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Northland College making big cuts

Wakefield Hall (right) and Wheeler Hall are part of the campus of Northland College in Ashland. (2008 file / News Tribune)

Northland College in Ashland, a small liberal-arts college specializing in environmental education, is making big cuts in the face of budget shortfalls.

College officials on Tuesday unveiled a series of cuts that include closing the school radio station and dropping both men's and women's cross-country running and golf programs from intercollegiate to club sports.

More troubling to some of the college's 597 students, however, is that six of 69 support staff positions are being eliminated and another nine staff are having their hours cut back.

All remaining staff and faculty will see a 7.5 percent pay cut starting July 1, with the president taking a 12.5 percent cut and vice presidents' pay cut 10 percent.

The college also is ending employee retirement contributions and raising health insurance costs for employees as administration works to cut costs by 16 percent by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

"Northland needs to re-examine and significantly reduce its operating costs for the next academic year," Northland President Michael Miller said in a statement. "This requires us to look at every aspect of our college and be a leaner operation, while protecting student experience, learning, research and outreach."

Miller and others said Northland's problem is not declining enrollment, which was up this school year over last. The incoming freshman class this coming fall will the be largest in more than 20 years.

Instead, the college — entering its 125th year — is facing rising costs for operations while relying on an unusually small endowment that depends on large contributions from a relatively few alumni and benefactors. 

The college's board of trustees has directed administration "to adjust our operations for the next academic year by significantly reducing expenses, increasing revenues, and reducing our reliance on the repeated generosity of a few individuals who have provided vital gifts to the college," Miller said in a Tuesday afternoon email to staff.

The problems aren't unique to Northland. In 2015, Moody's investment analytics predicted that the number of small private colleges closing in coming years would triple from five to 15 annually, with mergers expected to double. In many cases, small endowments were blamed for colleges operating in the red and going into debt. (Larger, more famous colleges and universities have more wealthy, successful alumni to draw from.) Other issues include smaller high school graduating classes and more choices for students other than traditional liberal-arts colleges with high price tags.

Several Northland students weren't happy with the depth of the proposed cuts or how they were unveiled.

About 70 students rallied against the cuts in the Ponzio Campus Center Tuesday night and continued a sit-in of sorts Wednesday. The school is in the midst of finals for its May term with graduation set for Saturday.

One of the changes includes charging for the May term credits, from $300 to $600, starting in 2018, which had been free.

"We've known for some time that our college had a budget problem, that it was in the red, but it was never made known to us how bad the situation was," said Jensie Swartley, a sophomore from Philadelphia majoring in Sustainable Community Development. "Then they drop this bomb, without any input from us, and it directly impacts almost every student here."

Swartley said many students on Wednesday were writing thank you notes to faculty trying to encourage them in the face of hardship.

"A lot of them (faculty) are very upset, but they aren't allowed to talk about it," Swartley said.

Prof. David Saetre, a religious-studies faculty member and campus minister, spoke up at a meeting of faculty after the cuts were announced, saying the changes were coming too fast and too hard.

"Shame on this administration and shame on the board of trustees for their malfeasance. The timeline imposed by this board is nothing short of immoral," Satere said in a written version of his comments. "I say this because the information tendered to justify these decisions has been before us for years, not months. ... Rather than addressing our very small unrestricted endowment — the most effective means of protecting against vulnerabilities in uncertain times — board leaders have frittered away time, influence and capital in ways that make us more, not less vulnerable and that betray our mission."

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