US ends academic year with another wave of closures and cutbacks

Major losses for the sector include the end of storied Philadelphia arts institution and retrenchment at leading Jewish-focused campus

June 3, 2024
Source: iStock/Inna Reznik

US higher education is being hit by another round of closures and major cutbacks as the academic year ends, including a prominent arts institution in Philadelphia and a Jewish-centred university.

The closures include The University of the Arts, one of the nation’s oldest such institutions, dating back to the 1870s. The university in the centre of downtown Philadelphia boasts a list of accomplished alumni, but now has about 1,100 students, down more than 40 per cent in a decade.

Brandeis University, while comforted by an endowment of $1.2 billion (£940 million), also said it is shedding at least 60 positions after watching its enrolment fall to about 5,300, down nearly 10 per cent in five years. Brandeis was founded in 1948 to help Jews and other victims of discrimination, and it recently tried to build enrolment by differentiating itself from the dozens of campuses affected by pro-Palestinian protests.

As college costs have risen and high school graduation rates have headed downward, US higher education has been in an extended crisis of contractions, with at least 30 campus closures last year after nearly 50 the previous year, mostly among smaller private institutions.

Other pullbacks in recent days include Marymount Manhattan College, which agreed to be purchased by Northeastern University; and the University of Lynchburg, which is cutting 17 academic programmes and 80 faculty and staff positions after losing about 15 per cent of its enrolment over the past decade.

US tuition increases have been tied at least partly to steady declines in government support for education, leaving US students to be pushed ever harder by their families and others to choose fields of study seen as most lucrative in the job market. That has been especially hard on arts-focused institutions. The nation’s first, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, has already announced that it is closing after this coming academic year. The San Francisco Art Institute, also founded in the 1870s, filed for bankruptcy last year.

The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, with some 700 faculty and staff, now plans to close within the week, despite having admitted a new class that was due to start this autumn. The institution’s president, Kerry Walk, and trustees chair, Judson Aaron, said in a note to the campus community that they had been trying hard to avoid the closure.

“Unfortunately, however, we could not overcome the ultimate challenge we faced: with a cash position that has steadily weakened, we could not cover significant, unanticipated expenses,” the two said. “The situation came to light very suddenly. Despite swift action, we were unable to bridge the necessary gaps.”

Brandeis is not seen as facing any immediate risk of closure. But its president, Ronald Liebowitz, and other top campus administrators, in a letter described by The Boston Globe, said the staffing cuts “are necessary to allow us to direct our resources to the areas that will help ensure our long-term financial stability” and address other challenges.

In April Professor Liebowitz tried to take advantage of Republican critiques of US higher education, saying that Brandeis offered “a different feel” for students affected by campus demonstrations against Israel’s bombing of Gaza. About a third of Brandeis students are Jewish.

Marymount Manhattan College said it has been facing financial troubles similar to those encountered by many other small liberal arts institutions. Northeastern – now with more than dozen locations outside its Boston home – said through a spokesperson that it expects to change the fate of the 1,400-student Marymount campus on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by focusing on majors such as finance and media, “that align with the unparalleled economic ecosystem that is New York City”.

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