The recent announcement by Mount Ida College that it would be closing its doors and selling its Newton, Mass., campus to the University of Massachusetts was met with harsh criticism -- not only from Mount Ida’s students, faculty and staff members but also from the University of Massachusetts community, other institutions of higher education, politicians and the general public.
While Mount Ida’s approach to a tough decision was clearly less than ideal, their problems are not distinct, nor are they easily solvable. Given the realities for many small colleges today, and the decisions others will likely have to make in the coming months and years, it’s important to realize the myriad factors that need to be considered to avoid the kind of backlash Mount Ida is facing.
A 2016 report from Parthenon-EY predicts that nearly 800 private institutions with 1,000 or fewer enrolled students will close or merge in the next 10 to 15 years. The 18- to 22-year-old college-going population in the United States is declining, and New England is one of the first regions that will experience this demographic trend -- one not expected to change until 2033. College presidents and boards should consider these facts a call to action. The earlier an institution in financial jeopardy takes the necessary steps to facilitate a smooth transition, either through a merger or a closing, the better the outcome for its students, faculty and staff members. (Disclosure: Parthenon-EY is a sponsor of Inside Higher Ed’s upcoming event “Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies.”)
Last fall, working with Parthenon-EY and facing many of the same realities as Mount Ida and others, we made the very difficult decision to merge Wheelock College with Boston University. While financial and enrollment trends at our institution were declining, they were not yet at crisis level. Recognizing the inevitabilities earlier, though not easy, did provide us time and resources to find the best possible outcomes for our students. It also gave us the opportunity to ensure teaching positions for many of our faculty members, and it provided staff members whose jobs duplicated roles already occupied at BU many months of time and career resources to find new jobs elsewhere.
Still, it has been a difficult year for the Wheelock community. We knew that leading such a significant change would not be easy, but we also recognized that we needed to muster the courage and humility to steward our students, faculty and staff, and, ultimately, Wheelock’s mission through this transition. We have had the privilege of working with a team of talented faculty and staff members to build the new Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at BU while simultaneously developing transition plans for our community. While the necessary layoffs and ultimate transition have been extremely challenging for many of us, the work we’ve done to build a new college has been creative and generative, and it gives us hope for the future of Wheelock’s legacy.
With guidance from our board, we made the decision that we felt would best serve our community and preserve the important historical mission of our institution. We searched nationally for an institutional partner that demonstrated that it valued that mission, and we found such a partner in BU. With our partnership, we are keeping Lucy Wheelock’s name and our campus alive for future students and our community. BU has also committed to provide financial support to our students, keeping their tuition and fees at Wheelock levels throughout the transition period.
In addition, we have the privilege of working with deeply committed faculty, staff, alumni and community partners from the two institutions to create a new college of education and human development. The new college’s goal is to have a greater impact on the lives of the children and families in Boston and beyond than the BU School of Education or Wheelock College have had separately. Our hope is that in working collaboratively with Boston Public Schools, our community partners and the City of Boston, we will continue to play our part in helping to identify solutions to the education and human development challenges we now face in Massachusetts and beyond.
What did we learn in the process of merging? If you lead a vulnerable institution, search for an institutional partner when you still have enterprise value and bargaining power. Formalize your decision when you have the time and the financial assets to plan for a successful closure, one that allows for a supportive teach-out for your students and severance packages for your staff and faculty members.
Higher education leaders should make their difficult choices when those choices remain theirs to make and when they can find a partner that shares their institutional values. Hard decisions are easier to make when you know you are doing the right thing for students and preserving the long-term legacy of a beloved institution.