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Northland College lays off 9 faculty under plans to stay open

Private and public institutions make cuts amid budget challenges

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

Northland College in Ashland is cutting nine faculty members after leaders announced earlier this month that it will remain open amid financial challenges that threatened to close its doors.

The college called the cuts a difficult, but essential, step as Northland is restructuring its curriculum and operations.

“Northland College is deeply grateful to each of these individuals for their many important contributions to our College and community,” the college said in an email. “We’ve had to make very difficult decisions, but we are confident we are putting the right structure in place to support and sustain Northland into the future.”

The move means 31 faculty will remain at Northland under a curriculum that focuses on eight majors, including business, environmental humanities and sustainable community development. The college has also said it will continue its intercollegiate athletics program.

Angela Stroud, associate professor of sociology at Northland, said faculty received notice last week. Stroud said she’s among staff losing their positions after she volunteered to leave. She has recently announced her intention to run for the 73rd Assembly District.

“I feel sorry for everyone, but some people volunteered,” Stroud said. “I feel really sorry for the people for whom it was a surprise. Some people have put in decades of commitment to the college.”

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

The college’s faculty handbook outlines that tenured faculty be given one year’s notice before they’re released. Stroud said she and tenured faculty will be paid full salary and benefits for one year. For tenure-track positions, the college is providing 120 days notice, compensation and benefits.

Joshua Montgomery, assistant professor of education at Northland, said he wasn’t surprised to be cut since he’s only been with the college for almost two years. Nevertheless, he had held off on pursuing other job offers until he received notice.

“We’ll be packing up a moving truck, which my family is not thrilled about,” Montgomery said. “I promised my wife that we wouldn’t move anymore, and my kids are sort of irate with me because they’re tired of making friendships only to have those sundered and have to be the new kid at school again.”

He opted to resign rather than be laid off, adding he’s not mad about the cuts. Montgomery, who researches rural school closures, said he recognizes the college isn’t isolated in its financial challenges.

Northland’s Board of Trustees has said changes to the college will result in about $7 million in savings.

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The college issued an urgent fundraising appeal in March saying it needed to raise $12 million to avoid closure. The board has raised several million dollars on top of roughly $1.5 million drawn in through its last-ditch fundraising effort. Tax filings show the school has been operating in the red since 2016, reporting a loss of nearly $3.2 million by mid-2022. The college has also said it could no longer rely on its endowment.

Private and public institutions face cuts amid budget challenges

Northland isn’t the only public or private institution in Wisconsin to announce cuts in the face of budget challenges. Many schools are facing constraints due to declining enrollment, rising costs and decreased support.

St. Norbert College in De Pere announced 35 layoffs last fall, then in March cut another 12 positions and announced benefits cuts and changes to academic programs.

This week, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported St. Norbert’s President, Laurie Joyner presented a plan to the Board of Trustees on May 13 that would allow the college to cut tenured faculty. In an email to WPR on Tuesday, St. Norbert spokesperson Mike Counter said there are not future plans “at this time” to cut tenured faculty.

“St. Norbert is not unique to the headwinds facing higher education. But I can tell you the institution is financially strong, with very little debt and a solid endowment,” Counter said.

He said private colleges like St. Norbert rely heavily on tuition dollars since they don’t receive state funding. Even a relatively small dip in enrollment can cause financial strain.

Small, tuition-dependent private colleges and public universities are on the frontlines of demographic changes, according to Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Beginning in 2026, institutions will face a “birth dearth” as people had fewer children after the Great Recession in 2008.

Concordia University Wisconsin on Feb. 15, 2024.
Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor will likely face staffing cuts as the two campuses face fiscal uncertainty. Margaret Faust/WPR

“Simply put, they’re drawing from ever-shrinking pipelines of traditional-aged students in many regions of the country, and the Midwest and the Northeast are most impacted by these changes,” Harnisch said. “This is expected to get worse and not better in the years ahead.”

In March, Marquette University announced plans for $31 million in budget cuts over six years.

In April, Concordia University announced it was laying off 24 employees at its Mequon campus amid a deficit ranging from $2 million to $6.3 million in five of the last six years. Earlier this year, the university announced it may have to sell its Michigan campus, but it’s since said its Ann Arbor site will remain open next year.

An external report released in April from the Universities of Wisconsin raised concerns about the financial future of multiple state universities.

As for Northland, the college’s enrollment goal for the fall is 385 students, which is down from between 600 and 500 students over the last decade. Both Stroud and Montgomery say early indications are that many students are planning to return to Northland in the fall.

“That, again, I think, speaks to the hard to define magic of Northland,” Montgomery said. “There’s a lot of students who are determined to come back even after having suffered through this spring of our discontent.”

Editor’s note: Corrinne Hess contributed reporting to this story.

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