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Commissioner Santiago's Mount Ida Post Audit and Oversight Hearing Testimony

Carlos E. Santiago, Commissioner of Higher Education, testified before the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight on May 16, 2018, regarding the Mount Ida closure and UMass acquisition.

Dear Senator O’Connor Ives:

On behalf of the Massachusetts’ Department of Higher Education (DHE), thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony regarding the closure of Mount Ida College and the Department’s authority regarding the acquisition of property by the University of Massachusetts. These issues have important implications for the future of both public and private institutions of higher learning in the Commonwealth. I appreciate your leadership in holding this hearing.

Context

More than any other state, higher education is uniquely important in Massachusetts. We are the only state with more than half of our residents holding a bachelor’s degree, and we lead the nation in the number of jobs - 70% - requiring a post-secondary credential.  Brainpower is Massachusetts’ calling card in the global markets. It has never been more vital to the economic vitality and growth of our state’s economy. It is essential, therefore, that we do all we can to ensure that our state system of higher education, which educates the majority of residents who remain in-state to attend college, is well functioning and coordinated, so that it can produce the highly educated workforce and citizenry that Massachusetts needs.

Massachusetts, as other states, faces serious higher education challenges. First and foremost is the decline in the numbers of undergraduate students going to our institutions of higher education. While the majority of these undergraduates are going to public institutions in the Commonwealth, the enrollment decline is significant in a state that requires more, not fewer, college-going students. Secondly, if we add the projections of retirements over the next ten years, we can clearly see that the impending skilled labor force shortages will negatively impact our economic future.

Trends in Mergers & Closures

Mergers, closures, consolidations, and acquisitions have, unfortunately, been the result of some of these underlying enrollment challenges. Mount Ida College is just the most recent example. This is a national trend and there is a growing consensus that these events will continue and may accelerate. With the large number of higher education institutions in Massachusetts, it is reasonable to anticipate that we will see our fair share of closures and mergers.

Over the past five years, Massachusetts has seen 15 closures and mergers: five institutional closures, 1 four completed closures due to mergers, 2 three pending institutional closures, 3 and three pending closures due to mergers. 4  The Board of Higher Education (BHE) has statutory and regulatory authority in the case of closures, 5 and DHE has policies in place to navigate these situations and they tend to work well when the existing process is followed.

The key in these instances is proper and advance notification of a potential closure, which is usually given. Let me underscore this point: Mount Ida is the exception, not the rule. When an institution knows that it may close or merge with another institution, it is required to notify the BHE as far as possible in advance of the closure or merger and to work with the BHE through DHE staff to arrange to safeguard the needs of students to organize transfer opportunities and to ensure the preservation of student records. In one case, notification was given nearly three years prior to closure. This represents a best case scenario.

Mount Ida Closure

The most challenging closures are ones that are sudden and without notice – institutions that vote to close and either publicly announce closure or close their doors prior to any notification to or discussions with DHE.  Little advance thought is given to transition options for students, and institutional staff is abruptly terminated. Unfortunately, this is what happened in the case of Mount Ida College. Let me be clear, closure is the responsibility of the institution and its board of trustees.

But, by and large, closures, mergers and acquisitions have gone smoothly when the Department has been notified in a timely manner. The recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe by former Fitchburg State University President Robert Antonucci and Howard E. Horton 6 regarding the successful merger of the National Graduate School of Quality Management and the New England College of Business and Finance highlights two elements that are essential to successful closures, mergers, and acquisitions: (1) putting students first and (2) timely notification. The authors also cite the Wheelock College/Boston University merger and the merger of the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music as successful cases. I agree with this assessment.

The Mount Ida situation has been challenging for several reasons. First, the college’s leadership placed too much of its attention on the real estate transaction, and not enough on the cataclysmic impact that closure is having on the lives of students nearing the end of their academic year. Second, due both to the lack of advance notification and also the specialized nature of some of the degree programs offered, the ability to identify smooth transfer pathways for Mount Ida students has been difficult.  Several of the specialized programs offered by Mount Ida, including Funeral Home Administration, Veterinary Technology, Dental Hygiene, and Commercial Photography either do not have equivalents at other institutions or have equivalents at other institutions but these institutions lack capacity for additional students. DHE is working hard to establish degree maps for these programs and, if necessary, to expedite program approvals to create new programs to accommodate Mount Ida students. Typically, the “window” for new program approvals closes on April 15th of each academic year, to allow adequate time for processing and BHE consideration. We have “opened” this window until August 15th, with the hope that more institutions that are interested in accepting Mount Ida students will move forward in this process. I want to clarify that we are not “letting institutions off the hook” by extending this deadline. Rather, we are making it possible for them to submit applications. We urge institutions to move quickly in this regard. Given all that they have been through, no Mount Ida students should have to wait until mid-August to learn about options for transfer.

Next Steps for DHE

The final outcome of the Mount Ida closure is still to be determined. While more timely notification of the College’s closure would have greatly improved outcomes for all involved, I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure that student hardships are mitigated to the greatest extent possible.  Moreover, the Chair of the Board of Higher Education, Chris Gabrieli, and I will be convening a group of individuals with substantive expertise to assess the additional steps that might be taken to ensure this circumstance does not play out in the same manner again.

Given our expectation of more higher education mergers, closures, consolidations, and acquisitions in the years to come in Massachusetts, we must be able to anticipate and respond effectively to these cases, if we are to protect students. I believe the following may be necessary:

There are over a hundred of these in the Commonwealth.

In terms of the UMass Amherst acquisition of the Mount Ida campus, the scope of authority granted to the BHE over the University of Massachusetts segment is limited given the bifurcated nature of our authority in statute. In both the Community College and State University segments of Massachusetts’ public higher education system, BHE authority is much clearer. 7 The legislature does not grant the BHE the same oversight over the UMass land purchase and we also do not have authority over the manner in which UMass allocates its resources across its five campuses. Where the BHE does have clear and direct jurisdiction over UMass is in the approval of higher educational institutions’ property use, such as the establishment of a branch campus or the establishment of new degree programs. In the case of Mount Ida, the BHE has begun to work closely with UMass to determine the feasibility and desirability of establishing new degree programs to assist students impacted by the closure. The BHE is also working with other institutions across the public higher education system, including our community colleges, state universities and private institutions, on similar proposals.

With regard to property acquisitions and institutional mergers by the state universities or community colleges: all of these are subject to approval by the BHE. In fact, within the last decade, Salem State University proposed to merge with and acquire the property of the Montserrat College of Art. Upon receiving the proposal, DHE staff worked closely with administrators at both institutions to do due diligence on the merger. After further examination of the proposal, each institution decided not to move forward. Today, both Salem State and Montserrat continue to operate and serve students.

All of our public community colleges and state universities have local boards – 24 in total. Although they operate with a fair degree of autonomy, the role of the BHE is to serve as a check and balance on the decisions of these boards, as their decisions have widespread impact across our system of public higher education. In these challenging times, the more our public institutions can work together for the common good, the better off will be the citizens of the Commonwealth. Building a greater sense of “system-ness” in Massachusetts has been a focus of my tenure, especially given my experience in more centralized state systems, Wisconsin and New York.

In conclusion, the issues being discussed today by this committee are ones that will be more, not less, significant over the coming years. The ability to anticipate and respond to mergers, acquisitions, closures, and consolidations will be vitally important to mitigate the impact on students in their path toward achieving their educational goals.

Establishing clear and uniform oversight authority over the higher education system as a whole would allow for a level of coordination that would be beneficial to the Commonwealth.

Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I appreciate your leadership in the examination of the important issues brought forth by the closure of Mount Ida College and the acquisition of the property by UMass Amherst. I look forward to working closely with you to ensure that the higher education system in Massachusetts continues to serve all of our residents.


1. Sanford Brown College, Marian Court College, Le Cordon Bleu, ITT Technical Institutes, and New England Institute of Art.^
2. School of the Museum of Fine Arts, New England College of Acupuncture, Boston Conservatory, and Episcopal Divinity School.^
3. University of Phoenix, Atlantic Union College, and Mount Ida College.^
4. Andover Newton Theological Seminary, National Graduate School of Quality Management, andWheelock College.^
5. M.G.L. c. 69, §§30-31(c); 610 CMR 2.07(3)(f)(2); and 610 CMR 2.08(3)(f).^
6. “After Mount Ida, Responsible Leadership Needed In Higher Ed Mergers,” Boston Globe, May 2, 2018.^
7. For the Community College and State University segment, the BHE has the “overall responsibility for the property, real and personal, occupied or owned” by the state universities and the community colleges. M.G.L. c. 15A, § 9(m). In contrast, under M.G.L. c. 75, §1A(d) and §12, the UMass trustees have the exclusive authority to manage, keep and repair all real and personal property owned or occupied by the University.^