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Dowling president: College is open ‘under streamlined operations’

Dowling College President Albert Inserra announced on Thursday,

Dowling College President Albert Inserra announced on Thursday, June 9, 2016, that the school will remain open as officials try to negotiate an affiliation deal with Global University Systems. He spoke at a news conference in Fortunoff Hall at the school's main campus in Oakdale. Photo Credit: Chuck Fadely

Dowling College President Albert Inserra said Thursday that the Oakdale school is “open and functioning under streamlined operations” as he and trustees attempt to negotiate an affiliation agreement with an education investment firm based in the United Kingdom.

Inserra — in the first news conference held by a school leader since the announcement on May 31 that the 48-year-old Oakdale institution would permanently close — declined to give specifics on the potential deal with Global University Systems.

The deal, if it occurs, would help the private liberal arts college financially and enhance academic programs, the president said. Any agreement would need to either pay down or restructure Dowling’s $54 million in long-term debt and occur in advance of a June 23 meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which holds the college’s accreditation, he said.

“The debt has to be addressed and there are multiple ways to accomplish that,” he said.

Seven entities, including private equity firms, nonprofit and for-profit colleges and international companies, were interested in partnering with Dowling in the middle of January, Inserra said. The college hired the Royal Bank of Canada to help in attracting potential partners. Through a vetting process that was reviewed by accrediting and regulatory agencies, Global University Systems was selected.

Inserra said he was “strongly supportive of that choice” for the firm’s track record of turning around struggling institutions.

“They would support our mission and complement our mission by adding enrollment over time,” Inserra said.

Dowling currently is running with a staff of 19, including the president. The following offices are open: registrar, degree audit, bursar, financial aid, business and finance, dean of students and the School of Education, the president said. Its two summer sessions remain canceled.

Inserra, who took the helm in August 2014, did not say Thursday how Dowling’s former employees might fit in. The college’s 453 faculty and other staff were told in a May 31 email from Inserra and trustees that their final day of employment was June 1, and that all benefits, including health coverage, ceased as of June 2.

The news conference was the latest development in an unpredictable seesaw of events over recent weeks for Dowling, which is struggling with financial woes, dropping enrollment, unstable leadership and accreditation uncertainty. Since May 31, the college set two different dates that it would close: June 3 and Wednesday. On both of those days, the school’s trustees invoked continuing discussions with Global University Systems in saying the college would remain open.

Michael Puorro, chairman of Dowling’s board of trustees, was not present at Thursday’s news conference. In an interview with Newsday on Wednesday night, he said officials were monitoring the college’s liquidity on a daily basis. He has said the talks were occurring “in earnest around the clock.”

The optimism about a potential deal with Global University Systems allowed the college’s board to rescind the motion to close the school. College officials alerted Middle States, its accrediting agency, just before midnight Tuesday. The announcement was made to the campus community on Wednesday evening.

Inserra admitted that if the deal goes through, rebuilding Dowling’s image will not be easy.

“How do you rebuild trust?” he said. “When you lose trust, it is very difficult to overcome it.”

The college president also told reporters that he is working and communicating often with state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). The state Education Department and its policy-making Board of Regents have regulatory oversight over the college.

The Education Department has not responded to Newsday’s questions regarding Dowling this week. LaValle, chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, has not responded to emails or calls last week or this week.

The news of closure sent about 1,700 students struggling to figure out whether and how to transfer to other schools.

If Dowling does affiliate with the private, for-profit firm, Inserra told Newsday earlier, the college still would need its current student body and need to be accredited by Middle States. The Philadelphia-based agency, which accredits the college, placed Dowling on warning two years ago. This spring, the agency required Dowling officials to file a “teach-out” plan that would go into effect in case the school lost its accreditation or closed.

The plan no longer applies now that the college is officially open again and students are being treated as traditional transfer students, officials at other colleges said.

More than 75 Dowling students attended a Transfer Fair on Thursday at Suffolk County Community College’s campus in Selden, where admissions officials from 51 local and regional colleges reviewed transcripts and offered academic advising.

Adelphi University and Farmingdale State College held separate information sessions Thursday.

New York Institute of Technology will host one on Monday at its campus in Old Westbury. SUNY Old Westbury will hold another on June 16. Both of those events are planned from 3 to 7 p.m.

Global University Systems was founded in 2013 by Aaron Etingen, who began the London School of Business & Finance 10 years earlier. The company posted more than $300 million in revenue in the 12 months ending on February 2015, according to credit agencies. It grants undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, in addition to language and vocational programs, through its institutions in the UK, Canada, Germany and Singapore and online courses. Registered in the Netherlands, it recruits its students from more than 150 countries.

Repeated calls and email messages to the company’s main offices in London were not returned.

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