When its trustees abruptly shut down Mount Ida College, a small, private college just outside Boston, they unleashed a debacle that resulted in a torrent of criticism and considerable finger pointing. Rejecting a merger or acquisition (depending on the characterization) with Lasell College, the trustees opted to sell the campus to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, whose leadership saw the location in the middle of Boston’s high technology belt as an opportunity. UMass Amherst also assumed all of Mount Ida’s debt.
According to UMass Amherst officials, the acquisition permitted them to find a location that would assist their students who held internships with Boston area companies, among other benefits. Mount Ida’s students (and their parents) were caught off guard and speculated openly and angrily about where and even how to continue their education. Transferring to the UMass Dartmouth campus – about 50 miles away – made little sense to students who chose the bucolic, suburban Mount Ida campus for its fit, programs, and location. At their last Commencement, students successfully banned the trustees and president from attending the ceremony.
UMass System Criticized for Favoring Flagship Over Other Campuses
The backlash increased as UMass Boston weighed in on the closure. Many at the Boston campus saw the acquisition as an infringement by UMass Amherst on their territory. More significantly, they faulted the UMass system for failing to advocate more directly for the UMass Boston campus as aggressively as for the Amherst flagship.
Local newspaper columnists openly criticized the UMass administration for a lack of transparency and for failing to listen to UMass Boston faculty and staff on this and a wide range of other issues, including the collapse of a recent search for a chancellor for the Boston campus.
State Inquiry May Result in Greater Regulation of Private Colleges
As the navel gazing begins, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has opened an inquiry into Mount Ida’s closure, suggesting that additional regulations may be needed on private higher education to prevent these kinds of messes from occurring again.
Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts (AICUM), has argued that Mount Ida’s failures were specific to that institution and should not be extrapolated to produce more regulation for the other private colleges and universities in the state.
What a mess – on several levels.
Let’s set aside the finger pointing and the effort to condense a slew of bubbling frustrations and emotions into a crisis that shapes bad public policy. Is there anything that can be done to right the ship?
Core Issue is a Failure of Trustee Leadership
There is, beginning with the understanding that Mr. Doherty is correct when he argues that Mount Ida is one incident and not a more damaging trend. The failure at the core of the controversy seems most clearly to be a failure by Mount Ida’s trustees to lead.
Mount Ida’s trustees did not exercise appropriate, conservative fiscal oversight of the institution. Further, they permitted the college’s financial mishaps to drive the timing and the transparency that led to the closing and resulted in the public implosion and outcry.
College’s Closure Also Points to Accreditation Failure
Second, the accrediting agencies should have known more about the condition of the institution.
When accreditation works well, it’s always a better alternative to state and federal oversight.
The fact is that we need better predictive, analytical tools by which to measure financial health across peers – even if only confidentially for internal institutional use – to determine in consort with accrediting agencies the true financial picture. Knowing earlier will better prevent future debacles like Mount Ida.
New Approaches Needed to Prevent Closures of More Colleges
Third, we need new products and approaches to assist colleges to help ease the inevitable. It is likely that colleges and universities will be forced to cooperate more to improve efficiency and create economies of scale. This is especially likely among small- and mid-sized private colleges and universities.
It is apparent that there will be an uptick in mergers, acquisitions, and occasionally, closures across America. Higher education needs an orderly process and a clear pathway to cause minimum disruption for students.
State governments can help by working to develop new programs like catastrophic insurance that will address how to handle closures, including the disposition of assets, laid off employees searching for work, and displaced students seeking to complete their degrees.
This is especially true if colleges have a reasonable financial stress test against which to measure the need for additional insurance.
Fourth, when public universities play a role, we need a better understanding of regulatory authority. For issues that cross campus lines within a system, the central administrative offices must have more authority to say yes – and no – over how debt shapes opportunities and challenges across the system.
Beware of One-Size-Fits-All Regulations for Colleges & Universities
Finally, beware of state regulators applying a uniform standard developed from a self-inflicted crisis. Government operates on an annual appropriations cycle in most places. Elections further shape how long-term strategy – if any – gets made.
The right kind of regulatory assistance – like catastrophic insurance – makes sense to explore. Intruding deeper into the management of colleges and universities – especially private ones – is unnecessarily bureaucratic.
Let’s hope that we learn the lessons of Mount Ida. It would be a shame to see a sad moment become a harbinger of worse things to come.
Here we go again.
Late last month, the board of trustees fired Suffolk University’s president, Margaret McKenna, for cause. She is the fifth president in five years to depart the school.
The six-month saga had more thrills, spills, and missteps than the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and has become something of a spectator sport in Boston. Ms. McKenna, a civil rights lawyer, foundation head, and former university president, is much respected and widely known throughout American higher education. The Board hired an independent investigator and found breaches in her employment agreement and fiduciary responsibility that justified the termination, according to an email from the board.
Ms. McKenna released her own statement saying that she was given three reasons for her termination. The Board complained that she had inadequately communicated with the board about university accreditation officials, improperly provided information to the accreditors, and participated in a meeting with the Boston Globe’s editorial board when the first effort to oust her occurred in February.
The Board released its email to a largely empty campus and terminated Ms. McKenna well before the start of the new academic year. It appointed the provost as the interim president and named a trustee to head the search committee for a new president.
The Boston Globe fired back in a blistering editorial opening with “well, excuse us.” In a fairly balanced opinion, the Globe reported on the achievements of Ms. McKenna and the trustees. Yet the Globe concluded: “But now that the board has fired her, it owns the consequences, and must ensure that the university gets the fully empowered, long-term leader that an institution so important to Boston’s future needs.”
Let’s be clear about the principal issue facing Suffolk University. It’s no longer about shutting down the friendly fire nor is it about contributing further to the ceaseless gossip in the growing “she said/they said” debacle. Indeed, both sides need to get past what happened quickly and reach an accommodation immediately. If all parties love Suffolk University – as they profess they do – then the University community must move forward to understand the root cause of the mess they have created.
The point is that it is pointless to litigate Suffolk’s crisis in the court of public opinion. What is essential, however, is that the shared system of governance at Suffolk – or what is left of it – must begin to function again.
The actions by the University’s board of trustees indicate at the moment that the board does not understand that it is the problem. The board’s actions have been vindictive, exceedingly public, secretive, lacking transparency, and hopelessly insular. Its recent actions are like watching the captain on the Titanic rearrange the deck chairs moments before the ship collides with the iceberg. Anyone could see it coming.
Board of Trustees Has Lost its Credibility
Let’s state the obvious – the board has completely lost its credibility. It is divided, badly factionalized, and hopelessly out of touch with how American higher education works. The terms of the February agreement keeping Ms. McKenna in place for almost 18 months effectively set up her to fail by not crafting a corresponding climate to ensure her authority, and therefore, her success.
To fix Suffolk University, the board must begin by acknowledging its own mistakes. It cannot correct from within by appointing trustees, no matter how well regarded, to begin a new executive search. To regain credibility, the Suffolk Board must also reach out in full transparency to faculty and remaining senior staff – the three legs of shared governance in higher education – to describe a transparent and believable search process around which the Suffolk University community can rally.
It must also conduct a nationwide search that does not presume that local candidates best suit the needs of a national university. These conversations must go well beyond the boardrooms and legal offices populating Boston’s skyscrapers where much of the mischief began. For the moment, Suffolk’s trustees will need to borrow against the credibility of respected national voices to have any hope of attracting a deep pool of qualified candidates.
Perhaps the greatest mistake that Suffolk’s trustees can make in the coming months is to fail to understand that American higher education is watching. They will face difficult, painful angry conversations with faculty, students, alumni, donors, and other key stakeholders. It is likely a given that donor support – especially among alumni and parents — will take a hit.
Damaged Reputation, Loss in National Standing
But what should worry trustees the most is Suffolk’s loss in national standing due to the damage that they have inflicted on its reputation. American colleges and universities take decades to burnish their academic standing among their peers. It usually takes as long for the standing to decline as inattention, board overreach, or weak administrations – or some combination of all three – extinguish the reputational flame.
But Suffolk’s trustees have managed to diminish the standing of the institution that they are obligated to protect with a parochial swiftness that is almost breathtaking in its arrogance and insularity.
In these kinds of crises, you can fix almost anything. Sometimes you can hide in plain sight, wait it out, and confuse the issue. But what you cannot do is fix a broken reputation.
Suffolk University is a good place. It deserves better.
American higher education’s operational model is based on outmoded — and some (myself included) would argue, unsustainable — revenue and expense assumptions.
In a “Futurist” piece in NACUBO’s Business Officer magazine (July/August 2016), I argue that institutions must look inward to develop a budget format that creates a sustainable financial model appropriate to changing circumstances on college and university campuses.
To achieve financial viability, each institution will have to manage change by developing new financial models after evaluation its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Many institutions will succeed; some will not. …The biggest variable is the experience and innovative capacity of the leadership.
Specifically, it will be critical to match changing financial practices with modernized, streamlined and better informed governance — beginning with how trustees see their role in shared governance.
Click HERE or on the image below to read and/or download the article.
Click HERE to read the article and the entire issue on the Business Officer site.