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A photo illustration of a cracked logo for Pittsburgh Technical College.

Pittsburgh Technical College will close in August after months of concern about financial misconduct and mismanagement by its president and significant turnover on the seven-member board.

Photo illustration by David Ho/Inside Higher Ed | Wikimedia Commons | Vecteezy

When Pittsburgh Technical College announced its impending closure on Monday, leaders cited the usual causes: declining enrollment, inflation and changing views of higher education.

But administrators also leveled a vaguely sinister accusation.

“These external pressures, in addition to orchestrated attacks against the institution, have made it difficult for PTC to increase revenue generation and enrollment numbers to remain operational,” officials wrote in the closure announcement.

Nothing more was said in the press release about alleged “orchestrated attacks.” But the remarks come in the wake of a clash between President Alicia Harvey-Smith and employees who have raised questions about possible financial mismanagement and misconduct. They allege, among other things, that the president spent $32,000 of college money for a marketing firm to write and edit her book.

Last fall the Board of Trustees resigned en masse after the faculty and staff voted no confidence in the president in July. An investigation by an outside law firm in September raised concerns about financial decisions the president made, some of which personally benefited her.

Harvey-Smith has denied the numerous claims of financial misconduct. In an email to Inside Higher Ed, she instead accused a group of disgruntled former and current employees of “attack[ing] the school and ultimately its students.” A report from her lawyer—which the Board of Trustees accepted—absolved her of any wrongdoing.

But many in the PTC orbit believe the president and board ultimately sank the small college through their own actions and inaction.

Business Challenges

Founded in 1946 as Pittsburgh Technical Institute, the institution was an employee-owned, for-profit college before it made the leap to nonprofit status in 2016 and changed its name to Pittsburgh Technical College.

Enrollment at the private, two-year institution has been trending downward for years. A decade ago, in fall 2014, PTC enrolled 2,045 students, according to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Enrollment fell to 1,744 in fall 2019—Harvey-Smith's first year—and has since reportedly dropped by more than 1,000 additional students. Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Inside Higher Ed recent enrollment stood at just under 700 students.

PTC also lost $8 million in fiscal year 2023, publicly available financial documents show.

While plenty of small colleges have faced similar challenges in recent years, some PTC insiders, including its former president, believe mismanagement played a role in driving the institution out of business. In March, the college received a warning from its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which raised concerns about its failure to meet standards for ethics and integrity. MSCHE also noted the college’s shaky financial status earlier this year, and just last week warned of the possibility of its “imminent closure.”

Dueling Reports

After July’s no-confidence vote, the college conducted an outside investigation into alleged financial misconduct by Harvey-Smith. The results of that investigation, provided to the board in September, found the president acted unilaterally in awarding a full-ride scholarship to a high school student and contracted with a vendor who promised a donation to PTC. It also confirmed that she spent $32,000 in college money to pay a marketing firm to write and edit portions of her book, Higher Education on the Brink: Reimagining Strategic Enrollment Management in Colleges and Universities.

The board reportedly sought Harvey-Smith’s removal. But ultimately, five of the seven trustees left instead. And a new board, installed in October, immediately voiced full support for the president. Harvey-Smith also commissioned her own report through her lawyer. And while it did not directly dispute the findings of the investigation, it argued her actions were within her authority as president. In the report, the lawyer also accused “resentful employees” of staging a “palace coup.”

The new board likewise rallied to Harvey-Smith’s defense.

“During the investigation, a non-binding vote of no confidence was held by some faculty and staff members. The Board of Trustees has significant reservations about the timing and circumstances of the vote and, accordingly, has decided that no action is required. It will continue to engage the College community to provide the best experience for our students, our administrators, our faculty, and our staff,” the board wrote in an October statement.

The board statement cast Harvey-Smith as an “agent for change” charged with leading the college as it “continues its metamorphosis from a for-profit technical institute saddled by crushing debt to a not-for-profit college striving for financial stability.” In affirming its support for the embattled president, the board declared that “change is never easy, but often necessary.”

Who Bears Responsibility?

Asked for further explanation about the claims of orchestrated attacks in the closure announcement, Harvey-Smith cast a wide net, accusing unnamed actors of undermining the college and ultimately killing it off.

“Since last summer, groups of former Pittsburgh Technical Institute employees (some of whom work at Rosedale Technical College in Pittsburgh) and current employees worked together to attack the school and ultimately its students. Their efforts to harm the students were successful, resulting in numerous negative local and higher education trade media stories against the College, damaging its reputation, while resulted in decreased enrollment and stood in the way of the College’s ability to form partnerships or fundraise … Ultimately resulting in closure,” Harvey-Smith wrote to Inside Higher Ed in an emailed statement sent by a public relations firm.

In the same email, Harvey-Smith accused her predecessor of bogging the college down in debt. She also alleged that PTC’s Board of Trustees had been doxxed and harassed, though did not specify by whom. Asked to provide evidence for her more explosive claims, she did not offer any.

An email promised to Inside Higher Ed showing harassment of board members never arrived.

Former PTC President Greg DeFeo cast doubts on Harvey-Smith’s closure narrative. DeFeo, who was president from 2007 to 2018, wrote by email that when he left the college it had “nearly 2,000 students, a rock solid balance sheet, consistent profitability” and “an impeccable reputation with the Department of Education and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.” DeFeo argued that PTC “was positioned for long-term success” when he left.

He blamed the closure squarely on the enrollment collapse, which he said was caused by the current administration and cost the college $40 million in lost revenues. DeFeo also accused the Board of Trustees of failing to act when employees and PTC’s accreditor raised concerns.

“Sadly, even when confronted with a unanimous vote of no confidence by faculty, a [negative financial outlook] from the auditors, an independent investigation, and probation from Middle States over failure to meet standards for ethics, leadership, governance and finances, the majority of the PTC Board of Trustees members resigned, rather than taking necessary actions,” DeFeo wrote.

A former PTC employee who left recently and spoke on the condition of anonymity, shared a similar perspective, blaming both the board and the president.

The board, he argued, “failed to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities, and in particular, they failed on their oversight responsibilities for the president and her actions or lack thereof.” The source said that while serious financial issues existed since at least June 2022, those concerns went unheeded, with neither the board nor the president taking corrective action.

He believes inaction coupled with the “gross incompetence of the president” led to the closure.

Local media reported that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office has also opened an investigation into complaints about financial mismanagement at the college. Though the Attorney General’s office declined to confirm that an investigation is underway, it said by email it is “reviewing the circumstances of the impending closure and any transfer or loss of assets.”

Asked if she bears any responsibility for the closure, Harvey-Smith said through a spokesperson: “No. I am proud of all that has been accomplished under the circumstances. My efforts prolonged the life of a troubled institution.”

Now, after almost 80 years in business, PTC is set to close in August. It joins University of the Arts in Philadelphia as the second college in Pennsylvania to announce a closure this month.

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