St. Michael’s optimistic despite financial, enrollment woes

St. Michael's College
St. Michael’s College in Colchester. Wikimedia Commons photo by MikeDKnight

COLCHESTER- St. Michael’s College greeted the new academic year with staff layoffs and the smallest freshman class in more than a decade.

The layoffs occurred just prior to the start of the fall semester. According to The Defender, the Catholic college’s newspaper, Micalee Sullivan, a history instructor and the director of the Center of Women, as well as Joan Wagner, director of Community in Engaged Learning and coordinator for Experiential Learning, were informed that they were being cut from the school’s payroll. In 2013, Wagner received an Engaged Educator Award.

There were also dozens of “voluntary separation packages” for other staff members.

“This is a difficult challenge, no doubt, but I am optimistic about the future of the institution,” wrote Karen Talentino, vice president for Academic Affairs, in an email. “I am working hard along with many of our faculty and staff, to maintain our academic quality and to continue to recruit outstanding students to join our amazing community.”

She added: “While it is true that two positions were eliminated, we are committed to continuing our support of these important endeavors; they are integral to our goals as an institution. We have done this through reassignment of responsibilities, a practice that requires prioritization of activities and time. To assume that we no longer think these areas are important is inaccurate, and misrepresents our institution.”

St. Michael’s continues to rank in the top 110 liberal-arts schools by U.S. News & World Report. However, the incoming freshman class of approximately 465 was the smallest in more than a decade. In 2016, 508 students arrived at the campus to begin studying at the four-year, liberal arts college.

The identity of the two staff members laid off was known on campus. The student executive editors and professor Allison Cleary, a faculty adviser to The Defender, declined to comment if the college’s administration criticized the paper for naming the people who were laid off.

St. Michael’s College President John Neuhauser couldn’t be reached for comment.

“It was commonly known who the individuals (laid off) are,” said Alessandro Bertoni, St. Michael’s director of marketing and communications.

Bertoni also declined to talk about the separation packages given to faculty and staff, cutting back expenses. Last year, the college faced a $1.5 million deficit after more than two dozen tuition-paying students didn’t come to the college. The Colchester school has had two voluntary separation packages since 2016, according to Bertoni. The second includes faculty and staff that will work until June 30, 2018. Using these totals, the number is 37 staff; of which 17 are approved to be replaced, and 16 faculty of which seven are approved to be replaced, he added.

“At this point, it is too early to know how the FY18 budget will play out, so I certainly can’t predict an amount,” said Talentino. ”It will be important to continue to reduce the size of our faculty so that it is in line with our student enrollments.”

The student-faculty ratio will remain similar, even with this reduction in faculty size. “We are committed to replacing key faculty positions; those replacements are built into our financial model. The incoming class is our very strongest academically, and one of our most diverse,” he said.

According to information from the college, 92 diverse students entered St. Michael’s this year. There are 26 new international undergraduate students studying at the four-year school in 2017.

Talentino noted the changes the college faces, including the search for the school’s 17th president when Neuhauser steps down next year. The search committee, which is comprised of the college’s board of trustees, the superior general of the Society of Saint Edmund, the Rev. Stephen Hornat, faculty, staff members and a student-athlete, kicked off the process in August.

St. Michael’s has a website detailing the search for a new president. College board of trustees chairman and president of the search committee, Mary-Kate McKenna, pointed out the panel and search firm, AGB, reviewed applications earlier this month. Another look at the resumes received during the remainder of September is slated to occur Wednesday.

Founded in 1904 by the Society of Saint Edmund, an order of French priests, the college boasts an impressive group of alumni, including Sen. Patrick Leahy and IDX co-founders Robert Hoehl and Richard Tarrant, who later entered politics.

Despite that, the college doesn’t have a large endowment like Middlebury or Ivy League schools, which the school wants to beef up, according to St. Michael’s College Vice President for Institutional Advancement Richard Daniel. Daniel said it’s early in the fiscal year to tell how the school’s donations are stacking up, but he said it was “on par with last year’s figure.”

Daniel noted that most of the college’s money comes from donations from alumni, parents, individuals associated with the college and corporations. “It’s a challenge,” he said. “The last, major campaign the college undertook was in 2004. We’re looking at increasing our fundraising to grow the endowment.”

Concerns about the college’s long-term financial health aside, the questions about money are creating dents in St. Michael’s close-knit community. Bertoni said he understands why some faculty and staff complain about the lack of morale on the campus. “It’s because of the close-knit community and the strong bonds of friendship.”

Recently, the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, a familiar building on Route 15 as vehicles pass along the artery, welcomed scores of people as Michael Carter, a 2012 college graduate, was ordained to the Edmundites. The place of worship also saw more than 1,000 people come to mourn a popular member of the religious order last October when the Rev. Michael Cronogue’s funeral took place.

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