Meehan: Many more college closures coming

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

LESSONS FROM THE CONTROVERSIAL acquisition of Mount Ida College by the University of Massachusetts could be used to shape similar deals in the future, according to UMass President Marty Meehan, who told state senators on Wednesday they should expect to see more colleges close.

“There are going to be other closures, and there ought to be some kind of standards set up for when private universities close,” Meehan told lawmakers. “This is going to happen over and over and over again. It’s around the corner.”

Meehan and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy testified before the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which is looking into the closure of Mount Ida, the purchase of its 70-acre campus by UMass Amherst, and the associated impacts on students.

The two schools announced the deal on April 6, and Meehan told reporters he expected negotiations to wrap up either Wednesday or Thursday, but discussion of the transaction will continue after it is finalized.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said Tuesday it would investigate Mount Ida’s senior administrators and its board of trustees to determine whether they violated their fiduciary duties as a charity in addressing the college’s financial condition and in carrying out its educational mission. Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, who chairs the Senate oversight committee, also said the panel may hold a second hearing and intends afterwards to issue a series of findings.

Meehan said declining birth rates and migration trends mean that the number of college-aged children in the northeast will “begin to rapidly decline” in 2026 after a years-long downswing, but he predicted UMass campuses will not feel the sting at the same rate as small private colleges. He said UMass is “prepared to work with the Legislature, the Department of Higher Education and others on preparing for the inevitable disruption coming to higher education.”

Sen. James Welch of West Springfield asked Meehan if UMass would “be a player” in future transactions as other colleges close.

“I think as a public research university committed to service and to students, that we should be part of the equation, but we are going to do an assessment to see how this one went, how we possibly could communicate more effectively,” Meehan said.

Carmin Reiss, who chairs Mount Ida’s board of trustees, said the school would have needed to file for bankruptcy Wednesday if not for the deal with UMass, which came after merger talks with nearby Lasell College fell through.

Reiss said Mount Ida had been struggling financially for years and faced “a perfect storm of failures” in all the options pursued to keep it open.

“It should have survived. It was valuable,” she said. “It served an important purpose. We were committed to this institution and we did not want it to close.”

Senators pressed Reiss on how much information was made available to students on the school’s precarious finances and the risk of closure.

“Madam Trustee, as a member of the trustees, I hope that you know that you are as much at fault as the leadership of Mount Ida,” Sen. Dean Tran told her.

Reiss said many small colleges have difficult financial situations and that Mount Ida filed required financial disclosures.

“Did we go out and announce, ‘Hello, interested students, we’re teetering on the brink of insolvency, but come in’? No, we didn’t do that, because we believe we had a plan that was going to mean the college would survive and continue into the future,” she said.

Reiss, who testified alongside a Mount Ida in-house lawyer and outside counsel, was the only official from the school to speak at the hearing. O’Connor Ives said President Barry Brown “refused” to attend, citing medical appointments, but indicated that Chief Financial Officer Jason Potts had committed to being there.

O’Connor Ives said the committee found out Wednesday that Potts would not appear, a development she called “very, very disappointing.” The Newburyport Democrat said the committee will deliberate on whether their next step is to issue subpoenas.

Tran, a Fitchburg Republican, said he would support issuing subpoenas if O’Connor Ives chooses to pursue that option.

Mount Ida provost Ronald Akie submitted written testimony detailing the transfer agreements and partnerships the school entered into with other institutions.

About 92 percent of the 1,164 continuing students from Mount Ida have options in place to resume their studies elsewhere, including those intending to transfer and those whose programs have been adopted by other schools, according to Akie’s testimony.

According to UMass, 608 Mount Ida students had applied to a UMass campus as of May 8. Of those, 397 were accepted, 208 acceptances were pending, and two were referred by UMass to another institution.

Mount Ida students at the hearing described efforts to figure out their own next steps.

Jacob Godfrey, who was accepted into the class of 2022 to study funeral home management, said Mount Ida was the only school he applied to because it was one of few in the country to offer a four-year degree his chosen field of study and its location allowed him to continue working at a funeral home in Methuen, a job he needs to pay for college.

He asked the committee to help create a plan of action for students whose programs aren’t offered at nearby schools.

Colleen Moroney, a dental hygiene student, said she felt “betrayed, lost and heartbroken” when she heard of the closure. “I’m not really sure who to trust, what to trust,” she said.

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