The closing of a 156-year-old college

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Wells College is slated to close its doors June 30. (Photos by Travis LaCoss)

As Wells College prepares to close, some alumni say there is more to the demise of the 156-year-old institution than meets the eye.

“There’s a lot of suspicion and there’s a lot of rumor, and the challenge is trying to get to the truth here,” says Caolan MacMahon, a 1985 graduate of the college.

On April 29, Wells announced that it no longer had the financial resources to remain open. MacMahon and other Wells alumni are trying to hire a lawyer to help them investigate the college’s closure process, and the conditions that led to it. They hope to prevent the school from shutting its doors, or at least delay the closure until they have finished looking into the matter.

While MacMahon and others search for answers, its former students are applying to other colleges, the village of Aurora is facing the loss of tens of thousands of dollars of revenue, and Wells’ employees face impending unemployment. The venerable institution, which held its last graduation celebration on May 18, is slated to close its doors on June 30.

Wells’ announcement came in the form of an early morning letter from President Jonathan Gibralter and Board of Trustees Chair Marie Chapman Carroll. The letter, which was posted on the college’s website and emailed to its faculty, staff, alumni and students, blamed the closure on “enormous financial challenges” that were worsened by a “global pandemic,” a shrinking nationwide pool of undergraduate students, inflation and other conditions. It contained few details of how those conditions directly affected Wells, and no one from the college has been made available for an interview.

Gibralter and his leadership team did meet on campus with alumni and other interested parties on May 31 to discuss the closure. The college has not provided any information about that meeting, but MacMahon recorded it and made the recording available.

A long history

Located on more than 300 acres overlooking Cayuga Lake, Wells has prepared students to take their place in the world since Henry Wells, a co-founder of Wells Fargo & Co. and the American Express Co., created the college in 1868. Originally dedicated to the instruction of women, the college went coed in 2005.

Though primarily a liberal arts school, Wells’ latest educational programs included those in biochemistry and molecular biology, business and criminal justice, to name a few of its offerings. At the time the college announced its closure, it employed 165 people.

Wells is steeped in traditions. The bells in the Main Building—that’s what it’s called—rang at dinner time during the school year, students competed in annual on-campus games, and on Wednesday afternoons they gathered for tea or coffee. On graduation day, seniors got to ride in an antique Wells Fargo stagecoach. Activities of that kind, coupled with the school’s small size—the college had just 357 students when classes began last September—helped bring students closer together year after year.

“Everyone knows everyone,” says Login Abudalla, who graduated from Wells on May 20 as a sophomore. “It is a close-knit community.”

Financial woes

Though Wells’ small size may have helped students bond, years of declining enrollment led to revenue losses that the college couldn’t make up. After the size of the student population peaked at 558 in 2016, it fell each succeeding year until 2022, when it dropped to 335. Altogether, enrollment fell in eight of the 12 years between 2011 and 2022, the last year for which figures are available.

When enrollment declined, so did the college’s finances. Though Wells’ revenue peaked at $40.8 million in the 2016 financial year, it declined for four of the next six years, falling to $30.2 million in 2022. At the same time, the college’s expenses rose, topping out at $36.3 million during the 2016 financial year.

As its financial troubles increased, Wells came to depend more and more on donations, grants and other sources of income. The additional money wasn’t enough to make up for shrinking enrollments and rising costs. Despite donations of close to $4 million in 2019, the college finished that financial year nearly $2.7 million in the red.

That year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which evaluates and accredits public and private colleges and universities, placed Wells on probation due to inadequate “financial planning and budget processes” and other shortcomings. MSCHE gave the college two years to deal with the problems.

Wells reduced salaries, left vacant positions unfilled and took other steps to address its budget problems, reducing its costs by more than $6.4 million in 2020. Those measures led MSCHE to take Wells off probation but did not fully address the gap between revenue and expenses. Altogether, the college was in the red for five of the 12 years for which figures are available, and short a total of more than $11.1 million in those five years. However, the seven years when the college had a surplus more than offset those combined losses.

Seeking other ways to address its financial problems, Wells recently entered into an agreement with the AMDA College of the Performing Arts, which has campuses in New York City and Los Angeles. Under the agreement, AMDA’s students would have been able to take classes at Wells in person and online, boosting the upstate college’s enrollment.

“We thought that this was going to be an incredible opportunity,” Gibralter told those who gathered on Wells’ campus on May 31 to discuss the college’s closure.

Before Wells and AMDA could act on their agreement, it had to be approved by the New York State Education Department and MSCHE. NYSED approved it in record time, but MSCHE said it couldn’t make its decision before the end of June. The delay left Wells unable to count on students from AMDA to boost its enrollment.

“We could not reasonably predict transfer enrollment into Wells in the fall through that program, and we came to the inevitable conclusion that we just were not going to have the financial resources to open the college,” Gibralter says in the recording.

Sudden closure

Word of Wells’ closure hit Rev. Barb Blom, a 1982 Wells graduate and the pastor of United Ministry of Aurora, hard.

“I’m heartbroken and devastated by it,” she says. “It felt like somebody telling you that your mother had just died by text.”

Blom has many congregants who are in some way connected to the college, and her church has partnered with Wells in educational, community-building and other types of events. Her son and his fiancé work for Wells, and Blom had agreed to take on a student intern to help her church with its social media accounts. She now wonders whether the college’s administration concealed its dire condition.

“We had a community dinner for the first responders … and the president stood up and said everything at the college is going well,” Blom says.

Wells does appear to have maintained a somewhat positive image of its situation up until the end. The institution welcomed six new faculty last fall, and in a February release Gibralter said that visits to the campus by potential enrollees were up by 28 percent over 2023, and offers of admission were up by 4.8 percent.

Last March, MacMahon and her daughter, a high school junior who was looking over colleges she might want to attend, flew out from their home in Colorado to tour Wells’ campus. Some of the buildings appeared to have been renovated, and the Glen Park Bridge, a significant campus landmark, had recently been rebuilt.

“The place looked better than when I was there,” MacMahon says.

When word of Wells’ closure came out, MacMahon began contacting other alumni.

“We immediately came together, and we’re sort of, like, ‘How did this happen?’” she says. “Some of us are not yet ready to let this settle.”

It does not help that the college appears reluctant to discuss the closure as openly as MacMahon and others desire.

“The administration and Board of Trustees have said nothing,” she says. “They are not sharing any information, other than the standard information you can get on the FAQs on the website, which really don’t say anything.”

That lack of information has left her and other alumni suspicious that mismanagement by those in charge of Wells might have led to the closure. She has particularly focused on Gibralter, who arrived to head the college in 2015.

“Things have been bad since 2017,” she says. “The general trajectory is downward.”

Unanswered questions

That trajectory particularly rankles MacMahon when she considers the pay Gibralter has received.

“The president is getting paid what many believe is an exorbitant salary, and then bonuses on top of that,” she says.

Gibralter’s base salary came to $157,251 in the 2015-16 school year. By the 2021-22 school year, the last year for which information is available, it had risen to $329,294. Including retirement benefits and other perks common to college administrators, Gibralter’s total compensation came to $368,020 that year.

Several important factors determine how much a college president is paid, including the individual’s education, certifications and experience, and Gibralter’s base salary could be seen as high or low, depending upon the standard used for comparison. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the median salary of the president of a private four-year college in the U.S. was $387,446 during the 2020-21 year. On the other hand, the employment marketplace ZipRecruiter stated that the current upper range for U.S. college presidents is $317,500.

In addition to his base pay, Gibralter received $310,986 in bonuses during that period, including payments of $78,300 that he received during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. Though Wells’ enrollments were declining, and the college was in financial difficulties, he received an $18,136 bonus in 2020-21 and another $19,000 in 2021-22.

“If you average out over the course of his tenure, he was getting some substantial bonuses while the school was losing money and struggling,” MacMahon says.

MacMahon and her fellow alumni also question the timing of the Board of Trustees’ April 24 vote to close Wells.

“They literally had done this big fundraising campaign that ended on Wednesday of that week,” she says. “Apparently, they voted on Thursday to close the school.”

The group has approached two law firms about looking into Wells’ closure.

“At least, we want to keep it open long enough to find out what’s going on,” MacMahon says.

Photo: Facebook

The alumni set up a nonprofit, the Cleveland Commission, to raise money to finance their efforts. So far, it has scored $10,000. The group also has a Facebook page.

While MacMahon and her group look for legal means to keep Wells’ doors open, Abudalla and her classmates are dealing with the personal effects of the college’s closure.

“A lot of people in my class, especially the sophomores and the juniors, were all a bit stressed because of having to redo the college process all over again,” she says.

To ease students’ search for and transition to other colleges or universities, Wells has developed teach-out partnerships with educational institutions around the state. Under the agreements, students should be able to retain credit for the courses they’ve completed, continue their studies and pay tuition that is comparable to that of Wells. According to the institution’s website, two dozen colleges and universities have signed up to be teach-out partners, including Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Keuka College, SUNY Brockport, SUNY Geneseo and Alfred University. Manhattanville University in Purchase has been named legacy partner.

Abudalla’s search for a new college was complicated by her desire to major in political science and journalism, study at a school that has the kind of close-knit student body which she’s used to and be relatively close to her parents in Schenectady. Despite that, she had been accepted at Ithaca College when last interviewed and was awaiting the decisions of two others.

While Abudalla contemplates continuing her studies at a new college, most of Wells’ employees may be looking for work. On May 9, the college announced it would begin laying off some of its 165 employees. By the beginning of August, only about 24 people will still be on the college’s payroll. It appears they will remain on the job until the end of the year at the latest. Wells partnered with the state Department of Labor to hold an on-site job fair for its employees on May 22.

Impact on the village

Aurora mayor Jim Orman says his village depends on tourism, and the loss of Wells’ employees should not affect its economy much. At the same time, he wonders how it will weather the other effects of Wells’ closure.

“We are in a unique position here, which is why this is such a critical time for the village,” he says.

That results in part from the village’s dependence upon Wells for water. For about 90 years, the college’s pumping station on Aurora’s Main Street has supplied both its campus and the village.

“We have an agreement with Wells that they get the water, they provide it to us for a very nominal fee,” Orman says.

Aurora then supplies the water to its residents, and to some residents of the town of Ledyard, for a nominal fee. According to figures obtained from Deborah Brooks, deputy clerk/treasurer of Aurora, the village had income of $24,204 from water fees during the 2023-24 fiscal year alone. That was just over 12 percent of the $193,645 the village appropriated to servicing and operating its water system.

Wells’ closure will force Aurora to take over the water plant, hire two people to run it and train them as certified water operators. All that could cost an estimated $150,000, according to Orman.

“You’ve got to have two salaries, which we don’t have, benefits, operating and maintenance costs, insurance, all of that,” Orman says.

That will consume over 7 percent of Aurora’s $1.1 million 2024-25 budget.

Orman hopes to obtain some form of government aid with the cost of keeping the water plant going, while looking for people to run it. Aurora’s Department of Public Works already has one employee who is certified to operate the facility and could train two recently hired employees to do so. The village might also try to hire the Wells employees who are currently operating the pumps for the college. Though the college is closing, they should continue to do their jobs for a while.

“We’ve been told by the college that the plant will operate for up to a year even after the close so the people on board can run it,” Orman says. “Obviously, we want to accelerate that.”

Of greater import for Aurora is the effect of Wells’ closing on its sewage system. Down through the years, the village has charged Wells for processing the college’s waste in its sewage plant.

“In the 2023-2024 budget year, we received $50,000 from Wells,” Brooks says. “For the 2024-2025 budget year, we have placed $46,000 in revenues from Wells.”

That amount, which the village placed in its sewer fund, is nearly 21 percent of the $222,610 that the village appropriated in its current budget to service and operate its sewage system.

“Somehow, that shortfall’s got to be made up,” Orman says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Jacob Schermerhorn, Beacon contributing writer and data journalist, created data visualizations for this article. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “The closing of a 156-year-old college

  1. As an owner of a house in Aurora it is interesting the mayor states the Village relies on tourism at the same time the Board of Trustees has moved to shut down over time short term rentals (which help with tourism) with a restrictive new law prohibiting any new rentals and restricting transfer of existing rentals. They don’t want tourist but are glad to take State money under the guise of tourism and say they rely on tourist.
    Closing of Wells is NO surprise and the Village of Aurora had done nothing to help with its problems. Everyone involved Village and the College have acted with a lack of transparency and now it’s “woe is me”
    Today only The Inns of Aurora thanks to Pleasent Rowland provide any sign of economic activity. Too bad the College and Village didn’t embrace and welcome her a number of years ago but chose to instead vilify her.

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