Class Struggles, Continued

Read This From the Beginning

This is no longer just some abstract threat. More than a dozen New England colleges have closed or merged with larger institutions, and the pace is picking up. Aquinas College in Newton and Milton graduated its last students last year. Also closed: Graham Junior College in Boston; the Boston Business School, now part of Roxbury Community College; the Gordon Institute in Wakefield, which merged with Tufts; the Swain School of Design, which became part of UMass Dartmouth; Chamberlayne Junior College, the Coyne School of Technical Electricity, and the New England Institute, all of which became part of Mount Ida College; Hartford College, which was taken over by the University of Hartford; Casco Bay College in Portland, which merged with Andover College; St. Hyacinth College and Seminary in Granby; and Castle College in Windham, New Hampshire. Strapped for cash, the University of Bridgeport sold its law school to Quinnipiac College. Last year, Trinity College of Vermont and Bradford College in Haverhill shut down — Bradford because of huge debts after 197 years in operation. The Southern New England School of Law in North Dartmouth, which is losing half a million dollars a year, is in talks to merge with UMass Dartmouth.

“A year from now there will be fewer colleges in New England than there are today,” says Samels, who was called in by Bradford near the end to try to find a way out of its financial problems. “The death knell at Bradford will only be a clarion call for other institutions.”

Is Harvard or MIT imperiled? Hardly. Boston University or BC? No. But even these stalwarts of New England have been affected by increasing competition from schools outside the region. In a milestone event in 1990, the National Science Board awarded $61 million in federal funds for a magnet lab to Florida State University instead of MIT, which had expected to get the money. The board said Florida State had shown a stronger commitment to the project. “It should have been, and I think it was, a wake-up call,” says Bob Woodbury, former chancellor of the University of Maine system and director of the McCormack Institute at UMass Boston, and now the interim dean of the public policy school at the University of Southern Maine. “It certainly was to MIT.”

Yet since that time, New England's share of U.S. university research and development expenditures has continued to sink. While the region still gets more R & D money per capita than the national average — a measure of its previous success — federal R & D grants to New England universities are growing more slowly than in the nation as a whole, rising 56 percent compared to 83 percent nationwide. Industry support for R & D at New England institutions is also growing one-third more slowly than in the rest of the country. “While we were taking it for granted, other states have become more strategic and active” in competing for these grants, says Ross Gittell, a business professor at the University of New Hampshire and a consultant to the New England Economic Project.

“This nexus has been so important to New England — of intellectual capital, higher education, R & D — that New England ought to pay a lot of attention to not losing that comparative advantage,” Woodbury says. Yet state support for university research and development in New England is the smallest in the country. State governments here contribute barely 3 percent of university R & D funding, less than half of what other states commit. In fact, state appropriations for higher education in New England overall is just $179 per capita, compared with $222 nationally. “We talk a lot about being the hub of the universe intellectually,” says Knapp, the former UMass head. “But when it really comes down to the public policies necessary to support this, it's hard going.”


From a stubby hill in Needham, an iron superstructure is rising. It's the skeleton of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, the first major higher-education institution built in New England in nearly 50 years. The first 30 students arrived last month at the temporary trailers where they will work until the $200 million campus is completed. More than 660 students applied to be part of this class, making Olin one of the most selective schools in America to enter — before it has even fielded a single course.

The money for the campus comes from the wealthy F.W. Olin Foundation, which has also promised an endowment that will reach $500 million. That will allow the school to offer free tuition to students, one of several major reforms. Among the others: There are no academic departments vying over turf, and there's no faculty tenure; professors work under multiyear contracts. “If we're going to show people that they can take risks, we wanted to show that we could too,” says Richard Miller, president of the new school. Other schools of engineering in particular, and universities and colleges in general, he says, “are making progress, but the progress has been really slow.”

Slow or not, there are other signs of change. Harvard is finally diving into the Internet revolution, with a non-degree online management program for business executives in conjunction with archrival Stanford. Nearly three decades after universities in cities such as Washington formed cost-cutting collaboratives, the six colleges in Boston's Fenway section — Emmanuel, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Massachusetts College of Art, Simmons, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Wheelock — have become the first in eastern Massachusetts to share such administrative functions as purchasing, faculty training, shuttle bus services, and even the staging area for their commencements, to save money. Students can cross-register for courses among the schools, vastly increasing their choices with little additional outlay. “As we become more aware of and sensitive to the drain of students to other parts of the country, and the drain of R & D funds, the message to us is, 'Get out there and compete,'” says Simmons president Cheever.

Larger Boston-area universities are also tentatively exploring collaboration to reduce costs through the Boston Consortium for Higher Education, which was formed by Babson, Bentley, BC, BU, Brandeis, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Olin, Tufts, Wellesley, and Wheaton. First, the consortium says, it will have to create “trustful relationships across and between schools,” no small task among such fiercely independent institutions.

Not all of these shifts were entirely voluntary. Threatened with a $40 million budget shortfall because of a sudden drop in the number of freshmen 10 years ago, Northeastern cut or consolidated programs and reduced its work force by about 500 people, including five vice presidents and 62 professors. Once the nation's largest private university, Northeastern also purposely reduced its enrollment by nearly 7,000 students.

Because of Northeastern's size, similar downsizing and retrenchment was predicted at other schools. But then the number of students overall rebounded, the economy picked up, and reforms slowed. This year, when Northeastern proposed that it be allowed to fire professors after a minimum of three years of poor evaluations, the faculty senate rejected the idea, arguing that faculty could be penalized even if they did well by one measure but poorly on another — if their research productivity declined, for example, despite high marks for teaching skills. No tenured professor in Northeastern's history has been fired for poor job performance.

There has been similar resistance to change at other schools. While BU has been successful at replacing tenure with long-term contracts in its medical and dental schools, for instance, it has been embroiled in a debate over a proposal to require that faculty be in their campus offices at least four days a week after students complained they have too little access to professors and instructors. “As one high-tech executive once told me, the way higher education delivers its products and services really hasn't changed in 250 years,” says Gittell, the UNH business professor. “Other industries have changed. This is a slow industry to change.”

BU Provost Dennis Berkey downplays the office hours debate. “What we're trying to do is maintain a dialogue with our faculty about the balance between teaching and scholarship,” he says. He and others question whether New England's decline in market share is really all that serious. New scholarly research, for example, shows that while the proportion of students in New England may be down overall, its concentration of the nation's best and brightest students is increasing. And applicants keep pouring in to schools like BU.

Like many others, however, Berkey says he worries that the region is doing a poor job of persuading students and their families that the higher cost of college in New England buys a higher caliber of education. “It's important that we get the point across that families are receiving a high level of quality at these schools,” he says. Boston in particular, Samels says, “is, and should market itself as, a world-class destination college town, and it hasn't done that. It has taken its academic institutions for granted too long.”

Such resistance to change is sure to soften, says Harry Osgood, higher-education specialist for the state of Maine and the member of the higher-education board who quoted Edmund Burke. It has to, Osgood says. “The times are teasing out a willingness to recognize that things are not as they have always been, and I don't think there's a faculty member in New England right now who would deny that.”