Monday, February 25, 2019

Dying with Dignity: College of New Rochelle will probably close

Over the course of my life,  I have witnessed the death of several friends and relatives; and some of them did not die a good death.

My father expired miserably in a VA hospital because his government doctors did not diagnose his treatable cancer in time to save his life. He had survived the Bataan Death March and three years in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II, but that sacrifice did not entitle him to decent medical care in his final years.

I witnessed the death of a relative who died in a ramshackle house he inherited from his mother--a house that smelled of urine and dirt. I was the only person with him when he closed his eyes for the last time.

America's small liberal arts colleges are dying too--brought down by a host of maladies for which there is no cure. And like too many people, many of these colleges are closing their doors without dignity--a fate I don't think they deserve.

William Latimer, president of the College of New Rochelle, sent a memo to the campus community last week, announcing that the college will probably close this summer.  The college was doomed two years ago when campus officials revealed that the college had a huge tax liability because it had failed to pay federal payroll taxes--a $20 million tax bill. Judith Huntington, New Rochelle's president at the time, resigned; and a senior financial officer precipitously retired.

Soon after that revelation, the college received an anonymous $5 million gift, which might have been a payout from the college auditor's malpractice insurance (just a guess), but the infusion was not enough to restore the College of New Rochelle to financial health.

That was two years ago. The college tried to lay off some faculty members to stem the flow of red ink, but the professors sued; and a judge ruled that the college had fired the professors in violation of the faculty handbook. But of course, the professors won a Pyrrhic victory. A college with no money can't pay its faculty, no matter what the faculty handbook says.

New Rochelle's fate is somewhat similar to the fate of Mount Ida College, a tiny little institution located in a Boston suburb. Mount Ida sold out to the University of Massachusetts amid accusations that it had misled professors and students about its imminent demise.  Maura Healy, the Massachusetts Attorney General, expressing the self-righteous indignation so typical of New England bureaucrats, launched an investigation. But to what purpose? Mount Ida still closed.

Other small colleges are cutting academic programs in an effort to stay alive--particularly programs in the liberal arts.  McDaniel College announced a few days ago that it is eliminating five majors and three minors--all in the liberal arts. Students responded as they always do to bad news--by lecturing their elders.

"As students at a liberal arts college," McDaniel  students said in a priggish statement,  "we believe firmly in the first principles of this institution, which advocate for the importance of a liberal arts education."

In ringing tones of high-mindedness, the students sermonized about the importance of the liberal arts. "As you all know, having the opportunity to take courses across many disciplines creates students who are flexible, knowledgeable and able to think critically in the face of all that the world has to throw our way." Music and German, two programs that were cut, "are both living, breathing, culturally relevant languages," the students pointed out. As for other programs being jettisoned,they too are "integral to the creation of well-informed citizens and academics."

Blah, blah, blah. The students who penned that blather ought to take some responsibility for the decisions they made to enroll at McDaniel--just another wobbly and obscure liberal arts college. And what do they think a McDaniel degree in German is worth on the job market? Not enough to pay off their student loans, I wager.

Students can express their rage about programs being slashed and colleges closing. Attorney generals can launch investigations. And professors can sue to try to save their jobs. But the colleges that are closing or downsizing are not generating enough revenue to keep their doors open. That is the stark reality.

Let's let these little institutions die with dignity--because they are dying anyway.

College of New Rochelle (photo credit Inside Higher Ed)


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