Time to Close the College?

After studying four institutions that shut their doors, Alice Brown offers guidance to campus leaders contemplating closure -- and urges them to act decisively.

June 26, 2009

I spent most of my career working with dozens of small colleges, many of which seem to be in a constant struggle with survival. The experience had left me fearing that some of them were so close to the edge that the current economic crisis could send them over it. To try to gain some insight, I studied four colleges that had closed after 100-year-plus histories to try to identify when it is time for institutions to close and the steps they can take to close with grace. The complete report will be published in the future by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, but I’d like to share some of the conclusions I reached in this essay.

When I mentioned my examination of the four closed colleges, a number of colleagues assumed I was trying to find a way to help colleges keep from closing. But I am not among the many who believe that every college must exist in perpetuity. I believe that as times change, the needs of our society change and many of the colleges established to educate young women to serve as homemakers and young men to serve as clergymen simply do not address the demands of the 21st century.

As Parker Palmer said in his book Let Your Life Speak, “By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

The goal of my research was to see if colleges that had exhausted all their options except closing had closed in a way others could emulate to make the closing as painless as possible. Had they closed with a sense of "this is the right thing to do and we will do it with the dignity our institution deserves"? Of the four colleges I examined, three were closed by an outside agency: the banks that foreclosed on loans, the church that decided it could no longer provide financial support, the university that “merged” with the college in trouble. In two of the cases, loss of accreditation and, therefore, federal funding ended hopes the colleges had that they would survive this crisis as they had survived others in the past. It is hard to maintain dignity if the sheriff is padlocking the administration building because the college is bankrupt. Waiting until the college is forced by some outside agency to close eliminates the possibility of planning an exit that recognizes the value of the college’s past history and applauds the efforts of current administrators, staff, and faculty.

The History

To identify the warning signs that a college is in trouble and may need to close, I looked at four colleges that had each served thousands of students over hundred of years of operations but closed in recent years. There was no doubt that each college had served well to educate young women and men, many of whom would never have gone to college if the college had not been readily accessible; and many of whom would not have succeeded in college if the faculty and staff had not dedicated extraordinary care and oversight to them. Still, the study may suggest to some that most of what the colleges did was wrong; the truth is that most of the efforts of the colleges were admirable. What is unfortunate is that all the good done by the colleges could not compensate for all the problems created by the society around them and by their own internal weaknesses.

Denial has carried a number of colleges long past the time it might have been prudent for them to close, but the pressures driving colleges as well as multiple organizations to close are far more intense today than in the past. There is little doubt that an increasing number of colleges will close in the next few years, and there seem to be few resources that might help guide those considering closure. Recent articles in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, written by people who have closed colleges recently, have provided some insight into the process, but it is clear that every college that closes does so in a way unique to its particular history and circumstances. There are few lessons that can be generalized across all closing colleges. These few, however, are worth noting.

Even the exercise of developing strategic plans did not seem to have helped any of the four colleges. Such plans were filled with a lot of hope, but ignoring reality can lead to a closing that is as embarrassing and traumatic as one might imagine, with faculty threatening lawsuits, students leaving in shock, and local vendors from the community pounding on the doors with unpaid invoices.

The major lesson learned was that it is not wise to wait to consider closing until the choice is no longer yours to make. Once bankruptcy is imminent, the college loses control over the time frame for closing, the benefits that can be offered to faculty, the way the college can “teach out” the students currently enrolled, and how to address concerns of alumni. While no one would want to stop hoping for the economy to improve, the enrollment to increase, the endowment to grow, the capital campaign to succeed -- the president and board do need to consider the options a college will have if none of those hopes are realized.

The one college I studied that saw merger as salvation learned in less than two years that merger can be just a step to closure. Relinquishing all control of the campus to another institution proved disastrous when a new president and changes in central administrative staff at the major university reversed decisions made by the previous administration.

The college studied that appears to have handled closing with the greatest measure of grace had a president who saw shortly after taking office that the college no longer served the mission for which it was established -- basically preparing young women to transfer to four-year colleges at a time when many of the top universities did not accept women until the junior year.

But it took 10 years to get board members and alumnae to admit that the college had outlived what had become its central mission, and that other colleges in the area were meeting the region’s needs. Finally he was able (with support from the board) to close the college with a sense of being in control of the decision. He increased the focus on the on-campus boarding high school as the college programs were phased out. The campus facilities remained intact and most of the faculty who chose to stay were able to do so. The president did not try to save what he knew no longer served the purpose that had sustained it for many years. He knew that when alumnae talked about continuing the college, they were talking about the college of the 1960s and the surrounding decades, and that it was not possible to attract 21st century students to the 20th century campus.

What I hope I accomplished was encouraging colleges struggling to survive to think about planning for closure at the same time they are hoping for expansion. The ugly side of closing could be attributed primarily to the fact that the colleges’ leaders waited until the decision to close was no longer under their control. Then neither administrators nor faculty nor students had any significant voice in how the college would close.

Advice for Others

A number of people who had served at the colleges before they closed were interviewed; they had advice for the leaders of small, private colleges today:

1. Be realistic in assessing your institution; don’t look at it the way it was or the way you wish it to be.
2. Doing things right is not the same thing as doing the right thing.
3. Be as open as possible with as many people as possible; secrecy inflames suspicion.
4. Once faculty and staff are involved, they should have legal representation to help assure whatever assistance is possible is provided for them during the transition
5. Don’t consider any documents trash because the Department of Education probably will consider them official documents.
6. Prepare for the reaction from many that no matter how dire the circumstances the college faces, it should never close.

My recommendations follow:

1. Remember that denial is not prevention.
2. Do not assume that because your college survived similar threats in the past, it will survive a new threat.
3. A strategic plan that can be summed up in one word -- “hope" -- is not likely to lead to major improvements in the circumstances of the college.
4. Look at the possibility that your college might have to close as soon as there are signs of declining enrollments, unpaid vendors, increasing deferred maintenance, repeated losses in the endowment. Develop at least some of the steps you will take in closing the college before the decision to close your college is made for you.
5. Involve as many parties as possible that will be impacted by the decision to close in discussions about the various options, but once the board has made the official decision to close, announce the decision to all of the constituencies at the same time.
6. Take pride in the success the college has had over the years and the good work it has done and encourage alumni and others to do so as well.
7. Find a way to keep the mission alive at least in the minds of the alumni and others committed to that mission -- even if it is just a scholarship fund that supports the kinds of students once served by the college to attend a similar institution.

While planning for closing as you hope for a turnaround may seem counterproductive, it is possible to think about the worst case scenario, the most likely scenario and the best case scenario. In a recent issue of Trusteeship, the magazine of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Ed Welch, one of the most creative presidents I have met in 25 years of working with presidents, explains that there are two approaches presidents might take during the “next three to four years of tough sledding.” The first is a “hunker down” mentality and the second requires “decisive leadership” and a “full-speed ahead” approach.

I would suggest some road in between the two -- one the college will have to forge itself, one where decisions are based on careful scrutiny of all options and measures of risk involved in each; one that looks at the best that might happen, what is likely to happen, and the worst that might happen -- and prepares the institution for each situation.

What the report to the Jessie Ball duPont Fund includes besides these conclusions is what led to them, how ugly an unplanned closing can be, how problems can build upon problems for colleges that delay closing until someone outside the institution determines the college has to close, how the best laid plans for merging can fall apart, how long the planning for closure can be delayed by those unwilling to look at the institution realistically.

It includes some of the anguish of those involved in closing a college as perhaps a preparation for those who decide to move toward closure. The bright side of the study is that years after the closings, many initially upset by the decision could admit it was the right one.

Closing cannot be made easy for any college, but for some it is the only wise choice remaining. For those in the category of having to consider closing as a choice, I trust that controlling the closure will help it be viewed as part of the natural evolution of higher education in our nation and closing will not diminish the image of the positive impact the college has had on its students and region throughout its history. Ideally, the closing or merging or restructuring into a different type of school, college or university will lead people to say, if not immediately at least in future years, “It was the right thing to do.”


Alice Brown was the president of the Appalachian College Association for 25 years. Currently she is preparing to do a study on colleges that “almost closed” to determine what saved them from closing.


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