AMHERST — Regulations being developed by the state’s Department of Higher Education surrounding the possibility of colleges and universities abruptly closing aim to protect students and faculty, but not the cities and towns affected by these decisions.
Understanding that a host community for a college or university would be impacted by the shuttering of a campus, Town Manager Paul Bockelman on Friday submitted to Department of Higher Education Commissioner Carlos E. Santiago a letter asking that these new regulations protect municipalities such as Amherst.
Among ideas included in his letter are giving cities and towns the right of first refusal should a college that is preparing to close or downsize attempt to sell its land, having host communities be notified as soon as possible if a college or university is under threat of closure, identifying the community impacts in all contingency closing plans and making communities part of any advisory committee monitoring the condition of colleges and universities.
“They do not take into account community impacts at all of a college and university closing or being reduced in size,” Bockelman said Sunday. “That’s a glaring oversight on their part.”
The department’s draft regulations, which were released June 18, would “establish standards and processes to allow the board to screen and monitor public higher education institutions and to develop contingency plans for potential closures of those deemed imminently at risk.” They come as Hampshire College, which had sought a partner in January, will become a much smaller institution this fall.
Bockelman said he hopes the draft regulations can be expanded, though he understands the state may define its role as strictly about the educational mission of each college or university.
In his letter, Bockelman noted that Hampshire owns more than 600 acres in Amherst, along with an additional 200 acres in Hadley.
“That worries us, as it would be expected that the college would seek to liquidate assets to meet its financial needs,” Bockelman wrote.
If the land were to be sold to a developer, the town would want to have a say in the process, he wrote.
Bockelman made similar comments to Santiago last month at a discussion on the regulations governing college closures held at Amherst Town Hall. That community conversation was sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst.
Comerford and Domb have also sent their own letter to Santiago, which advocates for host communities to be offered “advance warning to begin to assess the threat of an imminent closure on their economies.”
The legislators wrote that the regulations should have town officials, state officials, the secretary of Housing and Economic Development and the secretary of Labor and Workforce Development be identified as “stakeholders” who can assist the state Department of Higher Education, requiring notification be given of an imminent closure to these entities and ensuring that notification be timely.
Domb said in a statement that the changes she proposes would allow the state department to be the first to know a college or university is in distress, but then quickly involve communities and others.
“Once they are aware of an institution at risk of imminent closure, I believe the department needs to ensure that the affected host community is alerted and, simultaneously, that the appropriate secretaries are also informed so that state resources and services can begin to be identified for those affected communities,” Domb said.
During the forum at Amherst Town Hall, Hampshire’s interim president, Kenneth Rosenthal, acknowledged the impacts of the college on the town and region, including that “some assert that the revival of Northampton in the last decades is due in no small degree to the Hampshire alums who have moved there.”
“The college itself is a major player in this economy, as a significant employer and an attraction for visitors who then spend their dollars as they enjoy the community around it,” Rosenthal said.
But he also cautioned Santiago that it’s not always easy to figure out the health of a college.
“We join you now in hoping to better understand the world of higher education in general, and the future of small private colleges and Hampshire College in particular,” Rosenthal said. “Some of the metrics needed in evaluating a college’s prospects are easy to find, and I hope to discuss them with you and your staff.”
Bockelman’s letter outlines a series of impacts on the town that Hampshire’s downsizing has had, including the layoffs of employees who live in the community, the loss of business activity at nearby establishments, the potential for reduced public bus service, vacant buildings at risk of vandalism and fire, and even less municipal water and sewer use.
“We project that reduced water and sewer usage by a smaller college will reduce revenue to the town and impact the overall hydraulics of the water distribution system requiring additional work to ensure water quantity and quality is sustained to that part of the town,” the letter states.
In a phone interview Friday, Rosenthal said that Hampshire College has considered how it might make use of its land, but that there are no projects currently in the works.
“They’re being thought about but they’re on the back burner,” he said.
Rosenthal said he wants the Department of Higher Education to understand that land is a resource for a college like Hampshire. And while that resource isn’t immediately valuable or ready to be used, it could always be relied on.
Rosenthal pointed to projects the school has considered in the past, including the Veridian Village senior housing units the college at one point hoped to build on campus. He said that project was 15 years too soon, with alumni from the young school only now reaching old age.
But that idea, or any other, is not currently being developed, Rosenthal stressed.
“There’s going to be a time for that, he said, “but it isn’t now.”
Staff writer Dusty Christensen contributed to this report.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.