How Administrators Navigate Sinking Colleges

By Mary Battenfeld

When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis by Mary L. Churchill and David J. Chard. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

In March 2020, as millions of college faculty and students received word that our institutions were entering lockdown, Moody’s downgraded the financial outlook for higher education from stable to negative. Economist Richard Vedder went so far as to tell Forbes readers that “the coronavirus will kill 500–1,000 colleges.” Driven by cutbacks in state funding, closure rates have especially grown at public four-year colleges and universities and community colleges. Commentators warn that the pandemic has only aggravated longer term enrollment trends; we’re going to lose an increasing number of institutions, with the pool of college applicants projected to shrink by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029. Moody’s has since put the economic state of our industry back to stable, and far fewer colleges have closed than Vedder forecast.

Nonetheless, the problem is real—as I know all too well. In 2019, the College of New Rochelle, where my daughter was a first-year student, closed and made an agreement with Mercy College to accept transfer students and retain some faculty and campus buildings. The year before, Wheelock College, where I taught for more than two decades, shut down to become part of Boston University.

It is the latter closure that former Wheelock president David J. Chard and former academic affairs vice president Mary L. Churchill consider in When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis. The book is structured around chronological narrative chapters followed by bulleted “lessons for leadership.” It reads as part memoir, part study in leadership, and part manual on “how to close a college.” The authors write in their introduction that they “want to share this story to help other college leaders navigate their own troubled seas.”

The story of that navigation begins in chapter 2, when Chard arrives at Wheelock in fall 2016, hopeful but aware that the college is in trouble. As both an author and key player who tackles problems rather than “pretend that the situation [is] going to get better,” Chard guides Wheelock and the book’s narrative. He and the board of trustees, chaired by a corporate merger expert, decide “something radical must be done.” They sign a $500,000 contract with the management consulting firm EY-Parthenon, and the course turns to closure.

By midbook, Chard, the trustees, and the recently hired Churchill are “creating courtship” (as the title of chapter 4 puts it) with potential partners and assessing their proposals. Chapter 6 begins where I and almost all other faculty members, as well as staff and students, came in: the announcement that Wheelock College and Boston University had entered into formal merger discussions. Chapters 7 and 8 detail the questions, negotiations, and planning that concluded with Wheelock’s closure on May 31, 2018, or, as Chard and Churchill say, “the final day of independence.” The book ends with the authors’ perspectives on the first year of Wheelock’s new life as the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, where Chard is currently dean and Churchill is the associate dean of strategic initiatives and community engagement.

Aimed at higher education administrators, the book’s central practical and theoretical concerns are with leadership. In a time of crisis, the authors argue, higher education requires “authentic leadership,” characterized by “self-awareness, relational transparency, high internalized moral perspectives, and balanced processing.” They also stress that good leaders understand a college’s history and context and continually ask the question, What makes sense for this institution right now?

Their experience guiding Wheelock through its closure lends authority to Chard and Churchill’s case for themselves as effective leaders. They use their story to demonstrate the potentially positive ways a higher education merger can “save an institution’s mission and honor its legacy.” They argue that closing Wheelock was a “bold” and “forward-thinking move” that allowed a dying institution to live on in a new form.

Chard and Churchill’s larger point—that higher education leaders should proactively address enrollment and financial problems before a college ends up, as Wheelock’s neighbor Mount Ida College did, in an “abrupt and messy closure”—is an important one.

But as the AAUP wrote in a 2015 letter to the president of Sweet Briar College, the “lamentable trend” of college closures also highlights the even more lamentable corporatization of higher education. One key element of corporatization is a business model of higher education leadership in which administrative fiat replaces shared governance. The authors describe EY-Parthenon, which recently published a report on excess capacity in higher education, as the “anchor in the storm,” supporting a team composed entirely of administrators and trustees. Chard and Churchill’s defense of this exclusivity—which left faculty, staff, and students out of the decision-making process—is predictable: “The fiscal responsibility for the college rested with the board of trustees.” True, but as the AAUP special report COVID-19 and Academic Governance emphasizes, fiscal and curricular areas often overlap, and universities can be all too eager to use crises as pretexts to “turbocharge the corporate model.”

When Colleges Close begins with a caveat: “This is not a typical academic book . . . it’s a personal story of how we led our college to a healthy end and how we developed as leaders along the way.” I found that statement both welcome and disingenuous. It’s good that the authors note the limits of their perspective. But their story isn’t just personal. Chard and Churchill take a point of view that represents the interests of administration. For example, their account of a January 2018 information day for students describes Boston University’s “efforts to make this a warm welcome.” Had the authors chosen to include student voices, readers would have had a fuller and truer picture. Students who attended those meetings told me that BU administrators patronized them. They described microaggressions, and they expressed anger that BU was eliminating or changing programs such as the bachelor of social work, which enrolled many students of color and focused on social justice.

The authors’ “success story” lens also distorts the position of faculty, who often appear in this account to be overwhelmed and in a “general sense of confusion.” Seemingly viewing us as distracted children, Chard and Churchill offer a leadership lesson to “repeat the information many times, in different modes.” One hears nothing in this book about faculty resistance and advocacy, which included working with BU’s unions and hiring a lawyer to get fairer severance packages for nontenured faculty and staff. They also claim that administrators “secured a great deal” for Wheelock’s tenured faculty. Admittedly, we fared better than our nontenured colleagues, who lost their jobs altogether. Still, we were forced to give up tenure and accept lower salaries and higher teaching loads than BU’s average assistant professor. None of that feels like a “great deal.”

The book admits that “losing tenure felt like a blow” to many faculty, but it frames this loss as personal, ignoring systemic issues. Four out of five Wheelock faculty were women, and nearly one in four were Black or Latinx. Had Boston University allowed Wheelock faculty to keep our tenure, BU could have increased its abysmally low number of tenured Black women faculty by nearly 50 percent. In addition, Wheelock’s tenure and promotion criteria considered service, teaching, and research equally. Bringing on faculty tenured under those values would have offered BU a chance to model a more just and inclusive system.

When Colleges Close seeks to locate the story of Wheelock’s closure in the wider “troubled seas” of higher education. It pays attention to the characteristics that made Wheelock typical of colleges at risk of shutting down. Wheelock was small and tuition-driven, with only a “modest” ($45 million in 2015) endowment. Nearly all Wheelock undergraduates received financial aid, a third were Pell Grant–eligible, and half were first-generation college students. The college’s signature academic programs were in early childhood education and social work, professions that have been attracting fewer students and do not often make for wealthy alumni donors.

Such contextualization is valuable yet limited. I would have liked to see the authors consider not only Wheelock’s troubled waters but also the ocean of privilege and inequity that helps or hurts a college’s financial health. One does not need to read the annual Forbes rankings of college finances to know that the Ivies get an A+. As Adam Harris argues in The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—and How to Set Them Right, “Higher education is organized so the institutions with the fewest minority students have the most money.” Ten percent of historically black colleges and universities are considered “financially fragile,” and that was before the pandemic.

In painting Wheelock College’s merger with Boston University as a “remarkable success story,” with administrators as brave captains leading us through a storm, the authors gloss over real crises. To understand those, read Harris’s The State Must Provide, or Sekile M. Nzinga’s Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity. For a deeply contextualized and multivocal story of an individual college’s struggles, try Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All by Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, and Vicki Legion.

And if you want to know how administrators think, read When Colleges Close. Just don’t take it as a model for righting inequalities in our higher education ship.

Mary Battenfeld is a nontenured clinical professor in Boston University’s American and New England Studies program and copresident of the recently reestablished BU AAUP chapter. Her email address is [email protected].