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Mount Ida chiefs skip Senate hearing

  • The Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight listens to the testimony of Mount Ida College Board of Trustees Chairwoman Carmin Reiss during a hearing on UMass Amherst’s acquisition of Mount Ida College at the Statehouse in Boston, May 16, 2018. M.J. Tidwell—

  • A sign brought to an oversight hearing on the acquisition of Mount Ida College by UMass Amherst reads "tell us the tooth #justice4MountIdastudents," alluding to a dental hygiene course of study at Mount Ida whose future is uncertain, the Statehouse in Boston, May 16, 2018. M.J. Tidwell—

  • In this April 6, 2018 photo, students walk past Holbrook Hall on the campus of Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. The state attorney general's office said Tuesday, May 15 that the sale of the college to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst can proceed because UMass paid fair market value for the smaller school, and the only alternative was the bankruptcy and closure of Mount Ida. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via AP) Craig F. Walker—AP

  • Students walk on the campus of Mount Ida College in Newton, April 6. THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA AP/FILE PHOTO



@mjtidwell781
Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOSTON — Was Mount Ida College transparent enough about its financial struggles to current and prospective students, parents and faculty? How did an expected merger with Lasell College fall through? And what were the exact nature of Mount Ida’s financial struggles that led the college to sell its campus to UMass Amherst and shutter its academic offerings?

These were some of the questions the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight delved into during an oversight hearing Wednesday at the Statehouse in Boston on UMass Amherst’s acquisition of Mount Ida College.

“No students were considered in this deal,” testified rising Mount Ida junior John Driscoll. “Not Mount Ida students, not UMass students.”

On Tuesday, the state attorney general’s office allowed the $75 million sale to proceed while castigating Mount Ida officials for the secretive way the sale was handled and the way students’ plans were upended.

Oversight committee Chairwoman Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, said the committee was disappointed that Mount Ida College President Barry Brown refused to testify at the hearing, and that the college’s vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer, Jason Potts, would not be attending the hearing either.

Brown and Potts’ absence left Carmin Reiss, chairwoman of the Mount Ida board of trustees, as the sole representative of the college to answer the committee’s detailed questions, flanked on either side by legal counsel.

Financial situation

Reiss said that when she joined Mount Ida’s board in 2014, the college was already facing a tenuous financial situation due to decades of deferred maintenance, and knew that it needed to look at merger options.

She said Brown, the president, had helped secure an $8 million donation from an anonymous donor in 2012, without which the school might have been forced to close sooner.

Since then, Reiss said, the school’s strategic plan was commonly referred to as “the turnaround plan.”

In 2016, Reiss said Mount Ida began discussing a merger with Lasell College in Newton. She said Mount Ida officials expected it to go forward with minimal interruption to students.

However, in March 2018, she said, Lasell presented a new deal that saddled the Mount Ida campus with independent debt, which she said could result in the closure of Mount Ida with no transition options for its students. A transition plan was “paramount,” she said.

“Lasell did not have the financial wherewithal to absorb Mount Ida’s financial losses,” Reiss said. “It didn’t protect the best interests of students.”

Questioned in detail about the financial decisions of the college and the alternatives explored, Reiss said that it came down to a choice between the UMass Amherst acquisition or bankruptcy under the supervision of a new trustee that would leave students with no transitional plan at all.

The board of trustees, all unpaid volunteers, were committed to the college, she said, and wanted to keep its “wonderful, wonderful community.” Asked if she thought the announcement of the deal should have been handled differently, she answered yes.

“We could have taken better care of hard feelings,” Reiss said. “We should have taken better care of our students.”

Transparency

Reiss said it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for a school to call attention to its financial troubles. She said the school had a strong strategic plan to address its money problems but faced a “perfect storm of failures,” which caused costs to rise faster than revenues and enrollment rates.

The school posted 100 percent of the required public disclosure, she said, and the numbers were there if anyone wanted to look.

But Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg, said it was “baffling” and “seemed like deception” to him that the college did not disclose its deep financial woes in order to give students a chance to make informed decisions.

“That is on the shoulders of both the board of trustees and the leadership at Mount Ida,” Tran said.

Five Mount Ida students testified at the start of the hearing, describing the importance and uniqueness of specific educational programs they planned to take at the college.

All Mount Ida students were offered blanket acceptance to UMass Dartmouth, but not all of the programs students took at Mount Ida are available there.

Questioned by the committee, all five said they had “absolutely no indication” of the college’s financial troubles when they started at the school, nor while attending it.

Bridget Horgan, an incoming freshman, spoke to the difficulties of scrambling to apply to other schools when she found out her chosen college would be closing, soon after she had finished selecting her fall classes. Jacob Godfrey, also an incoming freshman, said there are no other funeral services programs — his chosen course of study — of similar quality to Mount Ida’s in the state.

Rising juniors Jamie Lozier and Colleen Maroni said they feel “betrayed, lost and heartbroken” as they wait to hear the fate of their dental hygiene program, which may be moved to Regis College because there are no other similar programs currently at other schools in the state.

“As a student, I feel very hurt to be considered a land acquisition,” said rising junior John Driscoll. “I am disgusted, disappointed and ashamed of how this deal has been handled.”

Driscoll said moving to UMass Dartmouth will affect commuter students like himself, forcing them to leave off-campus jobs and financial stability.

“There are hundreds of students with thousands of dollars in school debt who don’t have a home for their academic future in the fall,” Driscoll said.

Michelle Cunneen, an adjunct professor with the veterinary technology program at Mount Ida, said faculty found out about the school’s closure in much the same way as the students — from Facebook posts, emails sent to other people or what Driscoll called “a highly unprofessional” schoolwide email from President Brown.

Mount Ida offers the state’s largest — and its only four-year — vet tech program, Cunneen said, which produces over 50 percent of veterinary technicians in Massachusetts. Now, that program is scheduled to be “taught out” and ended in two and a half years.

Carlos Santiago, state commissioner of Higher Education, said the number of college students is declining nationwide, and the state should prepare to see more closures, mergers, acquisitions and consolidations in the future.

Santiago said hearing the stories of impacted students at a hearing in April was “quite, quite sobering.” Going forward, he said, closures should take a significant amount of time and discussion, and colleges need to give notice as far in advance as possible to safeguard the needs of students.

“Closures will continue to occur,” Santiago said. “But we will do all that is in our power to make the Mount Ida experience the exception, not the rule.”

UMass Amherst

The testimony of UMass President Martin Meehan and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy focused on the difficulties the Amherst campus faces in providing affordable housing for internships and co-ops, which are more often offered in the greater Boston area.

Sen. Ann Gobi, D- Spencer, questioned why UMass Amherst isn’t working to expand internship and co-op opportunities out in western Massachusetts, rather than “keep shooting people east.”

She suggested options such as a STEM incubator in western Massachusetts to keep students where they chose to go to college.

“The door has closed on Mount Ida students,” Gobi said. “You are a part of closing that door.”

Subbaswamy agreed that students who come to UMass Amherst come for the Amherst experience and said there is a relatively small number of students who would travel to the greater Boston area for internships and co-ops.

But Meehan said that laying blame on UMass would be an insult to scores of people who have worked hard over the last few weeks to create the best possible transition opportunities for Mount Ida students.

“UMass Amherst is totally committed to driving economic growth in the western part of the state,” Meehan said. “The idea that UMass Amherst had anything to do with Mount Ida’s closing is unacceptable.”

O’Connor Ives said the committee intends to come together to create a set of points and findings at the conclusion of the oversight testimonies and asked Meehan if UMass will take those findings into consideration while moving forward with negotiations for the deal.

Meehan replied that UMass will take into consideration all findings that are based on fact.

“You’re the decision makers,” O’Connor Ives told Meehan and Subbaswamy, to a murmur of assent from onlookers. “But at the end of the day, the students pay the bill.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.