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Dowling trustees: No deal with Global University Systems

A woman runs by the entrance to Dowling

A woman runs by the entrance to Dowling College's Rudolph Campus in Oakdale Wednesday, June 8, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Dowling College and Global University Systems could not reach a partnership deal, the school’s trustees announced Wednesday, signaling failure of a last-ditch effort to save the financially struggling Oakdale institution.

Michael Puorro, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, made the announcement in a letter emailed to the Dowling community.

“The college is in the process of winding down its operations, but there is no official closure notice at this time,” Nancy Sterling, spokeswoman for a Boston law firm working with Dowling, said later Wednesday.

The 48-year-old liberal arts school — saddled with $54 million in long-term debt and operating with a bare-bones staff since early June — will provide information on the college’s website, Puorro said in the letter, dated July 12. It did not say if Dowling will close.

Because Dowling has no viable academic partner, trustees will not appeal the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s decision to withdraw its accreditation effective Aug. 31, he said.

“We have made this very painful decision in order to minimize the disruption for Dowling students,” he wrote. “We want to allow students and their families to make the best possible transition to other institutions.”

The announcement brought to an end weeks of uncertainty over whether Dowling would continue to exist as a private, nonprofit college under an affiliation with GUS, an international education firm based in the United Kingdom that officials had said was poised to make a substantial financial investment.

“We fully understand the pain and loss felt by our students, faculty, employees, alumni, and all those who embraced the mission and values of Dowling College,” Puorro’s letter said. “The legacy of those who have stood with Dowling College today, and over the decades, will never be diminished.”

He commended the efforts of trustees, administrators, local elected leaders and community leaders who “sought to organize efforts and identify resources in order to save Dowling College.”

Puorro and other college officials were not available for questions. Because Dowling is private, state Education Department officials have said they cannot intervene until it files for closure. No formal closure plan was submitted by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

A “teach-out” plan with guidelines for Dowling students to continue their education, required by federal and state law, and relocation of the academic records of thousands of current and former students would be triggered by the closing, Education Department officials have said.

“Our conversations with Dowling College are ongoing,” department spokesman Jonathan Burman said. “Our number one concern is making sure that students have access to their records should Dowling close.”

The institution — which has campuses in Oakdale and Shirley — has perhaps been best-known for graduating the scores of educators that populate Long Island’s school districts, a unique aviation program, and online business graduate degrees for working professionals.

Dependent on tuition dollars, the school suffered severe enrollment declines in the years following the 2008 recession. In 2007, the school had a total of 5,834 students. By 2013, that number had dropped to 3,182, according to state Education Department records.

Dowling also has had significant leadership turnover, employing seven presidents since 2005. Longtime trustees and alumni were unable to carry out a fundraising campaign that would give the school a reliable endowment fund.

With the millions in debt and lack of enough cash to sustain day-to-day operations, Dowling officials on May 31 announced the college would close and told its 450-plus faculty and staff that June 1 was their final day of employment.

Since then, college officials had said they were trying to strike a deal with GUS, a for-profit company that invests in institutions worldwide. The company has a network of about 20 partner institutions.

The school’s closure was delayed twice as trustees continued talking with GUS. On June 9, Dowling officials announced the college would remain open “under streamlined operations.”

The school has been running on a skeleton staff of 19 people, including Chad J. Shandler, a chief restructuring officer from the Manhattan-based accounting firm CohnReznick LLP.

About 1,700 students were left in academic limbo by the lack of clarity about Dowling’s future, scrambling to find alternate ways to finish their degrees. Their options included transferring to other institutions or waiting to find out if the college would remain open.

“They’ve left these kids hanging like puppets on a string,” said Cathy Siegmann Newman, whose son Matthew, 21, was a student in Dowling’s aviation management program. Matthew Newman — who has commuted from his family’s East Meadow home to the Shirley campus while holding down a job at LaGuardia Airport — will likely be set back about two years and tens of thousands of dollars, she said.

“We hear bellyaching from Dowling about the money they don’t have, but what about the money these kids have spent on their education? They can’t start their futures until they get those degrees,” said Tracy Heflin, whose daughter, Bailee Wines, took summer courses at Molloy College to complete her degree in earth science. “They’ve done so much damage.”

Wines, 22, of Ronkonkoma, plans to get a master’s degree in special education from Molloy. The family has $70,000 in student loan debt to pay back.

Tuition and fees at Dowling for a full-time student taking 30 credits was $29,100 during the 2015-16 academic year. The total cost of attendance was $40,000 to $45,000, depending on whether the student lived on campus.

Middle States decided to withdraw Dowling’s accreditation at the commission’s June 23 meeting. Loss of accreditation means students no longer would be eligible for federal and state financial aid programs, though the school could continue to operate. The commission, based in Philadelphia, measures the quality of more than 500 colleges and universities.

Dowling had until July 7 to file an appeal of the accreditation decision. A commission spokesman said last Friday that no appeal had been filed.

The main campus in Oakdale was quiet Wednesday; the only office open was one that holds student transcripts. Trucks were parked outside and the grounds appeared manicured and secured with guards on the property. The president’s office was unstaffed and nearly empty.

The college has not held classes since the end of the spring semester; it canceled its two summer sessions.

Before the Middle States meeting on June 23, Dowling had been required to submit to the commission audited financial statements for the most recent fiscal year, budget projections through the 2019 fiscal year, a blueprint for a fundraising campaign and a debt repayment plan.

The report from the commission’s decision said the college’s officials also must give notice of Middle States’ action to the Dowling College community, including all governing board members, students, full-time faculty and staff, and other faculty and staff members with significant roles.

College officials also must notify current and prospective students of the withdrawal of Middle States accreditation effective Aug. 31, and post accurate information about the institution’s accreditation status wherever the institution’s web pages, publications and announcements make reference to Middle States accreditation and in all other relevant places, such as wherever information is provided to prospective students.

Dowling has been on warning regarding its accreditation since June 2014, when a Middle States report showed the school had failed to comply with three major standards. While on warning, the college remained accredited.

With Jean-Paul Salamanca

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