Can a Small College Close to Reinvent Itself?

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Re-engineering colleges to improve their viability has brought mixed success in recent years, although in almost all cases it has been tried while the institutions remained open. Agnes Scott College, a women’s liberal-arts institution in Atlanta, has attracted attention and applicants by refocusing its curriculum and other offerings to highlight leadership and international awareness. Centenary College of Louisiana, in Shreveport, decided in 2010 to cut the number of majors it offers from 44 to 22 and make other significant changes, but last year it was put on probation by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, over financial worries.

"I think a lot of independent colleges are actually going through that reimagination process," said Harold V. Hartley III, senior vice president at the Council of Independent Colleges. "We think of it as strategic innovation. Saint Joseph’s sounds like they want to give themselves that opportunity by hitting the pause button."

Richard A. Hesel, a consultant with the Art & Science Group, in Baltimore, said that while he wasn’t familiar with the details of Saint Joseph’s situation, it sounded like the college "should have been thinking about re-engineering 10 years ago." He added: "There are a lot of circumstances where institutions, and boards in particular, do not face the realities of a situation. They have a fiduciary responsibility to do that, and they don’t."

His colleague David W. Strauss noted that "the lesson we’re seeing, from the couple of instances we’re looking at as analogues, is that it’s really difficult to pause and start up again." That may have to do with bad press, he said, "but also with the years that led up to it — the marketplace senses weakness."

The takeaway, he said, is that "I’m guessing that you’d have to reopen as something significantly different than you were before."

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