Manhattanville cuts tenured faculty, freezes programs

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Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., laid off eight tenured and tenure-track faculty members and froze various programs last month, citing realignment of academics with changing student demands.

“Manhattanville is continuously monitoring, evaluating, and seeking to understand and adjust the academic curriculum and overall campus life to the needs of today’s students,” Louise Feroe, interim president, said in a related announcement. “This will result in both academic and administrative staff changes. I suspect this pattern of continuous review and adjustment will define all of higher education in this country going forward.”

Of the eight professors laid off, Manhattanville says three will take on other administrative roles and five will leave after the spring term.

In addition to these cuts, one lecturer was not reappointed.

The college says it froze undergraduate majors with “very low student enrollment.” That is, undergraduate programs with fewer than 12 students per full-time faculty member over a period of five years are no longer accepting new students. Current students in affected programs will be allowed to finish their studies. Manhattanville hasn’t publicly announced which programs are frozen, but faculty sources say they are art history, world religions, philosophy, film studies, music, music education, French, Spanish and chemistry.

Previously frozen programs are those in African studies, Asian studies, film studies, French, museum studies, music, music education and world religions, professors said.

Multiple faculty sources declined to speak on the record, saying that Manhattanville required departing professors to sign nondisparagement agreements in order to receive severance pay. Those who spoke on background said the current round of cuts include two tenured professors of art history, three tenured professors of English, one tenured professor of history, one tenured professor and one instructor of music, and one tenure-track professor of philosophy.

Four full-time lecturers, including two in Spanish and one in theater, were laid off last year, as well, according to faculty sources.

Manhattanville also cut more than 30 faculty jobs through incentive packages in recent months, which some professors said on background that they took only to preserve jobs for their more junior colleagues.

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Van Hartmann, a professor of English literature who is retiring at the end of this academic year, said he did not take a previously offered buyout because he refused to sign a nondisparagement agreement applicable to him and his spouse, who does not work at Manhattanville, and that the college rejected an alternative nondefamation agreement that he proposed. Following his and others’ departures, he said, just one full-time professor will remain in his department.

“I would love to have stayed at the college for another couple of years, because I love what I do, and I think it do it reasonably well, but it ended up being a untenable situation to consider that I will be the only person out of about six people in the English department—all of whom who are already tenured—that will be kept on,” Hartmann said in an interview.

Other faculty sources said that history has two remaining full-time faculty members.

Manhattanville remains a private liberal arts institution, but it has changed its orientation somewhat in recent years. After the nearby College of New Rochelle closed in 2019 amid financial woes, Manhattanville hired its dean of nursing and launched its own School of Nursing and Health Sciences. Manhattanville also opened a Center for Design Thinking in 2019, in what had long been the president’s cottage.

The college also announced the surprise retirement of six-year president Michael E. Geisler last summer. Feroe, former acting president and interim provost, was named interim president.

Focus on the Future

Amid all these changes, some faculty members wonder whether Manhattanville can continue to offer a liberal arts–grounded education that is heavy on faculty-student interaction. These professors point out that about half of Manhattanville’s students are the first in their families to attend college and that the Education Department designated Manhattanville a Hispanic-serving institution last year.

Hartmann said, “There are a couple of points that really are important, and one is the damage done to the core liberal arts identity and mission of the college. Second is the damage to—the assault on—the system of tenure. It’s incredibly destructive.”

He continued, “Tenure really does give the college its intellectual identity. And it makes it possible for students to count on finding a faculty member that they connect with, that energizes them intellectually, that they then stay with over the course of four years as a mentor.”

Cara Cea, college spokesperson, said via email, “We will develop new interdisciplinary programs in line with student interests and workplace needs of today. The humanities are well represented in the new programs we are developing.”

Additionally, Cea said, “Our recent successes are due to planning and changes we have already instituted such as the opening of our new School of Nursing and Health Sciences, the addition of our radiologic technologies program, new computer science and data science programs, along with our Center for Design Thinking and a new undergraduate design thinking certificate.”

Cea said that there were 117 part-time faculty members and 245 part-time professors at Manhattanville last year, and that the student-faculty ration is currently nine to one.

As for what prompted the changes, faculty members said the college is facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit of unclear origin. While enrollments did fall during the pandemic, they said, they increased again this academic year. Hartmann said he worried that the college was “gutting” its academic core to pay for new programs and facilities “that cost a lot of money to create, and that they see as the future.”

Cea, the college spokesperson, said that while enrollment did increase this year, “we are coming off two years of decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 13 percent decline in enrollment and a drop in residential and international students created a loss of tuition which will negatively impact our budget for at least four years.”

Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, who’s been in contact with the faculty at Manhattanville, said that requiring professors to sign nondisparagement agreements in order to receive severance pay was unusual if not novel. He noted that Vermont Law School required faculty members involved in restructuring in 2018 to relinquish their tenured status and faculty voting rights, sign a general and age-discrimination release, and agree to nondisclosure and nondisparagement provisions. An AAUP report on the Vermont case found that a few faculty members who rejected these terms were instead offered termination.

Futurist Bryan Alexander, a senior scholar at Georgetown University, wrote about Manhattanville’s announcement on his blog, saying that it appeared to be part of a series of “queen sacrifices” by institutions hoping to save themselves through faculty cuts.

“‘Aligning faculty resources with student needs’ sounds like restructuring class offerings, I think?” Alexander wrote. “‘Not reappointing some tenured faculty’ is clearly the sound of the ax falling.”

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