The Survival of Small Private Colleges


The Survival of Small Private Colleges: Myth and Mismanagement

Without question, small private colleges, especially those in the Northeast and Midwest, are presently enduring declining populations of high school graduates (as prospective students) and suffering from fewer middle-class families financially capable of sending their children to college—so great is income inequality in the United States.

Because these demographic trends and widening national income disparities are not within their direct control, small private non-profit institutions of higher learning need remain nimble and adaptive in response to those realities to survive until better times—without sacrificing their core humanistic missions.

To prosper in such a competitive environment, small private colleges and universities must retain highly effective campus presidents who will streamline upper administration, value shared governance, honor the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, preserve freedom of expression inside and outside of the classroom, and safeguard the overall fiscal health of their institutions.

Many presidents adhere to these principles, and on average only five private four-year non-profit colleges and universities have closed during each of the last ten years. Those institutions shutting their doors most often are religiously-affiliated private colleges with less than 1,000 students. The vast majority of private nonprofit colleges “don’t really seem to be in too deep trouble.”

Exceptions to these trends in college closures are small private institutions boarded up after being mismanaged by bad administrators. In this respect, the conclusions of a 2013 Vanderbilt University study for risk indicators for small private colleges and universities are most revealing:

“If [such] institutions are to survive in the long-term, they must be mindful of both their short-term and long-term needs. While capital projects may seem attractive to boost enrollments, the financial commitment associated with expansion is long-term and can have dire consequences if they take up too large a percent of total resources. Similarly, undergoing capital expansion is unwise if it is done at the expense of existing facilities.

The literature abounds with reports of failed institutions at which expenses exceeded total revenues.”

The continuance of small non-profit private colleges of a certain size therefore depends upon “a clear strategy, streamlined operations, a strong financial foundation, trust and accountability, and a willingness to invest only in innovations that truly create value for the institution.”

In contrast to that model of good stewardship, which is above all a fiduciary responsibility, we might consider the case of Hartwick College—a small four-year institution in upstate New York feeling the pinch of the times, and currently suffering under the dreadful corporate-style leadership of President Margaret Drugovich.

This summer, while most faculty members were absent from campus (pursuing research interests around the globe), Drugovich abruptly eliminated eighteen non-faculty employees—ostensibly to cover a $1.68 million shortfall in the university’s 2015 budget resulting from declining enrollments.

Drugovich also eradicated several vacant positions and informed five employees “that their positions were being reduced to 9, 10 or 11 months of service.” All of the employees facing elimination were “notified the day the layoffs were announced.” Many of those terminated by Drugovich, or whose positions suffered diminution, were longtime employees dedicating their professional lives to the college community.

As word of the firings broke in Oneonta, a rural burg of just 14,000 residents, their repercussions reverberated beyond the walls of the college. In protest, the president of the Hartwick chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) managed to secure—in early August—the signatures of 46 of 111 full-time faculty members on a letter of censure against Drugovich.

Instead of responding to faculty assertions that staff terminations were made without warning (due to sudden budget shortfalls), accepting responsibility for the failures of leadership that led to censure, and submitting her resignation, Drugovich trotted out the chair of the Hartwick College Board of Trustees—Francis Landrey—who defended the June layoffs as “deliberate, well-considered, comprehensive,” and anything but hasty!

This incongruence between rhetoric and reality is noteworthy, as is the abandonment of the long-standing American tradition of shared governance by this corporatized Board of Trustees, which automatically lent their “unconditional support” to Drugovich following her censure.

Most vile, however, are the tacit threats of retaliation leveled against the faculty by Hartwick’s provost, Michael G. Tannenbaum, following faculty censure. He recently wrote to twelve academic departments apprising them of “a new review process” taking place later this year to “identify possible avenues for re-allocating (the college’s) resources.”

In comments to the local media, Tannenbaum flippantly assured faculty members that they need not fret about the possibility of their own dismissals—but, then he added, if the college determined a program does not require a particular number of professors, eliminations might become necessary!

Although many Hartwick faculty members will see through his disingenuous comments, and update their curricula vitae to enter the recovering academic job market, it is a deadly serious matter when leaders of a non-profit institution of higher learning use the guise of exigency to retaliate against tenured faculty members insisting on shared governance and administrative accountability, which is their rightful legacy (according to AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure).

In light of such thinly veiled threats against the faculty, the names of the signatories to the letter of censure of President Margaret Drugovich should be preserved, and AAUP alerted to any hint of the premeditated use of financial emergency to justify eliminating tenured and tenurable faculty positions at Hartwick College—particularly those appointments held by professors who stood up for campus democracy.

Leave a Reply