Pointing to the likelihood of additional college closures, Massachusetts higher education officials are looking into potential changes to rules or state laws that could help reduce the risk of sudden shutdowns similar to what’s happening to Mount Ida College in Newton.
“There’s no reason to believe Mount Ida is an anomaly,” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, noting enrollment declines within the higher education sector and campus cost structures growing faster than the rate of inflation.
The University of Massachusetts and Mount Ida College announced earlier this month that UMass Amherst is acquiring the small college’s 74 acres and Mount Ida will be closing at the end of this semester, a surprise to parents, students and faculty. MassLive first reported UMass and Mount Ida were in closed-door talks on April 4.
The proposed deal has drawn criticism from angry families and faculty members who felt blindsided by the closure. Former higher education commissioner Richard Freeland lit into the proposal, saying it would lead to the “cannibalization of enrollments at UMass Boston,” as well as other public and private colleges and universities in the area.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s education chief, Jim Peyser, and the state’s current higher education commissioner, Carlos Santiago, say they’re planning to suggest regulatory or legislative changes to better protect students attending private colleges and universities within Massachusetts. They plan to propose the immediate changes within the next 30 days.
“It’s that urgent that we get ahead of this curve because next year is coming up on us fast and if there’s more closures at risk, we have to get ahead of that,” Gabrieli told MassLive.
Similarly, a working group is expected to develop recommendations on financial reporting, transparency requirements, and “early indicators” of imminent closures. The working group will submit an initial report and recommendations to the state board of higher education in September.
“Our goal is to ensure that the board and department can play a more active role to assist and monitor private college and universities that may be at risk of imminent closure or service interruption for the benefit of the students and families,” Peyser, who voted for the Mount Ida deal as a member of the UMass board of trustees, said in a statement.
“We look forward to making recommendations to Governor Baker to achieve this purpose without being overly intrusive to private colleges,” Peyser added.
The state board of higher education has some oversight of college closures and academic programs, though real estate purchases are outside their purview.
“This whole story would have been different if they’d said in November, ‘This is our final year,'” Gabrieli said. “Somewhere earlier in the year where students could make other plans, faculty could make other plans.”
He added: “The problem they create is shared with a lot of people if they fall down so quickly like this.”
The Mount Ida/UMass deal is also facing the scrutiny of state senators at a hearing planned for Wednesday, May 16.
The hearing, set for noon at the Massachusetts State House, is open to the public.
Testimony is expected from UMass President Martin Meehan, Mount Ida President Barry Brown, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, and Commissioner Santiago, among others.
UMass officials have defended the deal, saying the move will create a satellite campus for UMass Amherst students, and access to co-ops and internship opportunities in an area that’s home to a number of technology companies.