Carlos Santiago, the Massachusetts higher education commissioner, found out about the closure of Mount Ida College when a reporter approached him at an event last spring and asked about it.
“That’s the first I had any sense of what was potentially transpiring,” Santiago told the Higher Education Committee on Monday, speaking in support of a bill Governor Charlie Baker offered that would impose new notice requirements and oversight around the closures of colleges and universities.
Santiago said the bill “attempts to address shortcomings in the current regulatory structure” and to move the state board from a reactive approach to a proactive one.
In written testimony, Santiago said the state was “blindsided” when Mount Ida’s board and administration announced in April 2018 that the small liberal arts college in Newton would close. His staff was faced with “the daunting task of facilitating the transition work” on short notice, while students with weeks remaining in the semester “were left in the dark and alone to figure out how to complete their degrees at other institutions.”
Baker’s bill (S 2183) would require any college or university in Massachusetts to notify the Board of Higher Education if it is facing financial challenges that could jeopardize its ability to serve its current and admitted students, and to submit a closure contingency plan including provisions for notifying students and staff and arrangements for students to complete their studies.
As other small colleges face shifting demographics and tight finances — Newbury College in Brookline graduated its final class over the weekend, and Hampshire College in Amherst admitted a class of 15 students for the fall as it seeks to restructure to remain sustainable — and state officials weigh how to best manage future closings, the specter of Mount Ida looms.
“The financial challenges faced by Mount Ida were not unique, but the circumstances and decisions made were,” said Laura DeVeau, who was Mount Ida’s vice president for student affairs. “I know for a fact that the phrase, quote, ‘We aren’t going to be the next Mount Ida,’ end quote, has been uttered on college campuses across New England and campus leaders are making efforts to not only prevent such actions, but to lead with integrity.”
In his opening remarks, Rep. Jeffrey Roy, the committee’s House chair, called college closures an “unfortunate issue” that lawmakers had been hearing a lot about lately.
“Clearly while there may be other college closures in the state, the way things were handled by Mount Ida College is not something we want to see repeated,” the Franklin Democrat said.
Santiago said 18 colleges and universities in Massachusetts have closed, merged or expressed intent to close over the last five years.
Education Secretary James Peyser said the state should reconsider the role of the Board of Higher Education and provide “reasonable” consumer protections as colleges and universities grapple with the “persistent pinch of austerity” and demographic trends that translate to fewer students.
“The ground is shifting beneath our feet,” Peyser told the committee. “Clearly not all institutions are struggling. Indeed, most are thriving, but we know that some colleges will be significantly impacted by this changing environment, and any school closing, especially one that is sudden and unexpected, increases market uncertainty and reduces confidence in the sector as a whole.”
Peyser said Baker’s bill aims to safeguard confidentiality and ensure that notice of financial problems is provided “not too soon, but not too late.”
“If an institution is at risk of imminent closure, it is not fair to wait until every possible turnaround option is fully explored before informing students and staff of the hard realities,” he said. “This is what happened at Mount Ida. Neither is it fair to prematurely sound a public warning bell, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that can mortally damage a college or university.”
Rep. Stephan Hay, a Fitchburg Democrat who serves on the committee, told Peyser and Santiago he understands the difficulty the board faces in timing around disclosures.
“I do want to make clear, at least from my perspective, that if it comes down to protecting students or the institution and their board of trustees, board of directors, I hope we side with the students every single time,” he said.
Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said his group is “not opposed to adopting new regulations in response to Mount Ida” but must do so in a “responsible and focused manner.”
He said AICUM members are working with Peyser and Santiago to identify weaknesses in the current process around college closings and “develop appropriate targeted solutions.”
“Our nonprofit colleges are simply too important to the state’s innovation economy to risk the unintended consequences that will result from a rushed process,” Doherty said.
In addition to the legislation, the Board of Higher Education is working to strengthen its college closure regulations. Santiago said he expects draft regulations to be presented to the board at a June 18 meeting, with a public comment period to follow.
At an April 30 forum on college closures hosted by The Boston Foundation, Roy said he was “delighted” policymakers were engaging in a conversation about how to improve the college closure process. He noted that of the 18 closings in the past five years, “you really only heard about one of them,” and said that dynamic indicates “there are some pieces in place that are working well.”
“We want to give the tools to the board and the commissioner to help this particular issue, but we also want to engage the colleges and the universities, the accrediting body, in this conversation,” Roy said then.
This report was originally published by State House News Service.