Thursday, July 18, 2024

One of the protests held at Lesley University in Cambridge since the announcement of layoffs and program trimmings. This one was Oct. 15. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A third vote by faculty members of no confidence in Lesley University president Janet Steinmayer accompanied by tuition hikes is bringing protests back to the Cambridge school, with students, alumni and community members saying they will rally Saturday morning outside its University Hall and Lunder Arts Center in Porter Square during an Accepted Students Day event.

The protest asking the “administration to change course” is the fifth major action over the past three years, organizer Najifa Tanjeem said, and follows an announced 4.5 percent increase in tuition for the 2024-2025 school year even as “the quality of education is dropping precipitously.”

The school is “hopping on the national bandwagon of university corporatization,” said a letter from Alison Frisella, winner of the 2023 Edith Lesley Wolfard award for graduating seniors who embody the school’s commitments to learning and leadership, and other winners of the award.

Update on March 23, 2024: A handful of protesters came out, according to a person present. A spokesperson provided a statement that “the university was delighted to welcome over 300 people, students and their families to Accepted Students Day at Lesley University, where our accepted students can meet and interact with current students and faculty and explore our campus. Students had many questions for Lesley faculty and staff in our sessions, which are held in an open-conversation format. No questions were asked about Better Lesley, although we are very happy to answer those questions.”

An announcement of the rally refers also to a Feb. 27 vote by a faculty assembly in which 70 members cast ballots, with 74 percent expressing no confidence in Steinmayer and interim provost Deanna Yameen. They immediate resignation was demanded, according to documents provided by faculty members. The previous vote was last March.

This vote was not by a quorum, the school said in a statement, as it counts 144 core faculty members. A spokesperson noted that 27 faculty members who were laid off in October are teaching through the end of their contract and remain voting members.

“Many faculty and staff support these efforts,” according to a statement from the university, “and they are saddened that this group of outliers continues to resist the changes.”

According to the statement:

“We are saddened that our institutionwide efforts to create the very best experience for our Lesley University students and community while keeping it financially viable for future generations has, for a third time, come under attack by some members of our faculty. Since announcing those changes last October, many Lesley faculty members, leaders and staff have been working hard on the plan, with many promising results. We urge our faculty members to help the university move forward, so it does not suffer the fate of a growing number of small colleges and universities nationwide. We owe it to our students, staff, alumni, donors and the community at large to innovate a new Lesley – one that will be here for the next generation of students.

Spending cited

The documents shown by faculty cite federal tax forms and audited financial statements to show what faculty assembly members call “persistent and egregious examples of lack of capable leadership.”

Steinmayer became Lesley president in 2019, after having served on the board of trustees for a decade. Under her, the university has cut 18 percent of core faculty members while increasing salaries and budgets for the administration, faculty members say. Starting in 2019, the percentage of Lesley money going toward management has increased to 23 percent of operating expenses for management, compared with institutions such as Curry College in Milton (9.5 percent) or Bentley University in Waltham (19 percent).

Spending in all other areas has decreased, meanwhile: In fiscal year 2019, Lesley spent $20.5 million on student support services; in 2023, it spent 11.2 million. Another sharp drop was in fundraising, to $500,000 from $2.4 million.

The faculty particularly noted this one in its vote, saying in a 23-point complaint that Steinmayer and Yameen should resign “for failure to hire a vice president of development and grossly inadequate fundraising efforts, which could have helped to mitigate budgetary shortfalls in recent years.”

Wages have also been cut – except again for management – and in the 2022 fiscal year, Steinmayer made $535,271, the second-highest salary among peer institutions with annual revenues of $150 million or less, faculty said.

The university’s statement addresses this too, saying the school employs “one of the best firms around to review salaries.”

Changing environment

Steinmayer has said Lesley’s enrollment numbers cannot continue to support previous levels of academic programming, payroll and facilities, especially after a 2018 campus expansion with the purchase of former Episcopal Divinity School property near Harvard Square.

Many small liberal arts colleges in New England struggle with decreasing numbers of traditional-aged college students and increased maintenance costs. In 2022-2023, Lesley had an undergraduate enrollment of 1,758 and a graduate enrollment of 2,035. About 14 percent of its undergrads are enrolled in the Center for the Adult Learner program, which is intended to help adults with some college credits attain a bachelor’s degree.

Enrollment is rising again, according to the university statement.

Lesley faculty are not tenured, but rather are hired on contracts of three-, five- or eight-year terms; university administration has terminated faculty who still have time left on their contracts, with terminated staff being expected to vacate their office the same day, said a Lesley faculty member who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “Before termination decisions, many of these faculty had been openly critical of the path that the university administration is taking,” the faculty member said. The university is replacing professors by expanding its use of adjuncts, who are not paid a full-time salary with benefits.

These cuts are called part of a “Better Lesley” program by the school.

Student experience

Students are nervous about uncertainties built into the university’s approach, especially in lower-enrolled majors. In a music therapy master’s program with 14 students, students said last month that they still had no word on teacher hiring for their next year and feared their program would be cut. “We’ve all shelled out $80,000 and shifted our lives completely to accommodate this program,” student Chelsea Ventura said. A fellow student, Rachael Penn, added that “Some people moved across the country, some people reduced their income in order to make time for the program. There were a lot of accommodations, so if we don’t get to graduate, that would be rough.”

Because the students in the major have faced silence from administration and don’t know what happens next year, “it makes it difficult for all of us students to plan our lives,” student Ashley McCarthy said. “Not only planning our internships, but also practical considerations about adjustments that we’d have to make in our personal lives to accommodate a continuing graduate education and not knowing what exactly the future of our program is going to look like.”

The faculty member said there was “strong sentiment among the Lesley community that the project called ‘Better Lesley’ is full of empty rhetoric that distorts facts and presents a picture of ‘alternative facts.’”

“Lesley has a precious legacy and tradition. The only way for Lesley to get back on track is fundamental change in leadership. Only with new administrators who are committed to follow the progressive vision of its founder Edith Lesley it can be revitalized,” the faculty member said.

The university was founded in 1909 by Lesley to train kindergarten teachers and continues to have a strong education program – though it is cutting the human development and learning specialization from the doctoral program at its Graduate School of Education. “As a politically correct word, they use the verb ‘pause’ rather than ‘close,’ but practically they are closing it. In a fall open house, there were many people interested in HDL, but they stopped admitting new students,” said Steinberg Henry, who finished the program in May.

Henry spoke highly of the program, saying “my experience of Lesley was wonderful and very intellectually engaging.” He is also blind, and said that Lesley was extremely accommodating of his accessibility needs.

Victoria Rein contributed to this report.

This post was updated March 23, 2024, to correct that staff had to vacate offices the day they were terminated, not faculty,