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‘They are stuck in limbo’: Northland College once again delays decision on school’s fate

Delays have frustrated faculty, staff and students, leading some to leave the college

Northland College
An aerial view of the Northland College campus on Oct. 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of Northland College

Northland College in Ashland has once again delayed a decision on the future of the private environmental liberal arts school, frustrating faculty and students who say they’re living in limbo.

The Northland Board of Trustees said in a statement to the campus community late Tuesday that the college had recently received several “transformative” donations that could affect its future. The gifts still fall short of the $12 million the college had hoped to raise by April 3 to keep the campus open, but the board said it’s hopeful about the future.

“The Board recognizes that this creates continued uncertainty for our students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and neighbors, and it is committed to advancing this work as quickly as possible with a decision shared by the end of next week,” said board chair Ted Bristol. “We thank the Northland community for their continued support and appreciate the positive work of our faculty and staff.”

A spokesperson for the college did not immediately respond to requests for more details on the donations or transition plans moving forward.

In March, college leaders announced the campus needed an infusion of funds to avoid closing because it lacked enough resources to continue operating. A day after its April 3 deadline, the college delayed a decision on its future for two weeks, declaring a financial emergency after drawing in $1.5 million in donations. The college formed two committees to retool its curriculum, as well as Northland’s budget and operations.

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Faculty: Repeated delays are ‘unconscionable’

Angela Stroud, associate professor of sociology at Northland, said doubling the original timeline for news on the college’s fate is unconscionable for students, particularly juniors.

“The uncertainty and not knowing — continuing that means they truly cannot make a decision about what happens to them next year,” Stroud said. “They are stuck in limbo.”

Northland junior Kelby Youngberg, 22, said he was both frustrated and relieved by the board’s update. He said he’s registered for classes at Northland this fall and plans to stay if the college remains open. If not, he’s torn between whether he should take a gap year or transfer to another school. But, he said, some of his friends have already been accepted at other schools under teach-out contracts with Northland that allow them to wrap up studies elsewhere.

“It’s sad to say, I don’t know a lot of people that are staying at Northland or are wanting to stay at Northland no matter what right now,” Youngberg said. “I think that number is also getting smaller as we continue on with the uncertainty of the future, which is not beneficial for our situation.”

Northland College
A group of Northland students cross campus at the start of the academic year on Sept. 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of Northland College

Northland senior Chloe Wiles agrees the delay puts juniors and underclassmen in a challenging spot, saying the deadline for transfers is May 1.

“Because they have to make a decision without really knowing if Northland’s going to stay open,” Wiles said “But it puts everybody in a bad position, I think, because watching it happen is such a terrible car crash-type of experience.”

Faculty, students cite lack of transparency

Wiles said it feels like there’s no regard for the well-being of faculty, staff and students. She and others feel like there’s been a lack of transparency from the board.

For faculty and staff, Stroud said they have no idea whether they’ll keep their jobs. While many are committed to Northland, she said they’re losing faith and looking for other work.

She noted the college’s dean resigned Monday.

In recent weeks, faculty and staff have worked with community members to come up with a plan — dubbed True Northland — that would cut employees, reduce the number of students from roughly 500 to 350 on campus and create revenues by renting out residential halls and office space. Stroud said the move would likely mean cutting around 15 of the college’s 43 tenured and tenure-track faculty. She said the faculty committee received no feedback on their changes to the curriculum.

“We need to have open and collaborative processes to keep the doors open, to give us any chance for staying open. Without that, I don’t know how we survive this,” Stroud said. “They’re acting like the only thing that matters is whether they decide to keep us open or close us, but there is a possibility that we close because of their delays as students leave.”

Northland College
A view of the Northland campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo courtesy of Northland College

The college is among campuses across the country that have struggled in the face of declining enrollment and rising costs. National education statistics show the number of students at Northland dropped from a high of nearly 600 to roughly 500 students in the past decade.

Tax filings show the school has been operating in the red since 2016, reporting a loss of nearly $3.2 million by mid-2022. Declining enrollment and increased costs forced the college to rely on its endowment to support operations, which declined from a high of roughly $25 million in 2015 to $6.2 million in 2022.

Northland President Chad Dayton has said the campus could no longer rely on the college’s endowment to fill budget shortfalls.

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