Cabrini University launches a public call for partnerships

Years of declining enrollment and continued financial challenges have resulted in deep cuts at Cabrini University as administrators seek long-term stability. Following the latest wave of cuts, university leaders are calling for partnerships. And while a merger isn’t their first choice, they say all options are on the table.

Deep cuts

Cabrini administrators estimate current enrollment at around 1,500 students, both undergraduate and graduate. This is a big drop from 2016, when a total of over 2,300 students were enrolled. For the tuition-dependent private university in Pennsylvania, the drop had a financial impact; Cabrini is currently running a $5-6 million shortfall in a $45 million budget.

To help shore up its finances, Cabrini cut 46 positions at the start of 2021. Another round of cuts followed last month as part of a reorganization, this time targeting top directors. Although a smaller number – university officials said eight jobs were cut in the last round – the cuts include Cabrini provost, associate provost and three deans. The university will also reduce its staff from 18 department chairs to eight.

And Cabrini will make a big structural change from three colleges to two, with the School of Education moving to the School of Arts and Sciences.

Helen Drinan, interim president of Cabrini, who has been at the university for less than six months, said administrators have tried a number of unsuccessful strategies in recent years to increase enrollment and revenue, such as emphasizing on international recruitment and online education. But nothing worked; Cabrini has been at a deficit for about the past decade, ultimately forcing university leaders to make tough choices, Drinan said.

“We continued to make investments that ultimately resulted in significant financial losses,” Drinan said. “And then, of course, the pandemic hit. And while we were fortunate, like every other college and university in the country, to receive government funds, these essentially masked continued financial losses and declining enrollment. Once the government funds were no longer available, they are there for all to see. Today, financial losses and declining enrollment have converged to create a situation that can no longer be considered fixable once one of the good ideas is successful, as we are now at a stage where none of these No ideas have taken off to fix the problem, but there are still losses, so this needs immediate attention.

The cuts – with more likely to come – should save Cabrini around $1 million. Drinan justified this decision by arguing that Cabrini is very administratively heavy, given its small size.

“If you see that overhead is just at a disproportionately high level relative to your student population, I think you need to do something about it. Not every small university needs to be like a large university in terms of the number of academic leadership positions or institutional advancement positions. Over the years we have heard a lot about what is called an administrative burden. Well, administrative overload doesn’t just happen in personnel functions, it also happens in academic functions. And that’s reflected in many of the decisions we’ve made here at Cabrini. We do not reduce student services in any way. What we’re reducing is a lot of the academic overhead that, frankly, an institution like Cabrini just can’t justify,” she said.

The cuts prompted questions from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Cabrini’s accreditor, which has asked the university for a report on its restructuring plan.

Drinan said she understands the reason for the request and noted that Cabrini is cooperating.

Beyond the cuts, Drinan and other administrators are looking for other ways to stay viable. She said while trustees have approved a financial plan to get the college past its operating losses, she is also actively seeking partnerships and is open to the idea of ​​a merger with another institution. . However, Drinan stressed that a merger is not the preferred outcome.

“Cabrini’s first choice is to find an independent path,” she said.

Meanwhile, faculty members are watching the latest cuts warily and wondering what’s to come, said Paul Wright, professor of writing and narrative arts and chair of the Faculty Assembly.

“The faculty understands the need for some of these reductions,” Wright said. “I think what they don’t know yet is how much bigger the budget cuts will be and how much that will impact not just faculty jobs, which of course are on their minds, but also on their experience as teachers – their course sizes, class loads, etc. We are all awaiting further developments on this front, which may well come after this semester. will produce, but the anxiety is certainly pronounced. Our faculty are feeling this anxiety, our staff are feeling this anxiety and I’m sure the administrators are feeling this anxiety. We have a tough challenge ahead of us.”

Wright noted that other small institutions are facing the same challenges as Cabrini, pointing to not only enrollment — which is down nationally — and financial difficulties, but also the declining number of high school graduates in the states. States and the rising costs of education.

He described faculty opinion as mixed on the idea of ​​courting partnerships or a merger.

Public calls for a partner

Although Cabrini executives play down the potential for a merger, Drinan wants to be clear that it is open to partnerships and actively meeting with potential benefactors. Partners can come from private companies, philanthropic organizations or another university.

With the increase in mergers and affiliations in higher education, some colleges have openly courted partners to avoid possible closure. To take a recent example, Bloomfield College will officially become part of Montclair State University in June. The merger came after Bloomfield President Marcheta Evans actively sought a partner last fall, making it clear the small private college was in danger of closing without immediate help.

Such transparency can pay off for struggling institutions, said John MacIntosh, managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners, which manages the Transformational Partnership Fund, which was set up by a number of higher education bodies to help colleges. to explore collaboration. (MacIntosh is also a Inside Higher Education opinion contributor.)

If the shutdown is a risk, MacIntosh said boards owe it to their institutions to be transparent about the problems and potential solutions, which he sees as an ethical duty.

“With Bloomfield, and I think to some extent with Mills College, we have examples of schools that were open about wanting to have a partner, and where ultimately it worked out, I would say, for the best. I wouldn’t be surprised if people see these examples and are open to following that example,” MacIntosh said.

While mergers appear to be the more common route, MacIntosh pointed to other instances where graduates have come to the rescue to bail out institutions, including Hampshire College, which was facing a potential merger, and Sweet Briar College. , which threatened to close.

While the partner companies have yet to rescue struggling colleges, MacIntosh suggests some models could develop to address higher education issues in the years to come.

“If you want to make an effective public call for a partnership, it’s okay to be open to all sorts of possibilities, even if we haven’t seen some of them yet. I think these are the early days of higher education transformation, so maybe some [partnerships] will set a precedent,” he said.

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