Dowling College is expected to grant its last degrees Wednesday as the private liberal arts school loses its academic accreditation and closes its doors to students after 48 years.
The college ran out of money — a rare occurrence in higher education — after being burdened by $54 million in long-term debt. The school laid off about 450 faculty and staff in early June and sent about 1,700 students scrambling to find other ways to continue their education.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has withdrawn Dowling’s accreditation as of midnight Wednesday, and college officials have filed its plans to close with the state Education Department.
While other public and private colleges and universities are welcoming students back to school this week and next, Dowling’s main campus is vacant and the academic buildings are locked. Landscapers mowed the lawn, security guards manned the gate and a handful of cars were parked in the administration lot on the main Oakdale campus this week.
Dowling becomes the first fully accredited, nonprofit four-year college on Long Island to shutter in recent history.
“How can you let an institution run completely out of money?” said Drew Bogner, president of Molloy College in Rockville Centre, which organized student transfer events and other advising services to help Dowling students earlier this summer.
“How in the future can we make sure that colleges have enough money to ensure a proper closure?” he said. “I think we should start thinking about whether there should be something in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The school’s closure process left a network of bitter students and faculty who say more warning and oversight should have been provided. For nearly three months, Dowling’s status has been unpredictable.
College officials announced it would close on May 31 — laying off faculty and staff — then twice postponed closure dates as they unsuccessfully sought an affiliation agreement with Global University Systems, an educational investment company based in the United Kingdom.
“Disappointment and shame is what comes to mind when I think about this college now,” said Tracy Heflin of Ronkonkoma, whose daughter, Bailee, is among about 60 students to receive the last Dowling-issued degrees. Beginning Thursday, students within 15 credits of graduation must complete their studies at other colleges and apply for state Board of Regents college diplomas.
The college’s public regulating agency, the state Education Department, “did everything possible under its authority in the law and went above and beyond the law’s requirements to assist students to transition through the college’s closure,” spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said.
She said officials from the agency met with the college several times prior to closure to explore options that would have allowed Dowling to remain open.
“Throughout this process, SED’s number one concern has been that students have access to their records,” she said.
Dowling student records have been transferred to LIU Post. Students seeking official transcripts to apply to other schools or jobs can access them at the Brookville campus.
The state’s education policymaking body, the Board of Regents, could not have changed the outcome, said Roger Tilles, the Regent representing Long Island.
“Right now, the creditors are running the college. There’s nothing they can do but collect their debt. That’s their job,” he said.
Discussions with state lawmakers and representatives of private, independent nonprofit colleges currently are being planned to prevent a Dowling-like closure from happening again, Tilles said.
Unknown is the future of the institution and the fate of its assets, including a historic waterfront campus in Oakdale, a 60-acre campus off of the William Floyd Parkway in Shirley, and 32 residential properties and other land holdings in Oakdale and Mastic.
Dowling will remain a tax-exempt, nonprofit entity for the near future, said Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman with Mintz Levin, the Boston-based law firm involved in the school’s restructuring and operations.
“Plans are unclear at the moment,” Sterling said Tuesday.
In charge of the school’s daily operations is chief restructuring officer Chad Shandler of the Manhattan-based accounting firm CohnReznick. Dowling President Albert Inserra resigned effective Aug. 19. About 12 other employees have remained, including chief financial officer Ralph Cerullo.
Dowling has not filed for bankruptcy protection, Sterling confirmed.
More than 260 Stony Brook University undergraduates are expected to live in the dorms on Dowling’s Shirley campus for the 2016-17 academic year, according to a lease agreement between the two schools, Stony Brook spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said.
Sterling declined to comment on whether Dowling officials currently are talking with any potential real estate developers or buyers.
The Oakdale campus is one of the few large tracts of undeveloped waterfront acreage on the Connetquot River.
“It’s a prime area for preservation and recreation,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “We’re predicting there’ll be lots of extravagant proposals for this property. But to preserve it would be a legacy and a gift to the public.”
The site’s sewage treatment plant had problems in the past and waste discharge hasn’t met health standards, Esposito said. “Any development there could have a serious adverse impact on the bay’s water quality,” she said.
Kevin Law, CEO and president of the Long Island Association, called the property “prime real estate on Long Island” and said it could wind up as high-end waterfront housing.
“Folks winding down Dowling should probably solicit proposals, depending on what Islip is willing to accept,” he said.
Both Law and Esposito agreed the Shirley campus could be a good location for more moderately priced housing.
Next steps on how the college will satisfy its debt are unknown.
Experts have said Dowling would have needed a significant infusion of cash to be saved. That’s what trustees said would happen if negotiations with Global University Systems had gone well.
Those talks failed, and Dowling became the first nonprofit college rated by Moody’s Investors Service to close, the crediting agency said.
Dowling’s credit default poses no potential liability to county taxpayers or the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency, which issued two bonds for the college, IDA executive director Tony Catapano said.
State law allows nonprofits to issue capital improvement bonds through IDAs to get better terms.
Two tax-exempt “civic facility” bonds for the college were issued — $38.9 million in 2006 and $7.2 million in 1996. Of those, about $33.8 million still is owed on the 2006 issuance and about $3.1 million is owed on the 1996 issuance, Catapano said.
Dowling College’s Oakdale property is located on the Connetquot River. This story incorrectly stated the property’s was on the Great South Bay.