Friday, June 14, 2024

Lesley University’s South Campus near Harvard Square in Cambridge added 4.4 acres in 2018, giving the school excess square footage for its needs. (Photo: Marc Levy)

An art gallery where student and alumni works are sold and an alumni art studio; a “learning by doing” campus with schools and other services staffed by students; more gathering places and even a community center; and the possibility of an online extension school – all are in play at Lesley University as it embarks on the next step in figuring out its future.

There have been a series of these processes under president Janet Steinmayer, with the latest signaled in a Thursday letter to faculty and staff saying the Cambridge university must “refocus on Lesley’s core strengths, invest in their growth and move away from low-enrolled programs” as well as “reimagine” online classes and other offerings while simplifying the school’s structure, all while keeping prices “at or near the low to mid-end of our private competitors.”

“Students seek an experience that is more convenient, less expensive and more flexible,” the letter tells faculty.

What that means in concrete terms – what educational areas are being combined or eliminated – will be decided in the coming months by four management faculty teams that will set priorities and four administrative teams looking at implementation, Steinmayer said in a Friday interview in her offices.

“I don’t know yet” what will change specifically, Steinmayer said, “because what we need to do is work with management faculty who understand these programs and figure out what it is that is going to make sense.”

Lesley University president Janet Steinmayer on Friday after moving house from a school-owned building that is being sold. (Photo: Marc Levy)

It’s not as simple as cutting the lowest-enrolled programs, because “things are interwoven,” Steinmayer said. “There may be programs that on paper don’t appear to be a high-enrolled program and yet are foundational to programs that are highly sought.” Though small – 6,000 students across four colleges – Lesley is complex, with “different trends for different parts of the university” and three geographic campuses, including one with an arts focus in Porter Square, one in Harvard Square that was expanded in 2018 with the purchase of former Episcopal Divinity School property and the Doble Campus in the Baldwin neighborhood, from which the school evolved after its founding by Edith Lesley in 1909.

Still, some things are clear: Expressive therapies are in high demand – Lesley is the largest producer of counseling and psychology graduate degrees in New England, Steinmayer said – while the liberal arts school is under “greater pressure.”

On Tuesday, a different kind of change was announced: Provost and chief academic officer Jonathan Jefferson was named special adviser to the president ahead of his departure at the university at the end of the calendar year, Steinmayer said in a letter shared with Cambridge Day. Deanna Yameen, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Social Science, will be interim provost, while the art school’s dean, Amy Green Deines, is leaving after four years. Associate vice president Tom Englehardt was promoted to vice president for enrollment initiatives.

Excess real estate

Lesley University said in October 2021 that it planned to remake its campuses over the next five years, selling excess real estate and using the money for improvements. In a first phase, 10 properties were listed and nine sold, with 6 Sacramento St. being re-listed with five new addresses in a second phase in April.

The school said when buying the divinity school that it brought excess square footage, and it already owned legacy homes that are inefficient for educational purposes. “A building we’re selling on Phillips Place, for instance, had exactly one person working in it. And it’s huge,” Steinmayer said. (There are 14,465 square feet in the structure also known as 11 Mason St.)

Movers take items out of the former Lesley University president’s house on Friday so it can be sold.

Among the buildings being sold: Steinmayer’s home. On Friday, she moved out of the old EDS dean’s house at 5 Phillips Place – an 8,000-square-foot home built in 1852 by Richard Henry Dana, author of the memoir “Two Years Before the Mast” – that Lesley had used for entertaining. “We don’t need an 8,000-square-foot house for the present,” Steinmayer said. She has moved into another university-owned home of 1,700 feet.

School officials estimated they might have 150,000 square feet of extra space. By the end of the real estate transactions, an estimated 163,000 square feet will have sold, not counting the president’s house.

Falling off a cliff

Steinmayer, who became president in July 2019, said leadership had recently managed to reduce a $7.5 million budget gap to $2.5 million despite the complications of the Covid pandemic. Instead of building slowly back to pre-Covid enrollment levels, though, a school that was finding its footing “hit a cliff,” she said, referring to a dramatic drop in enrollment seen as demographic in nature – that there aren’t as many traditional-age students seeking bachelor’s degrees, particularly in New England.

“I had shared with people confidentially that it was as big as $10 million,” Steinmayer said, referring to the expected structural deficit resulting from that drop-off.

Her efforts to address that resulted in Lesley faculty giving her a no-confidence vote, citing concerns about shared governance and cost-cutting around that $10 million figure. A statement by educators said the approach being taken under a Better Lesley plan was going in the wrong direction, and “decisions made by the university’s leadership have eroded the student experience and endangered the long-term viability of some academic programs.”

Messages were left Monday with several members of the Faculty Assembly seeking comment on Thursday’s letter.

“Since the semester’s been over for well over a month, the majority of faculty, most of whom are on nine-month contracts, are away from the office. So there’s not a lot discussion – however, those I’ve spoken to, especially those involved in the Better Lesley process, are still incredibly frustrated with the entire process and the lack of specificity in the letter,” said Steven Benson, a professor teaching math at Lesley. “I think exhausted, frustrated and wary are the best descriptors of the faculty mood.”

“Learning by doing” campus

The “learning by doing” campus is planned for remaining property in the Doble Campus, where Lesley will double down on its existing approach of getting students hands-on experience in their fields. The school may see new school-hosted businesses in the Baldwin neighborhood including preschools, schools and day care centers “because what we want to do is exactly what we’re doing with Riverside Community Care.”

In that program, the school and counseling program joined in opening on Nov. 18 a Riverside Outpatient Center at 23 Mellen St., in Lesley’s Schwartz Hall, to serve students and residents.“It’s the first time we think that there’s been a clinic opened on a campus in the commonwealth. That clinic is fabulous for our students, because it used to take months or sometimes years to get people to long-term care, and they can now get it in weeks,” Steinmayer said. On May 17, the partners launched Riverside Scholars@Lesley, offering students internships, scholarships and a path to employment at Riverside locations.

“When Riverside opened on our campus, all of a sudden there were relationships with people who did things on the campus that we didn’t even anticipate,” Steinmayer said. Collaborations take place that would not come about “if we were just sending students to have an internship over in Somerville. They’re on our campus.”

More plans

Eateries in Lesley’s University Hall are moving to a street corner location once occupied by a Shaking Crab restaurant. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The school is adapting its programming to match trends and find new opportunities, including a focus on video game creation plucked out of the closing of Worcester’s Becker College in 2021 and the Threshold program, a two-year, on-campus college experience for students with learning, intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Lesley still plans to relocate its University Hall eateries at 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, from the center of that former Sears department store to a more prominent street corner location that used to hold a Shaking Crab restaurant. First reported in July, the relocation has been slowed by engineering complications – such as 3-feet walls that Sears adopted for construction after Chicago fires – but will make room for a concierge desk for students and a gallery for the sale of art by students and alumni. The third floor of University Hall will add school community gathering spaces to existing faculty offices, Steinmayer said.

Also, with “much more remote working and learning” going on, the school may expand into an extension-school approach with more online education options. From the 1990s into the 2000s, “Lesley was in 26 states – you could get a master’s degree through Lesley in a cohort model all over,” Steinmayer said. In that model educators were flown to another state and stayed for months at a time, where students there studied with them on nights and weekends.

“Can we do something like that again,” Steinmayer wondered, “but more virtually?”

This post was updated June 27, 2023, with personnel changes at Lesley University.