Howard to spend $785M on new construction, renovations

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Howard University announced last week that it will funnel $785 million into new construction and renovations over the next four years, a record-breaking investment in capital projects for the historically Black university.

The slate of new construction includes a complex for the university’s STEM programs and an academic building that will house the Chadwick Boseman School of Fine Arts, as well as the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. An existing building will be renovated to house the school of education and a chartered middle school—a plan that has some historic significance, said Wayne Frederick, president of Howard. Black teachers in Washington, D.C., were trained in that building during segregation.  

The university will also put up a brand-new health sciences complex that will include the medical school and the dental school, the school of nursing, and other health programs. It will be attached to a new hospital, which will cost an additional $615 million, Frederick said.

“This is a watershed moment in the history of our institution,” Frederick said in a statement. “Because of the tremendously enhanced financial posture we have worked so hard to achieve, the state of the University has never been stronger.”

Howard’s landmark investment is noteworthy for any college or university, said Pete Zuraw, vice president of market strategy for Gordian, a facility and construction data company. Save for some of the country’s wealthiest institutions, most universities of Howard’s size—the institution enrolls about 7,800 undergraduates—cannot afford to make such investments in construction. Such an investment is even rarer among HBCUs, many of which cannot afford to repair existing facilities, let alone put up new buildings, Zuraw said.

Frederick said the university plans to break ground on the first project later this year and that he hopes all new construction will be finished by 2026.

To fund the projects, Howard recently issued a bond for $300 million, Frederick said. The university will also receive $200 million through the HBCU Capital Financing Program, a federal initiative that aims to provide HBCUs with funding for the repair, renovation and construction of campus facilities. Another $145 million will come from earnings on leased properties, and the university just launched a fundraising effort to raise the remaining $140 million—a goal that Frederick anticipates the university will surpass.

The new investment plans notably do not include money for repairs to student housing. Student protesters harshly criticized the Howard administration last fall for substandard housing, occupying the Blackburn Student Center for a month and making demands to university leaders—including that they clean up the mold discovered in some campus residences.

But housing renovations are not as pressing as other infrastructure needs, Frederick said. Howard’s student housing infrastructure is relatively new—90 percent of student residence halls are five years old or younger, he said.

“We do believe that those buildings are still in very good condition,” he said. “We do have, in our campus master plan, the intention to bring more rooms to the campus.”

HBCU presidents and other higher education officials have for years called for greater infrastructure funding for their institutions, and lawmakers are starting to listen: the Department of Education rolled out the HBCU Capital Financing program. Tennessee governor Bill Lee included $318 million in his budget for capital projects at Tennessee State University—the beginnings of reparations for chronic underfunding by the state. Former Virginia governor Ralph Northam sought $277 million for operational costs and construction at HBCUs last year. A number of HBCUs have also received significant philanthropic support from MacKenzie Scott and other wealthy philanthropists, which some institutions have earmarked for construction projects and deferred maintenance.

But the money that HBCUs require to address their deferred maintenance and fund new construction dwarfs the investments they’ve seen in recent years, said David Sheppard, chief legal officer at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

A 2018 study from the Government Accountability Office found that 46 percent of the buildings at HBCUs need to be repaired or replaced. A separate study by TMCF discovered that, on average, HBCUs need about $81 million each to address deferred maintenance issues, Sheppard said. For new construction, the institutions needed an average of $120 million each. And those are likely low estimates, according to Sheppard.

“The reality is that the vast, vast majority of our institutions are not as well positioned as Howard to make that kind of necessary investment in their campuses,” Sheppard said. “They want to be there, believe me. I’m sure that they also look forward to the day when they can issue a press release that says they’re making that kind of infrastructure investment on their respective campuses … but I’m afraid that is not the story that most of our institutions have the luxury of telling at this point.”

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Howard University will build two new academic buildings, renovate an existing building and put up a new medical complex in the next four years.
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Talladega College names Greg Vincent its next president

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Talladega College on Wednesday named Gregory Vincent, who in 2018 stepped down as president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges after an anonymous tip accused him of plagiarism, to be its next president. Vincent will take up the helm of the private, historically Black college in Alabama on July 1.

Vincent, who currently works as a professor of educational policy at the University of Kentucky, resigned as president of Hobart and William Smith after he was accused of plagiarizing sections of his dissertation. Vincent left prior to an investigation into the matter in order to “avoid any further stress to the campus community,” he said in a statement in 2018.

He subsequently made several changes to the literature review of his dissertation and received a stamp of approval from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where he completed his Ph.D.

“I resolved the issue with the University of Pennsylvania to the satisfaction of the faculty,” Vincent said. “There were some errors and changes to citation style—that was what the issue really was. I was asked to change one citation for another, and the faculty determined that my work made an original contribution and allowed me to go forward.”

Vincent completed his dissertation in 2004, 13 years before he became president at Hobart and William Smith. The Talladega College Board of Trustees was aware throughout the search process of the plagiarism and Vincent’s effort to correct it, a college spokesperson said. The board viewed his current employment at the University of Kentucky as a good sign that he is a qualified academic and noted that the “errors were in the literature section of his dissertation and not the substance of his research,” the spokesperson said.

“The Search Committee was impressed with Dr. Vincent’s proven record of exceptional leadership and the measurable results he achieved in public service, business, and academia, as well as community and civic organizations,” Rica Lewis-Payton, trustee and chair of the search committee, said in a statement. “Dr. Vincent is uniquely qualified to meet the current challenges facing Talladega College and best position the institution to be among the best institutions of higher learning in the country.”

It’s typically the job of the third-party search firm to ensure that the board has all the relevant information to make a decision, said Rod McDavis, managing principal at AGB Search, and so it’s unlikely that Vincent’s departure from Hobart and William Smith was glossed over during the search process.

“Issues like this are always of concern to a search committee and to a board of trustees. What they ask the search firms to do is to do the due diligence, do the background check, do the investigation and bring back the facts,” McDavis said. “I’m confident that the Talladega College Board of Trustees had all the information they needed.”

College and university officials are held to ever higher standards as they ascend the ranks of leadership, said Sarah Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and expert on academic integrity. An attribution error or missed citation can be a problem for presidents, even if a faculty member or graduate student would be forgiven for the same mistake.

“In the past 10 years or so, we’ve come to see plagiarism quite differently when it’s committed by public figures—especially by university officials, politicians and others,” Eaton said. “We’re more likely to forgive a freshman for accidental plagiarism than we might be a senior or a graduate student. We expect graduate students might know better, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they still need writing support and support with understanding the expectations of academic integrity.”

Vincent said he’s excited to join Talladega this summer and eager to move the college forward. He believes his many years as a faculty member will earn him credibility among the Talladega faculty.

“I have done an excellent job. I teach Ph.D. students, serve on dissertation committees—I do all the things faculty do,” he said. “I believe they see me as one of them—as a fellow faculty member who has been a faculty member for well over 20 years.”

The fact that Vincent owned up to the mistake and corrected it is commendable, Eaton said. Vincent could use his experience as a good example for students.

“The fact that he made restitution—I think it’s significant and symbolic because it shows that he cared enough to go back and right the wrongs that had been committed, whether they were intentional or unintentional,” she said. “It shows that students can make a mistake and it doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. A mistake doesn’t have to follow them for the rest of their life.”

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Nevada system chancellor plans to resign Friday

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Melody Rose intends to resign as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education on Friday after less than two years in the role.

The system Board of Regents will hold a special meeting Friday to consider a separation agreement that Rose has already signed. The agreement, which would terminate her four-year contract after only 19 months, stipulates that Rose will receive a $610,000 lump-sum severance payment and that she has up to one week to revoke the agreement after it is approved. She will continue to receive health benefits through the month of April and will forfeit any remaining vacation pay, housing allowance and other benefits.

It’s unclear exactly what pushed, or pulled, Rose out of her position. She and members of board leadership did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment Tuesday, and a system spokesperson declined to comment. But her likely departure comes six months after she submitted a harassment complaint to the system general counsel. In the complaint, she alleged that Cathy McAdoo, chair of the board, and Patrick Carter, vice chair, engaged in a pattern of abusive behaviors, The Nevada Independent reported. Rose claimed that McAdoo and Carter discriminated against her because she was a woman and harassed her because of a difference in political beliefs.

“Upon my arrival I immediately heard stories about NSHE’s persistent disregard for female employees,” Rose wrote in the complaint. “System Administration colleagues, presidents, reporters and community members warned me about a pervasive sexist culture and wanted both to alert me to this ‘Old Boys Club’ environment and to ask for my assistance is [sic] changing it.”

Rose detailed several incidents in which she felt that board leadership tried to undermine her. She, McAdoo and Carter often clashed over COVID-19 protocols. In one instance, McAdoo allegedly changed her position on a systemwide mask mandate during a board meeting, telling Rose that the system had “no place” in dictating COVID-19 policies—even though she’d already said she would consider such a mandate. Regarding COVID-19, Rose said in her complaint that McAdoo was “wildly inconsistent, indecisive, [and] attempting to shift blame for inaction to me and my team, at times calling me obstructionist.”

The chancellor also accused McAdoo and Carter of withholding information from her and routinely undermining her professional integrity, the Independent reported.

McAdoo and Carter did not publicly comment on the investigation at the time, instead releasing a joint statement to say that the board “takes all complaints seriously, and is committed to having a thorough investigation conducted.”

Third-party investigators with the firm Kamer Zucker Abbott ultimately rejected the complaint in February after finding insufficient evidence of gender discrimination.

Nevada would not be the first institution that Rose has left prematurely. She resigned her position as chancellor of the former Oregon University System after 18 months to take a job as president of Marylhurst University. At the time, the Oregon system was undergoing a period of governance reform, which gave each large four-year campus its own governing board and also created boards for the technical and regional institutions. As a result, the systemwide chancellorship role was dissolved.

Four years after Rose became president of Marylhurst, the institution permanently closed. The small private college in Portland, Ore.—which had been an early player in online education for working adults—had suffered a decade of enrollment declines and increased competition from other institutions in the online market before closing in 2018. As the institution wound down operations, faculty and staff members put some of the blame on Rose, who they said didn’t understand the institution before trying to change it.

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Hannibal-LaGrange must raise $2.2M to stay out of debt

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Less than a month ago, Hannibal-LaGrange University was facing a financial crisis that was “too big for humanistic responses,” according to its president, Rodney Harrison. But over the last few weeks, university officials have established a challenging—but possible—path forward.

The small Baptist university in northeastern Missouri has faced declining enrollment for years. For a college that relies almost entirely on tuition to fund its operating expenses, even small changes to student numbers can have devastating effects. This year, the university counted 780 total students, down from 810 last year, Harrison said. Ten years ago, the university enrolled more than 1,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought additional financial stress to the struggling institution. Many higher education leaders expected the pandemic to be a death knell for small colleges with “their fingernails on the edge of the cliff,” said Tim Fuller, the founder of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions, a consulting firm for Christian colleges. But the wave of college closures that experts expected never came to pass, likely because relief funding from the federal government buoyed those institutions in the short term.

Some institutions saw the stimulus funding “as a welcome relief to basically keep the lights on for a period of time, and they didn’t have enough margin to do anything particularly strategic,” Fuller said.

Harrison admits that the relief funding, though much appreciated, may have masked Hannibal-LaGrange’s financial reality. In truth, the university had failed for years to modify its business model to account for the falling enrollment.

“We’ve said we know we could have done better—we’ve not been wise stewards,” Harrison said.

Now Harrison has a plan. He’s implementing strict austerity measures while also embarking on an ambitious fundraising campaign.

Presently the university sits on $690,000 of debt and needs to raise $2.2 million to open debt-free in the fall. University officials have determined they must raise at least $150,000 each week to meet their goal by the time the current fiscal year ends in June. During the first two weeks of the fundraising efforts, they brought in $88,000 and $92,000, respectively, but this week they are on track to exceed their $150,000 benchmark, Harrison said.

“Today I had a phone call from a church. It’s not a big church, but they are giving a very big gift because they said they would never want to see a student not be able to go to HLU,” Harrison said.

Harrison was appointed in early March as a transitional president, tasked with charting a path forward for the university while the Board of Trustees identifies a successor to former president Anthony W. Allen, who retired in January. Harrison is also president of the Baptist Homes & Healthcare Ministries and is effectively “on loan” to the university, he said.

In addition to the fundraising effort, the university has implemented strict austerity measures to curb its expenses through the spring term. All employees were moved to a four-day workweek, resulting in a 20 percent total cut to payroll. The university discontinued its 403(b) retirement contributions for the duration of the austerity period. A few employees took voluntary furloughs, and others took additional pay cuts. Harrison himself is completely unpaid.

Going public with financial troubles is a gamble, Fuller said.

“There’s that delicate balancing act when you say, ‘We need to raise X amount of dollars in order to stay open,’” Fuller said. “On the one hand, alumni and others—in this case, Missouri Baptist Church—may rise to your defense to do something. But at the same time, prospective students may go, ‘Well, why would I go there if it’s a possibility that they might close?’”

Harrison is well aware of that risk. But he believes the university’s situation and recovery could be a selling point.

“One of the reasons to come here is because—if you’re a Christian, faith-based person—you want to be where you’re seeing God’s work. You want to see us living out those values of integrity, those values of forgiveness and transparency,” Harrison said. “That is what’s happening right now.”

Pat Taylor, the former president of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., expects that Hannibal-LaGrange will meet its goals in the short term, but he isn’t as certain that the university will be able to develop a sustainable business model quickly enough.

“You cannot spend more money than you bring in—I’ve always joked that the only entity that can do that consistently over a period of time is the federal government,” Taylor said. “You cannot outstrip your resources, and sometimes that’s a lot easier said than done.”

Fuller hopes that other Christian colleges take steps to refresh their student outreach and drive up their value to students before they find themselves in Hannibal-LaGrange’s position.

“I find sometimes people are too eager to focus on price, and I wish more and more campuses would invest time and energy into figuring out why they’re worth choosing and telling that story with more enthusiasm,” Fuller said. “It’s tough to do that when you get into a situation like what Hannibal-LaGrange is in, but for places that are not at that point yet, my wish would be that they would spend as much or more time on that.”

Despite the current challenges, Harrison and other university officials feel confident that they will be able to keep the university open for years to come.

“We are truly seeing an outpouring of support from our community, and from our constituency and the churches,” Harrison said. “I feel very optimistic that the best days are still ahead for Hannibal-LaGrange.”

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Rodney Harrison was appointed to help Hannibal-LaGrange chart a path forward. He is unpaid.
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Calvin spins off research center to avoid firing gay worker

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Calvin University has long prohibited its employees from pursuing same-sex relationships, but Nicole Sweda didn’t think officials at the evangelical university ever enforced the policy.

Now she knows they do.

Until recently, Sweda worked at the Center for Social Research, a hub for social science surveys and analysis that operates under Calvin. When university officials learned that she’d recently married her girlfriend, Annica, they called her into a meeting.

“They opened in prayer, and then they basically asked me two questions: if I had married Annica in the fall of 2021, to which I said ‘Yes,’ and had we been living together since May of 2020, to which I also said ‘Yes,’” Sweda said. “Then they told me that I was in violation of the staff handbook, so I could no longer be employed by Calvin. I asked if I was fired, and they said, ‘Well, we’re not really sure yet.’”

Calvin, a private college in Grand Rapids, Mich., considers non-heterosexual sexual relationships to be sexual misconduct, a common belief among evangelical institutions. While a growing number of students support LGBTQ+ relationships, board members’ attitudes have not changed as quickly, experts say. As a result, it will likely be decades before many evangelical colleges overhaul their policies on non-heterosexual relationships.

The Calvin officials didn’t fire Sweda on the spot. Instead, they decided to part ways with the Center for Social Research, effectively allowing Sweda to keep her job without violating university policies, she said. 

In February, the center announced plans to split from Calvin by the end of April. The divorce will be budget neutral and the two institutions will still collaborate, despite becoming separate legal entities, according to the announcement.

Matthew Kucinski, a spokesperson for the university, said that university policies prohibit officials from discussing personnel matters, and he did not comment on what happened to Sweda. He did not reference a personnel decision as the catalyst for the split, though Sweda said that the university hadn’t planned on spinning off the center until her meeting with university officials.

“Decisions like these often happen in a complex context of both immediate, even emergent, issues, longer-term pressures, and future opportunities,” Kucinski said in an email. “And the decision to spinout CSR was both mutual and consistent with previously identified pressures and future opportunities for the center to thrive as an independent entity. While CSR was an integral part of the university for a very long time, we trust that the CSR mission, organization, and community will flourish in new ways as it enjoys some strategic business advantages of independence from the institution, including access to capital, possible co-location with partner organizations, agility, and the workforce diversity they believe necessary for their entrepreneurial community engagement and partnerships.”

News of the institutions’ split was abrupt, which made students and faculty members suspicious about the motivations behind the decision, said Harm Venhuizen, editor in chief of Calvin Chimes, the university’s student newspaper. Venhuizen and other student journalists conducted an investigation that led them to Sweda. Their subsequent reporting on the chain of events that led to Calvin’s split with the CSR prompted Sweda to resign so she could speak out.

“The entire story was going to come out either way, and I felt very strongly that I wanted to be involved in how it was told,” Sweda said. “I quit my job at the Center for Social Research a couple weeks ago so that I could talk without any repercussions.”

Calvin claims to have no issue with LGBTQ+ students and employees—as long as they don’t pursue non-heterosexual relationships. The university website states that the institution treats LGBTQ+ students “with respect, justice, grace and understanding in the Spirit of Christ.” The university is home to a sexuality and gender awareness group and counseling services for LGBTQ+ students.

But those affirmations ring hollow for queer students and employees, Sweda said.

“They really do try to recruit queer students to come there under the guise of being an accepting place for you, and I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I want it to be a more accepting place, but I don’t think that that’s going to happen. I really hope out of this situation that Calvin is more honest and more up-front about these things.”

The staff handbook states that “Though it is the university’s policy to assure equal opportunity in its hiring, personnel practices and admissions without regard to marital status or sexual orientation, sexual relations outside of marriage are proscribed.” The university, like the Christian Reformed Church it is affiliated with, defines marriage as “a covenantal union between a man and a woman."

Calvin is part of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, whose members have all enacted similar policies against LGBTQ+ sexual relationships.

“Some institutions will fall on a spectrum of positions but all are expected to align around three basic commitments of Biblical Truth, Christian Formation and Gospel Witness,” a spokesperson for the CCCU wrote in an email. “Calvin University is a committed Christian University in the Reformed tradition. As such it has policies for employees that require marriage only between a man and a woman. This is not a new standard and the university has the responsibility to live within and adhere to its stated mission and policies.”

A group of alumni has started a petition demanding that the university change its discriminatory policies. Sweda set up a fundraiser for LGBTQ+ students who need financial assistance to transfer out of Calvin, seek counseling, find gender-affirming housing and more.

Student opinions on LGBTQ+ issues are split, according to Venhuizen.

“You’ve got students who believe-same sex marriages are really wrong or an active sin and completely agree with the [Christian Reformed Church] stance,” Venhuizen said. “And then you have a strong contingent of affirming students and students who are LGBTQ+ and are in same-sex relationships who fall on exactly the other side. It’s definitely a complicated environment with lots of different views on the issue.”

Title IX laws prohibit most institutions from disciplining employees who engage in same-sex relationships. But Calvin has a religious exemption that it can exercise against the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, said Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which is fighting such exemptions in court.

“Title IX currently has a religious exemption that courts and the Department of Education have interpreted very, very broadly, such that if you’re a religious educational institution and you don’t like part of Title IX, you don’t have to follow it,” Southwick said.

Such exemptions are often used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and employees, Southwick said. In the past, colleges and universities have also used them to prevent women from attending certain institutions or enrolling in specific disciplines, to punish them for terminating a pregnancy, to bar access to contraception, and to enforce strict gender norms.

Southwick believes that the split between Calvin and the Center for Social Research is just the beginning of the university’s larger reckoning with its outdated LGBTQ+ policies. Administrators and board members will likely face additional pressures until they are eventually forced, legally or otherwise, to change the rules.

“I see this as a very good sign for equality for LGBTQ+ students and employees at conservative religious institutions, because this is a sign of a failed system starting to break,” he said. “It is a crack.”

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Bloomfield partners with Montclair State for financial help

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Montclair State University, a public, four-year institution in New Jersey, announced Wednesday it will extend financial support to nearby Bloomfield College until the two institutions can work out a more formal merger or acquisition deal.

Bloomfield has sought financial help since October, when President Marcheta Evans announced that without an institutional partner or philanthropic support, the college would likely close. At the time, Evans’s frankness surprised some higher education officials. Mergers and acquisitions—and many other financial arrangements—between institutions are typically hammered out behind closed doors. But Bloomfield has been transparent from day one, and that has likely paid off, experts say.

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy also included a $5 million line item for the partnership in his budget proposal, which, if the Legislature approves it, would support Bloomfield while it works out the details with Montclair State.

The proposed one-time state funding “seems to me to suggest there’s political support and the willingness to provide financial resources to Bloomfield,” said John MacIntosh, managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners (and an occasional opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed).

The financial agreement between Montclair State and Bloomfield will essentially serve as a line of credit, said Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State. Bloomfield can draw on that credit to support its operations as necessary.

“We are very heartened by the fact that the state of New Jersey is likely … to put $5 million towards this project. And we think that reduces the likelihood of us having to make a loan,” Koppell said. “But it’s possible.”

The two institutions will begin meeting over the next few months to develop a path forward, and they hope to finalize their plans before this fall, according to Koppell.

Bloomfield, a private, predominantly Black institution about seven miles south of Montclair State, has experienced declining enrollment for years. During the 2019–20 academic year, the college enrolled 1,598 undergraduates, compared to 1,896 during the 2016–17 academic year and 2,018 during the 2010–11 academic year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The college was also hit particularly hard by the pandemic, Evans said.

“We were really anticipating an increase in enrollment in the fall of 2020, and in March is when [the pandemic] completely flipped the script,” she said.

Many Bloomfield students come from low-income households and chose not to pursue higher education during the initial waves of the pandemic.

“Our students just couldn’t afford to come to school,” Evans said. “The median family income for my students is a little over $32,000—so when your dollars are scarce, you’re going to say, ‘OK, you can’t go to school right now.’ They go to work to try to help support the family. That was what happened with a lot of our students.”

The call for financial help last fall led to a boost in enrollment in the spring, Evans said, despite concerns that it would make students wary to commit to the college. Bloomfield is also predicting a small enrollment bump next fall, so it’s possible the college won’t need to lean on Montclair State for financial help. But in the event it does, “we’re ready to jump in as needed,” Koppell said. “That’s the whole point of this.”

More than 30 institutions reached out to the college to help, and ultimately Bloomfield officials pursued a partnership with Montclair State.

“Bloomfield College is the only four-year [predominantly Black institution] and [Hispanic-serving institution] in the state of New Jersey,” Evans said. “We don’t have any HBCUs. So we’ve had so much support throughout the state saying that ‘We cannot let this institution fail.’”

In MacIntosh’s view, Evans’s candor worked well for the college.

“Ethically, but also perhaps pragmatically, being transparent is the right answer,” MacIntosh said, noting that if Bloomfield hid its situation, Montclair State might not have engaged with the college.

Montclair State has been watching its enrollment grow for more than a decade. Last fall, the university welcomed its largest-ever first-year class, and it’s on track to do the same this fall. The university is in a strong financial position, and supporting Bloomfield helps fulfill Montclair State’s mission, Koppell said.

“Being a public university is not just about getting some money from the state. Public universities are about embracing your public purpose and your public mission,” he said. “Even though Bloomfield is private, we think its mission is critical to the state of New Jersey—serving students who are not well served.”

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Montclair State is in a strong financial position, allowing it to support its New Jersey neighbor.
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Colleges seek accreditation outside their region

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Five New York colleges and universities are looking to the New England Commission of Higher Education for accreditation, and if it is granted, they could become some of the first institutions to receive the stamp of approval from an accrediting agency outside their region.

Rockefeller University, Gerstner Sloan-Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Richard Gilder Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History need to find a new accreditor soon, because their former accreditor, the New York State Department of Education, is leaving the business. All four institutions lie outside NECHE’s traditional accreditation region.

But NECHE was nearby, proactive and felt like the right fit, said Alexander Gann, dean of Cold Spring Harbor Lab’s school of biological sciences.

“They were the most straightforward,” Gann said of NECHE. “​​They actually came and visited so that we could spend the day talking to them and they could really get to understand what our institution is and how it operates.”

The fifth New York school, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is seeking oversight by NECHE because it feels a strong affinity with the other institutions in its accreditation zone.

Accreditation is essential for colleges and universities, because without it, their students cannot access federal financial aid. Barring that access, institutions often see their enrollment languish and they struggle to stay solvent.

Only recently have regional accreditors even been able to consider institutions outside their predetermined list of states. In 2020, the Trump administration reversed a rule that gave regional accreditors a monopoly over their predefined area, effectively removing the distinction between regional and national accreditors and allowing the regional agencies to compete with each other. The change was met with opposition from the regional agencies and optimism from the national accreditors, which have for years been viewed as second-tier to the regional agencies.

“We were not particularly in favor of this change. This change was not driven by us; it was driven by the administration at the time—Trump and [former Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos,” said Larry Schall, president of NECHE. “I think we were the fourth of the six [regional accreditors] to make the decision to open up” to institutions outside the region.

Few, if any, institutions have jumped from one regional accreditor to another since the rules changed, Schall said. The small migration to NECHE is likely the tip of the iceberg for accreditation changes to come. A bill currently sits on Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s desk that would require public institutions in the state to switch accreditors at the end of each cycle, which typically lasts five to 10 years. If the bill is signed and implemented, all Florida institutions will be seeking a new accrediting agency within the next decade.

But NECHE will not likely be a contender, Schall said.

“We have no interest in having someone join us for a moment,” he said. “We would not have interest in pursuing any of those Florida publics that are being forced to make these moves.”

While administrators at Hobart and William Smith Colleges are happy with the current relationship with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the typical accreditor for New York State, they note that the college has a prior relationship with NECHE and would fit in better with the New England agency’s institutions.

“The types of schools that are a higher proportion of the NECHE population—which is also a smaller set of schools—are more similar to us, and so it seemed like a logical move to align with them instead,” said Joyce Jacobsen, president of Hobart and William Smith.

Under a new process that NECHE created for accredited institutions looking to switch, Hobart and William Smith is seeking a five-year accreditation term with the agency. After that, the college will go through a more intensive accreditation-renewal process.

“For institutions that were already accredited, it doesn’t make sense to treat them as if they were a brand-new institution having never been accredited,” Schall said. “Our process for brand-new institutions takes five to 10 years.”

Despite now being in competition with other regional accreditors across the country, NECHE will not alter its standards, Schall said.

When the new rules were first implemented, there was some concern that institutions “in trouble with their current accreditor will go shopping for another, and it would result in the lowering of standards,” Schall said. “Our commission was very clear that we would not be interested in anybody that had any issue with their current accreditor.”

Hobart and William Smith and Cold Spring Harbor Labs still have a ways to go before becoming formally accredited by NECHE, but the processes are well under way. Cold Spring Harbor Labs has a site visit planned for the spring, and Hobart and William Smith is awaiting a September vote during which the agency will decide whether or not to accept the college.

“We’ll see what happens in the fall,” Jacobsen said. “We feel good about our work with [Middle States] and our work with NECHE, and they’re both strong accreditors, and we appreciate what they do."

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Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York is one of the institutions seeking accreditation from NECHE.
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Planned wage changes put institutions and employees at odds

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A plan by the Department of Labor to increase the salary threshold for overtime-exempt workers has higher education associations worried about the effect it could have on college budgets.

The department plans to update overtime regulations to “ensure that middle class jobs pay middle class wages, extending important overtime pay protections to millions of workers and raising their pay,” according to a 2021 statement. That means raising the salary minimums for workers who are exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The forthcoming proposal is creating tension in higher education. While more than a dozen higher education professional associations have expressed concerns about the budget impact, some faculty and staff members are frustrated that the associations are not advocating more strongly for wage increases for college and university employees who are overworked, burned out and leaving the field.

“Food insecurity and housing insecurity are issues that higher education professionals face—especially entry-level professionals in student affairs,” said Brittany Williams, an assistant professor of higher education at St. Cloud State University. “And so to read that they would not support a rule that would put more money in the pockets of those practitioners and support them with having healthier work-life balance felt a little off-tone.”

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, alongside 14 other higher education associations, co-signed a letter to the Department of Labor last month, asking the department to talk with higher education officials before raising the salary threshold to “ensure application of the white-collar exemptions in a manner that protects employees and workplace fairness, while also ensuring the exemptions function as intended.”

The associations—including the Association of American Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities—expressed unease about another hike to the minimum salary for overtime-exempt employees. The most recent increase, from $23,660 to $35,568, took effect in January 2020. Colleges and universities will need time to come up with the funding for compensation changes and for managers to implement them, and a threshold bump that’s too big could result in budget cuts, leading to job losses, according to the letter.

“Hourly employment and associated employer obligations to track employees [sic] work time may not be consistent with certain remote work and independent control over schedules,” the associations wrote. “As a result, changes to the minimum salary threshold or other [executive, administrative and professional] requirements that will result in large scale reclassification of workers from exempt to nonexempt may make remote work and certain flexibility with schedules extremely cumbersome, if not impossible, to manage.”

Steven Bloom, assistant vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education, said the associations don’t oppose raising the threshold but request that any changes be phased in and that the minimum for exempt workers be set at a reasonable level.

The Department of Labor will hold several listening sessions this spring about the proposed rule making, including one for higher education, Bloom said.

“If you’re going to have increased costs, you have to be able to budget for it,” Bloom said. “So we recommended to the Department of Labor that they provide a runway for us so that we could implement it in a way that wasn’t terribly disruptive. I don’t think it’s fair to say that we oppose an increase in the threshold. We didn’t, and we won’t this time.”

While the associations haven’t flat out opposed a threshold increase, they have argued against proposed minimums in the past. In 2015 and 2016, the Obama administration issued a rule to increase the salary minimum for overtime-exempt workers to $47,476—doubling the existing minimum at the time. Though the rule never took effect—a judge issued an injunction on its implementation, and the Trump administration later withdrew it—CUPA-HR and other associations took issue with the new minimum. According to CUPA-HR survey data, the new rule would have cost institutions $115 million to implement in the first year, and survey respondents said that “such an expense could trigger tuition hikes and reductions in workforce and services.”

Some higher education professionals were disheartened by the associations’ letter. While budgetary concerns are important, the letter sent the wrong message to employees, said Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

“Many of the people who work in higher education have been under incredible pressures and have been putting in amazing amounts of work and have felt—even prior to the pandemic—that they were undervalued and undercompensated,” McClure said. “As we’re having conversations about many people re-evaluating their future in the field, I think it comes across as perhaps a little bit tone-deaf and a perfect illustration of why folks are leaving.”

The associations represent 4,300 two- and four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, which employ approximately 3.9 million workers, the letter noted. However, McClure said, the associations most often represent the leadership at those institutions rather than rank-and-file faculty and staff members.

Williams, of St. Cloud State, said that higher education institutions should take fair wages and stable employment more seriously, and instead of presenting a dichotomy between plentiful jobs and high wages, institutions should look to other parts of the budget to fund employee salaries.

She said she was thinking of "the salaries in athletics. I’m thinking of salaries of upper administration and leaders who happen to make much more than the folks that they serve with and the folks who are serving under them to make the work that they’re doing possible.” 

In a column for Forbes, education policy expert Edward Conway argued that opposing efforts to raise wages for higher education workers will hurt morale and students.

“Senior administrators and the associations that represent them are about to make things worse for their front-line employees by lobbying against a Biden administration proposal to increase wage minimums for college staff who don’t qualify for overtime pay,” Conway wrote. “If successful, students who are struggling to figure out their financial aid and determine what classes they need to graduate will suffer.”

There’s still plenty of time before the Department of Labor will release details on its proposal to raise the salary threshold, and conversations about the idea will likely continue until then.

“We can hear the train off in the distance, but it’s still quite a ways away,” Bloom said. “We will just have to wait and see.”

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The Department of Labor plans to update wage minimums for overtime-exempt employees.
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Student interest in law school grew during the pandemic

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Student interest in legal education has ballooned in recent years, driven by the pandemic, the movement for racial justice and a hot job market, experts say.

“All the events that we’ve had—the pandemic, the Jan. 6 Capitol insurgence, the Black Lives Matter movement, the murder of George Floyd—everything has put a spotlight on why law matters,” said Kellye Testy, president and chief executive officer of the Law School Admission Council. “It’s galvanized in young people a desire to pursue justice and to find a way to contribute and to make a difference positively in the world. Law is always seen as a really good pathway for that.”

Flush with students, the U.S. legal education sector is undergoing some of its biggest changes in years. Law schools are amending their curricula to include more work experience and consideration for student well-being. LSAC, which administers the Law School Admission Test, is developing an undergraduate curriculum that could one day replace the test for some students. And a private university in Florida is planning to open its own law school—the first new one in eight years.

Law schools received especially high numbers of applications in 2021, and volumes remain above historic levels this year. As of early March, the number of law school applicants for the upcoming academic year was down 9.5 percent over last year, but it was still 8.3 percent higher than in 2020, according to data from LSAC.

Application numbers at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., follow this trend, according to Mimi Huang, assistant dean of admissions there.

“We had a huge increase during the fall 2021 cycle, which was the most recent incoming class cycle … We had almost a 30 percent increase in applications in one year,” Huang said. “This year we’re seeing a little bit of a shrinking of that increase.”

Emily Komie, a first-year law student at Lewis & Clark, took the LSAT when the pandemic began. She hopes to use her law degree to work on environmental justice.

“The prospect of going to law school was in the back of my mind when I was in college and studying environmental science and filmmaking,” Komie said. “When the pandemic hit, I had time off from work and decided that was a good time to take the LSAT.”

Nationally, this year’s first-year law class is the most diverse ever, Testy said. More students of color are taking the LSAT, and those who do tend to earn higher scores—perhaps in part because the admission council has focused on making free test prep available for all students. The council has partnered with Khan Academy to offer LSAT preparatory courses at no cost and also offers free prep through Law Hub, its own online product.

Law schools have received 15.8 percent more applicants from Black and African American students for the upcoming academic year than they did in 2020. The number of Hispanic and Latino applicants has also increased, by 16.2 percent over 2020.

In an effort to further expand access to legal education, LSAC announced Wednesday it is working on a pilot program to create a prelaw curriculum for undergraduates that would effectively replace the LSAT for some students. The courses, to be introduced on selected campuses, would teach students the skills they would typically demonstrate on the LSAT, according to Kaitlynn Griffith, vice president for product development and business intelligence at LSAC.

“It’s really important to us that law students can come from any undergraduate major; we don’t want them to have to focus on a specific area of study,” Griffith said. “The goal is to design the coursework and measurement tools to be complementary to the undergraduate work that the students are doing and not an additional burden for them.”

Cornell College, Northeastern University and the University of Maryland–Eastern Shore will pilot the Legal Education Program, which will initially include two courses. Jonathan Brand, president of Cornell, is especially excited about the academic and social support that the curriculum will provide to prelaw students.

“Law school can be very challenging—it’s like learning a whole new language. Preparing students more formally while they’re undergraduates for law school will really help them succeed in law school more quickly,” Brand said.

Given all the stressors, many law schools have begun taking student wellness more seriously in recent years, Testy noted.

“Legal education is a high-pressure education, and so schools have, over time, gotten better at keeping the rigor of the academics but pairing it with a real appreciation for student needs and student development,” Testy said.

The quality of law education is also improving, Testy said. More institutions have begun pairing legal education with work experience—such as in legal clinics—allowing students to practice what they’re learning in class while assisting people who need legal help. Matt Heldt, a second-year law student at Lewis & Clark, participated in a clinic for small businesses this past fall, providing business owners with legal services at no cost.

“I had two clients that were local businesses, and that was a really rewarding experience,” Heldt said. “I was able to—with a mask on—physically go into the clinic and be with my peers and my supervisor who worked there.”

In addition to recent social and political events, a strong job market is driving students to pursue law. A recent report from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity showed that of all advanced degrees, those in law and medicine offered the most lucrative returns. More than nine in 10 law programs offer graduates positive median returns, and a quarter yield a return on investment of more than $1 million.

“Law firms and companies that have big internal legal departments—they can’t find enough lawyers right now,” Testy said.

Jacksonville Gets a Law School

Jacksonville University in Florida plans to open up a new law school while demand is high. The university will welcome its first class next fall, aiming to enroll about 30 students, according to Margaret Dee, senior vice president for economic development and external engagement at Jacksonville. The university was chartered to teach law when it was founded by a judge in 1930 but “never got around to that” until now, Dee joked.

The city’s legal establishment welcomes the addition.

“We found that not only did the market want us here in Jacksonville, the legal profession has been incredibly receptive,” Dee said. “As one of the largest cities in the country that didn’t have a law school, we were really missing an important element of what I would call the legal ecosystem that cities rely upon to serve the community.”

As of last week, the new law school had received 126 applications for the few dozen openings. Eventually, it plans to enroll up to 400 students.

“We will always ultimately be on the smaller side of law schools,” Dee said. “We would be looking for class sizes of 100 to 125.”

Jacksonville University’s new law school is the first to open in the U.S. in nearly a decade. After the Great Recession of 2008, the legal education market shrank, and several law schools shut their doors due to declining enrollment. Concordia University School of Law in Boise, Idaho, closed in June 2020. Valparaiso Law School shuttered in 2018. Whittier Law School and Indiana Tech Law School both closed in 2017.

“After the Great Recession, there was a correction in terms of the volume of people applying and being admitted to law school, and so there was a downward trend” in enrollment, Testy said.

Dee and other university officials spoke with leaders at some of the law schools that shut down before deciding to open the new law school.

“You have to have a revenue plan that doesn’t so heavily rely on your tuition revenue to sustain itself—you have to be the right size,” Dee said. “And you have to aim for high quality and high outcomes.”

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Colleges take advantage of real estate bubble

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A real estate bubble is enveloping many parts of the United States—and colleges are cashing in before it pops. Gwynedd Mercy University in Pennsylvania recently sold a 154-acre property for more than twice what it paid for the land three years ago. Last week, Southwestern University in Texas sold for tens of millions two properties that it has held since the 1930s.

Gwynedd Mercy first bought the plot, located about 22 miles north of Philadelphia, from Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company in 2018 for $12.1 million. The property—which includes a 157,000-square-foot building—doubled the campus footprint, and at the time university officials planned to turn the existing building into an “innovative teaching and learning facility,” said Deanne H. D’Emilio, president of Gwynedd Mercy.

But after completing a facilities planning process and watching the real estate market boom in Gwynedd Valley, university officials changed course.

“We started to look at what space we have available here on the campus and the cost for renovating the property,” D’Emilio said. “And then, with the pandemic, the real estate market in this region really took off, and there was a lot of interest in the property.”

The university sold the property to an affiliate of Beacon Capital Partners, a Boston-based real estate firm, for $31.5 million. The profit nearly doubled the university’s endowment, which was valued at $41 million before the land sale. D’Emilio said that university officials are still determining exactly how to use the profits.

Southwestern was in a similar boat—the private university started receiving offers for two parcels of land, totaling 493 acres, which it was gifted in the 1930s for $1. At the time, the land was worth $56,000.

“Time is your friend,” said Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Southwestern. “There is a real estate bubble happening here. We had been leasing the land for grazing rights, and so with the huge increase in land values here, we thought that this was an ideal time to put those parcels up for sale.”

The properties are not close to the Southwestern campus, which sits in Georgetown, Tex., and the university never planned to develop the land.

“The land was valuable for cattle, and so we just held on to it,” Trombley said. “With Tesla coming and Samsung and all these other businesses coming, there’s just a boom. So we thought—since this is land that we’ve never used and would never use—it seemed appropriate to let go of that land portfolio and put the proceeds into the endowment.”

Southwestern earned $28 million on the sale and put $25 million into its endowment. The university will use the remaining $3 million for strategic projects, including financial aid and salary equity adjustments.

The pandemic has prompted many institutions to re-evaluate their footprints, said Jeff Hubbard, senior managing director of real estate sales at A&G Real Estate Partners.

“Educational institutions are looking at their real estate as a place to potentially create some liquidity,” Hubbard said. “It will support the implementation of whatever their long-term plans are.”

American Jewish University plans to sell “all or part” of its 35-acre campus in Los Angeles and use the funds to increase its community programs and academic offerings, which are increasingly digital. Lesley University in Boston is selling 10 historic Cambridge properties to help fund capital improvements across its three campuses.

Some colleges are selling noncore properties—like the parcels that Gwynedd Mercy and Southwestern sold—reducing their occupancy costs and potentially selling lease-back properties, he said.

D’Emilio said that when university officials re-evaluated Gwynedd Mercy’s footprint, they decided that the university’s need for additional space hadn’t changed. This past fall, the university enrolled 2,304 students, about on par with enrollment numbers over the past decade.

“We have to take into account the fact that some folks are working more remotely than we were before, but we haven’t made any decision to have a smaller footprint,” she said. “We still have plans to invest in strategic options that will grow our innovative teaching and learning options—basically what we had planned to do prior to when we purchased the land.”

Demand for space in Gwynedd Valley, where Gwynedd Mercy is located, is on the rise, said Brian Regli, a real estate professional and member of the university’s Board of Trustees. The biomedical and life sciences industries are expanding around Philadelphia, and companies are looking to buy additional lab space. At the same time, logistics companies like Amazon are also looking to build out distribution and transportation centers.

“There are only certain amounts of land in certain locations that are zoned for that particular use,” Regli said. “It so happened that our property had that use attached to it, and therefore it became a real interest to some of the players who are trying to look at that particular type of market.”

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