Editorial: Mount Ida College closing a wake-up call

  • Holbrook Hall at Mount Ida College in Newton. The University of Massachusetts Amherst acquired the campus after college last month abruptly announced its closing. FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/29/2018 8:11:28 PM

The abrupt closing of Mount Ida College and purchase of its Newton campus by the University of Massachusetts Amherst demonstrate the need for better state oversight of financially ailing schools.

We support efforts by the state Senate and Attorney General Maura Healey to put those safeguards in place.

The state budget approved by the Senate on Friday includes an amendment that would require colleges and universities to notify the state Board of Higher Education before a potential closing, merger or acquisition. Before that provision is adopted, however, it must survive budget negotiations with the House and be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

In separate action, Healey on Thursday asked the Legislature and Baker to approve money for a new office of financial oversight at the state Department of Higher Education. It would oversee private schools designated by the U.S. Department of Education as “at risk” and require them before closing to have plans in place for their students to complete degrees at other institutions.

Financially strapped Mount Ida’s decision to close without warning “confirms for me that if we don’t take proactive steps, the chaos, the distress experienced by Mount Ida students, staff and faculty is just going to happen again,” Healey told The Boston Globe. “We’ve got to act now, because there will be more Mount Idas.”

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the board that oversees the Department of Higher Education, told the Globe it supports oversight such as that proposed by Healey. “We welcome a recognition that our state is better off when the Department of Higher Education has the authority and resources and then the responsibility to do a good job preventing more of this,” he said.

Mount Ida, which was founded in 1899, announced April 6 that it would close in May and that UMass Amherst would acquire its campus for $75 million. Mount Ida in 2016 began negotiating a possible merger with Lasell College in Newton, but those talks collapsed in March.

All 1,500 Mount Ida students were guaranteed admission to UMass Dartmouth. However, not all of the programs that were particularly popular at Mount Ida — notably funeral home management, dental hygiene and veterinary technology — are available at UMass Dartmouth.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has said that the Mount Ida campus will be used to house up to 820 undergraduate students who want to pursue internships in the greater Boston area. There also will be programs hosted on the Mount Ida campus, which is about 10 miles from Boston, for alumni who live and work in eastern Massachusetts.

Subbaswamy wrote in an April letter to legislators that the purchase of the campus in Newton supports the university’s goal of expanding career opportunities for students in the science, engineering, business, health care and technology fields. “Over 70 percent of in-state UMass Amherst undergraduates come from the Greater Boston area, and most return to Greater Boston to work after graduation,” he wrote.

We agree that there are benefits for UMass Amherst students to be closer to training opportunities in eastern Massachusetts. And while most of the blame for the lack of public disclosure about the fate of Mount Ida rests with officials from that college, the university should have allowed time for review of its plan before the acquisition was announced.

Mount Ida students who testified May 16 during a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight said they had “absolutely no indication” of the school’s financial troubles. John Driscoll, who just completed his sophomore year, said, “No students were considered in this deal. Not Mount Ida students, not UMass students.”

Driscoll added, “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.”

The sale to UMass Amherst was approved earlier this month by Healey because she determined it was a better alternative than Mount Ida being forced to file for bankruptcy. Still, she was highly critical: “We are extremely disappointed in the way Mount Ida handled this closure. Hundreds of students have had their education and future plans put in jeopardy, and many dedicated faculty and staff have lost their jobs.”

We hope that staff officials take seriously their responsibility to ensure that the Mount Ida fiasco is not repeated.

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