This is part of our Better Baltimore series, which aims to use readers’ feedback and ideas to hold government agencies and powerful entities accountable. We’re also interested in stories about readers and communities driving change on their own. Have a tip? Tell us.
The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, struggling to recover from economic hardship brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, made several cuts to staff and student services ahead of the fall semester in an effort to become financially sound again.
While many public colleges and universities in Maryland have rebounded and are poised to even exceed pre-pandemic enrollment and revenue numbers, the recovery at MICA hasn’t been as strong as expected, president Samuel Hoi told The Baltimore Banner. Total enrollment for degree-earners, once typically about 2,100, has leveled at about 1,900, Hoi said.
The nearly 20 positions cut — representing about 6% of employees — were spread across the college, including in the admissions, communications and president’s offices. Campus amenities deemed non-essential, such as more robust operating hours at the library, also were trimmed. Meanwhile, tuition increased by 3.4% this year.
MICA’s response to its financial worries has sown dissension among campus personnel, who say administrators are sacrificing the institution’s educational quality to bolster the bottom line. Hoi has been criticized for his more than $600,000 a year salary, although he said he took a 20% pay cut in the 2020 to 2021 fiscal year along with other faculty and staff members. And the institutional turmoil has brought to the forefront old criticisms that the college is unaffordable for many.
Faculty and staff members said the formation of two new collective bargaining units reflect their loss of faith in administrators’ ability to dig them out of the financial hole.
“The administration is behaving in ways that are opaque,” said David Cloutier, a member of the newly formed full-time faculty union. “Anxiety permeates the school right now, and we realize we have to maintain the quality of teaching and fulfill our obligation. It is very difficult to do that when you feel the ground shifting under your feet every day.”
The eliminated roles included both open and vacant positions, as well as about 14 staffed positions. Both union and nonunion positions were cut during the latest “restructuring” process. A spokesperson from the president’s office said the institution also enacted a hiring freeze, except for jobs termed “critical.”
The downsizing effort stems from three consecutive years of shrinking first-year class sizes. Beginning in fall 2020, when courses switched to online due to the pandemic, many students deferred and international students, who make up about a third of the student body, stayed abroad. On-campus learning returned in fall 2021, but the incoming first-year class size remained lower than previous years’ benchmarks.
This year’s fall class is about the same size as last year’s, but without the deferral students, Hoi said. Administrators had hoped the first-year class size would perk back up into the 300s this year but it has leveled to about 250 students, according to sources with knowledge of the enrollment numbers. Before the pandemic, first-year classes had about 400 students.
Meanwhile, there are about 451 graduate residential students and online students pursuing Master of Professional Studies degrees on a full-time equivalent basis, the sources said, which amounts to about 553 total. The total undergraduate population is around 1,350 full-time equivalent or 1,362 overall.
The Banner spoke to more than a dozen people with connections to MICA, including alumni, full-time faculty and staff members, part-time and adjunct instructors and recently laid-off personnel, many of whom questioned the institution’s direction and administrators’ ability to lead.
Hoi said though he has heard the critics, MICA has “right-sized” itself to operate more responsibly within its means.
“I would say we’re on the path of recovery,” Hoi said. “Given all the signs that we have, my projection is that within two- to two-and-a-half years we’ll be back up to maybe 2,100. So it’s a healthy, gradual kind of upward ramp.”
From ‘negative’ to ‘stable’
Located in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood and adjacent to the city’s Station North Arts District, MICA received its charter in 1826 via an act of the Maryland General Assembly. It’s considered a vital city anchor institution, cultural staple and academic draw that attracts a diverse student body to live, work and make art in Baltimore.
It also owns property and equipment worth close to $170 million, according to its latest publicly available financial records, and has some $117 million in endowment funds.
Total enrollment at most higher education institutions in the U.S. has been declining since at least spring 2018 and worsened during the pandemic, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Nationally, postsecondary institutions have lost nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020, according to the research center’s data, with students possibly delaying to take jobs, raise families or save money.
Undergraduate enrollment accounts for most of the decline and is now almost 10% smaller than before the pandemic. From spring 2020 to spring 2022, enrollment at private, nonprofit four-year institutions fell 3.2%, data shows.
MICA was no exception: A review of its latest consolidated financial information shows a more than 25% drop in revenues last year, from $68.9 million in fiscal year 2020 to $50.3 million in fiscal year 2021. Meanwhile, expenses dropped from $92.6 million in 2020 to just under $75 million in 2021.
MICA spent less in 2021 on instruction, academic support and student services among other line items, according to the latest consolidated statement of activities. Salaries and wages also decreased from more than $44 million in 2020 to just under $38 million in 2021.
The institution has a triple-B+ credit rating, which signifies some risk and a higher-than-average chance of default, according to analysts at Fitch Ratings, a global ratings company. Analysts’ outlook on the rating shifted from “negative” to “stable” in August, with Fitch’s expectation that MICA’s enrollment would return to more historical levels starting in fall 2022. Analysts noted its small size and “recent volatility in enrollment” but also noted the college’s “financial flexibility” as well as some growth in graduate student enrollment.
“The triple-B+ really does reflect their role as a competitive niche and really, this negative outlook came about largely because of the pandemic and the strange, uneven impacts that it had across the sector and for MICA in particular,” said Emily Wadhwani, a Fitch analyst. “We’re starting to see some reversal, and more importantly, they’re on budget.”
Wadhwani also said while universities are indeed projected to see enrollment dips over the next few years to reflect a smaller population, MICA has indicated its ability to adapt and offer new courses to bring in more interest, such as its online Master of Professional Studies program.
“The triple-B is a little lower than our median rating for a private institution,” she added. “That doesn’t mean we have concerns about their capacity to meet their obligations. I’d say they’re sort of right in the middle.”
‘There was more fear’
Though MICA administrators point to the pandemic as the driver behind the restructuring initiative, some faculty and staff members said they harbored fears about job security for years. Part-time and adjunct faculty formed a union with the Service Employees International Union Local 500 in 2014 over concerns about wages and benefits, departmental direction and representation in decision making, said Amy Eisner, a poetry and writing instructor and union member.
“Part-time faculty teach almost half the classes at MICA, and it wasn’t until after we unionized and pointed out these things that it became clear MICA wasn’t attending at all to these teachers,” said Eisner, who has been teaching at the institution for 16 years.
“A lot of us feel really spread thin; it’s not a sustainable existence,” added Ralph Hubbell, an adjunct writing and translation instructor who had his courses cut this semester due to the lowered enrollment.
Full-time faculty and staff followed suit with separate unions that started organizing during the pandemic. They are also members of SEIU Local 500.
“We could not have unionized at a better time, especially full-time faculty, given what’s going on with enrollment,” said MICA’s Cloutier, a first-year experience and drawing department faculty member. “From the time we began this organizational process, things have just gotten worse. We didn’t even have to convince people to unionize because as the administration got more chaotic, there was more fear.”
MICA employees said the institution has relied too heavily on enrollment and out-of-state tuition dollars despite projections about gradual declines in the college student population within the decade. Cindy Cheng, another drawing department faculty member and union member, said the pandemic accelerated those concerns about MICA’s finances.
“One of our fundamental problems is we are an enrollment-reliant, tuition-driven institution, and we are expensive,” Cheng said. “People at the institution are being paid a really good salary to help guide the school. Are they keeping the ‘new normal’ in mind as they plan strategically into the future?”
Faculty and staff members said the rapid unionizing efforts underscore the erosion of trust between college administrators and employees.
In the fall of 2020, members of MICA’s faculty assembly conducted a vote of no confidence in the executive leadership team, including Hoi, over concerns about financial transparency, breakdowns in communication and excessive workload demands. MICA’s board of trustees responded to the vote with a public letter, citing its commitment to Hoi as well as the “strategic direction of the college.”
“We must move forward together now to preserve MICA’s legacy for generations to come,” the response reads. “This will require trust and collective goodwill.”
Hoi said he respects employees’ decision to unionize and pointed to three successful collective bargaining agreements reached with the part-time faculty union during his tenure at MICA. He said the organizing efforts reflect a national trend among workers to have their voices heard.
“I have no misgiving, whatsoever, for employees who might be feeling rattled by the pandemic and having a sense of stronger solidarity, a sense of security, having a union as a structure to help them articulate their needs and represent them,” Hoi said. “I think there might be a perception out there somehow that MICA is fundamentally challenged right now. But that’s just not true.”
Student services hit
Several people with connections to MICA said they remain deeply committed to the institution despite the tumult of the last few years. The small campus community is tight-knit, and several alumni have returned there for employment. But some current faculty and staff members said although their workloads have grown in response to staff cuts and continued vacancies, departmental budgets have decreased.
For example, Cloutier said students work less often with live models in drawing classes because of the expense. During restructuring, the institution lost its Fulbright Program advisor as well as an admissions counselor focused on transfer students.
The campus library’s operating hours also have been reduced, and the college eliminated four unstaffed positions there, including two archivist positions.
Julea Seliavski, an alumnus of MICA who graduated in May, said they could sense the toll taken on the campus librarians. It took months for Seliavski to have their graduate thesis published, they said.
Seliavski, who is autistic, said although they loved their time at the college and felt comfortable there, they also couldn’t ignore the tension among administrators and full-time faculty and staff.
“Our school has this energetic, amazing, beautiful community who works tirelessly and loves MICA, and then you have board members making the decisions,” Seliavski said. “They aren’t on the ground communicating, and yet they make the decisions. When you’re not making decisions in a collaborative way, it’s no wonder people will have to be let go.”
Stephanie Williams, an animation department faculty member, said while the college is admitting more students who want to take her courses, it has not brought on more personnel to serve them. When students ask her to advise them on their theses, she said she can’t always say yes.
“One-on-one contact is nonexistent,” Williams said about her students. “I have to group them in groups of six to eight at a time.”
Faculty and staff also said they expect more from MICA, which bills itself as a creative space for people who believe in inclusion, diversity, social justice and a commitment to innovative thinking.
Hoi said though the cuts were difficult, “essential” student services are still in place.
“You cannot meet everyone’s expectations,” he said. “They are … highly aspirational, imaginative and they hold themselves and the school at the highest standard possible. And when you’re in a challenging situation, there are some expectations almost impossible to meet.”
While the school may look different over the next few years — for example, Hoi said it’s possible fewer students will board on campus and more will enroll in two-year programs — he said it will stay true to its mission.
“It’s still a pretty phenomenal place,” Hoi said. “How can we take that very necessary repositioning, and how can we use this as a productive moment? This is actually a moment for us to really think about what is the future behind education as a sector.”