven’t yet rescued any struggling colleges, MacIntosh suggests that some models may develop to solve higher education issues in the years to come.

“If you’re going to make an effective public appeal for a partnership, there’s no harm in being open to all sorts of possibilities, even if we haven’t seen some of them yet. I think it’s the early days of the transformation of higher education, so maybe some [partnerships] will set precedent,” he said.

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