College Credit

Ben Lieberman’s tiny office on the third floor of the old Miller Building is crammed with books. In his 10 years at Fitchburg State College, the associate professor of history has done research ranging from the Weimar Republic to “ethnic cleansing” in both the Holocaust and the Balkans. At Fitchburg State, he says, he’s been able to stretch his intellectual interests to a degree that might not have been possible at a larger or more prestigious institution.

“You’re not pigeonholed here,” says the Yale graduate with a University of Chicago PhD, as he gets ready for an afternoon class on the French Revolution. “You don’t have to worry about stepping on other people’s toes. If I can make a case to go into a new area of research, there’s a positive attitude about it here.”

But where Lieberman sees openness and freedom, others see waste and duplication. When newly elected Gov. Mitt Romney asked Bain & Co., the consulting firm he once headed, to assess the state’s higher- education system, Bain singled out Fitchburg State as not only a problem child but a candidate for closure. Romney decided against trying to shut down any campus, but he did recommend that Fitchburg State be merged with Mount Wachusett Community College in nearby Gardner.

This and other proposed campus reshufflings were quickly overshadowed by the governor’s attempt to eliminate the office of University of Massachusetts President William Bulger. By the time the Legislature shot down Romney’s higher-education reform package this spring, the proposed merger had already been abandoned.

Film major Vatche Arabian
says Fitchburg State is an “ideal fit” for him.

Fitchburg State no longer faces shutdown or merger, which many of the school’s supporters considered just as bad, but still has to face the music of Bain & Co.’s unflattering assessment. Although the consulting firm identified three other schools as candidates for elimination (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which Romney proposed merging with Berkshire Community College, and Massachusetts College of Art and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which Romney proposed to spin off as “state assisted” institutions), only Fitchburg State met two separate criteria for closure–“geographic redundancy,” meaning students could be served at another nearby institution, and “poor performance.” In the poor-performance category, Bain slammed the school for a “low completion rate,” a “negative enrollment trend,” and “not serving Massachusetts residents,” as well as for its high spending per student in a variety of administrative functions.

Coming after two years of budget cuts that affected all of public higher education, the Bain report card was a slap in the face. Judith Gill, chancellor of higher education, stops short of calling Fitchburg State a college in trouble, but she does say the institution could benefit from “new approaches.”

The consulting firm’s scathing review also came at an awkward time. Michael Riccards, the college’s innovative but combative leader, had stepped down in June 2002 to take a job with the College Board, which administers the SAT test. Taking his place on an interim basis was chief financial officer Michael Rivard, who was on the verge of retirement after 37 years with the institution. With Romney’s merger proposal pending, the search for a new president was briefly suspended, making the institution look even more directionless. But in May, the Fitchburg State trustees selected Robert Antonucci, former commissioner of education in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, to take over the reins–an appointment that itself caused controversy on campus. (See “Hail to the Chief,” sidebar)

They take issue with nearly every item in the Bain bill of particulars.

In all, it’s been a tough six months for the college–its faculty, its students, its administrators, its alumni, and its boosters in north-central Massachusetts. But to Fitchburg State loyalists, the assault on the institution’s reputation–indeed, its very existence–has been as mystifying as it’s been infuriating. They see not a poster child for higher-education reform, but a thriving and vital small college that provides an educational pathway to middle-class life for a region’s young people, one that also feeds local schools with new teachers and local industries with middle managers. And they take issue with nearly every item in the Bain bill of particulars. But the case of Fitchburg State poses another question that goes far beyond a single campus, and one that’s far harder to answer: When it comes to providing public college education, how good is good enough?

Small is beautiful

In the school’s sun-dappled quad, film major Vatche Arabian relaxes on a bench next to a blossoming cherry tree. It’s almost May, and Arabian’s sophomore year is winding to a close. He says that Fitchburg State has been an “ideal fit” for him. He’s just far enough away from his family in Watertown for his taste. And with a yearly cost of about $8,000, Fitchburg State isn’t going to leave him with a mountain of debt when he gets out–the fate looming for some of his friends who have taken out huge loans to go to more expensive schools.

There’s also a feeling of intimacy at Fitchburg State. “When you’re out here on the quad, you inevitably run into someone you know,” Arabian says. He was accepted at the University of Massachusetts­Amherst but decided on Fitchburg State because he didn’t want to deal with the “sea of people” at UMass. Of most importance to him, though, is the high quality of the film program at Fitchburg State. “Technically, the program here is very in-depth,” he says. “The kids leave here knowing more than at other schools.”

Fitchburg State’s communications/media program is touted by Lieberman and Rivard as well. “I think this is the school in Massachusetts to go to for communications,” says Lieberman. Rivard points out that a graduate of the program, Jonathan Egstad, won an Academy Award a few years ago for technical achievement. “We compete with Emerson,” Rivard says, referring to the private communications college in the heart of Boston.

Rivard and Lieberman maintain that the communications/media department is just one example of academic superiority at Fitchburg State that the Bain bean counters failed to recognize. “The Bain analyses used a very narrow information base,” Lieberman says. “There was no broad consultation with constituents. I don’t think the report sees the excellence in the system.”

Interim president Michael Rivard says
Bain relied on old and incomplete data.

Other supporters also dispute Bain’s characterization of Fitchburg State as a poor performer within the higher-education system. “I’ve never been impressed with the sense that [Fitchburg State] is in trouble,” says state Sen. Robert Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat who is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s education committee. “It’s not a stagnant institution. It’s hardly the case that the school is teetering.”

Antonioni, whose district encompasses both Fitchburg State and Mount Wachusett, is also skeptical about the idea of a merger between two very different schools. “There are two very different groups of students attending those institutions,” he says. “At Mount Wachusett, you have some students who didn’t have the grades to get into a four-year institution and other students who may be looking for [training in] a trade. At Fitchburg State, you have students looking for some sort of undergraduate degree–a four-year program.” Given the different missions of each school, he says, a merger between them might destroy the advantages each has to offer.

Even though a merger now seems off the table, Chancellor Gill says that the state and community college have more in common than it first appears. “Both campuses are very involved in [teacher training], particularly K through 12,” she notes, “and they are very involved in programs and activities involving workforce development. Both campuses are geographically so close, they serve, in essence, the same population. It makes sense to consider a different collaboration between them.”

Rivard concedes that the proposal “has caused us to think more collaboratively.” He arranged a June meeting of administrators of higher-education institutions in central Massachusetts, which include Worcester State College and Quinsigamond Community College, in addition to Fitchburg State and Mount Wachusett. The purpose of the conference was to look for ways the institutions could work together to improve educational programs in light of continuing state budget cuts. “The governor’s plan was the catalyst for this,” he says.

While the governor’s plan stressed efficiencies in back-office operations, some experts think these institutions could benefit from closer coordination of academic programs as well. James Samels, president of the Education Alliance, a Framingham-based higher-education consulting firm, has proposed a “collaborative plan for learning communities” in the region, which he calls the Johnny Appleseed Consortium. The plan would involve not mergers but “partnerships” among the state and community college campuses, with each one pursuing certain workforce development specialties, and efforts made to avoid duplication of programs.

Crunching numbers

Behind the governor’s plan was a series of documents–all PowerPoint presentations, the preferred medium of the business-consulting world, and of the Romney administration–prepared by Bain & Co., at first for the Romney transition team, then for the state Board of Higher Education. These were all products of an elaborate number-crunching exercise intended to detect discrepancies in cost and effectiveness at the state’s 29 public campuses. The Bain analyses hit Fitchburg State hard for high non-instructional costs per student and declining enrollment.

The fullest public presentation of the Bain analysis and Romney plan for “increasing efficiencies” in public higher education came in a Board of Higher Education briefing on March 20. The PowerPoint document distributed at that time noted that, for instance, Fitchburg State spent more than $500 per full-time-equivalent student on “academic management,” compared with a median spending level among the state colleges of less than $200 per student. Based on discrepancies such as these, the Romney administration insisted that it ought to be possible to capture $30 million in savings from the state colleges alone without a single cutback in instructional programs, based on “targets” set midway between the median and lowest cost shown by a comparable institution (what Bain called “best demonstrated practice”). The campuses considered to have the biggest room for administrative savings were Bridgewater, Salem, and Fitchburg, accounting for nearly $21 million of the $30 million total.

(Even the extent of waste and inefficiency implied by these savings goals paled in comparison to the treatment Bain gave Fitchburg State in a “discussion document” prepared for the Romney transition team in December. It was in that pre-inauguration PowerPoint presentation that Bain singled out Fitchburg State as a candidate for closure, on the grounds of both regional redundancy and “poor performance.”)

With campus closings off the table but a budget crisis still to be solved, Peter Nessen, Romney’s education advisor and then-secretary-designate, maintains that the purpose of the Bain analyses was to identify areas of potential savings that could protect educational programs from cuts that would otherwise be unavoidable. “We asked Bain to dig into shared services,” says Nessen, who has since resigned. “We suggested we wanted to avoid duplication of administration. We’re not looking to save money. We’re looking at ways to maintain campuses we couldn’t afford otherwise.”

Rivard agrees that savings and efficiencies are possible at Fitchburg State, but he takes issue with several of Bain’s findings, particularly the claim that Fitchburg State operates at an unusually high cost per student. According to Rivard, that conclusion is based on old and incomplete data. Fitchburg State’s cost per student did appear to be higher than other state colleges a few years ago, he says, primarily because of a decline in enrollment at the college–a decline largely due to higher admissions standards required in the 1990s by the Board of Higher Education. (A 3.0 grade point average is now required to get into the state colleges.) Rivard says the higher admissions standards disproportionately hurt Fitchburg State because the population in central Massachusetts has remained stagnant over the past decade, while it has grown in places like the southeastern region of the state.

But enrollment at Fitchburg State has turned around in the past two years, and Rivard cites education reform as the reason. The MCAS test appears to have helped students get better prepared to meet higher admissions standards at the state colleges, he says. As a result of this uptick in enrollment, the cost per student at Fitchburg State has fallen. (The rise in enrollment at Fitchburg State is actually recognized in the March 20 Board of Higher Education briefing document. It showed a 7.5 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment at Fitchburg State between fiscal years 2001 and 2003.)

The report “did force us to look at the numbers for ourselves.”

Rivard also says that in calculating Fitchburg State’s cost per student for the 2000-01 school year, Bain failed to take into account approximately 1,000 students who began school after the fall cutoff date in measuring enrollment figures. Those overlooked students represented roughly a quarter of Fitchburg State’s total enrollment, a larger fraction than at any other state college. If “annualized,” or full-year enrollment figures are used, Rivard says, Fitchburg State’s cost per student drops into the middle range of the state colleges.

And Rivard disputes the claim that Fitchburg State has below-average graduation figures. Indeed, the December Bain report does not include any numbers to support its finding that the college has a “low completion rate.” Rivard maintains that the 42 percent graduation rate at Fitchburg State was the third highest among the nine comprehensive state colleges in Massachusetts in 2000. (In its Spring 2003 journal Connection, the New England Board of Higher Education placed Fitchburg State 18th out of 40 New England public institutions in graduation rate in 2000.)

Despite his problems with the report, Rivard says that some of Bain’s suggestions on cutting costs were helpful. He adds that the consulting firm “did force us to look at the numbers ourselves.”

Chancellor Gill concedes many of Rivard’s points. In fact, she was so impressed with Rivard’s argument about mid-year enrollees that the Board of Higher Education will use annualized figures for enrollment from now on. Gill also acknowledges that Fitchburg State had the third highest graduation rate among comprehensive state colleges in Massachusetts in 2000, behind Westfield and Bridgewater. She says that Bain’s conclusion about a “low completion rate” was based on a comparison between Fitchburg State and a sample of similar institutions from around the country, rather than other Massachusetts colleges. (Other state college officials object to the use of the completion-rate measure for judging their effectiveness. A yardstick used widely for distinguishing between private four-year colleges, the measure counts only first-time freshmen who receive their degrees within six years; the state colleges aren’t able to count the many students who start at community colleges and transfer. And they say that six years is an unrealistic timeframe for students who pursue their degrees part-time, or take time off to earn money.)

As for Bain’s finding that Fitchburg State was “not serving [Massachusetts] residents,” Gill expresses puzzlement. “I don’t know what that means,” she says. Fitchburg State was not, for instance, on the New England Board of Higher Education’s 2003 list of the 25 New England public institutions with the highest percentages of out-of-state students.

Class rank

Refuting Bain’s numbers, in whole or in part, does not, however, settle broader questions about quality and cost-effectiveness at Fitchburg State, or the rest of the public higher-education system. With state budgets under stress and an increasing proportion of young people in need of post-secondary study to get ahead in a changing economy, those issues are getting harder to avoid.

“In a world where institutions are competing more intensely, every institution is going to have to ask harder questions,” says Frank Newman, a professor of education at Brown University and director of The Futures Project on higher-education reform. He likens the current situation to that faced by American automakers when they first met competition from the Japanese in the 1970s. Suddenly, he says, “they had to go out and really make a better car.”

Or at least make sure the car gets the best review it can. Peter Alcock, chairman of the Fitchburg State board of trustees, is out to improve the school’s standing in the influential U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Currently, Fitchburg State is stuck in the third of four tiers in the U.S. News rankings for colleges in the Northeast, which includes the New England states as well as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rankings are based on academic and non-academic measures such as “peer assessment” scores, graduation rates, educational expenditures per student, SAT scores of enrolled students, percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students, and faculty degrees and compensation.

Even a third-tier rating is not bad compared with Fitchburg State’s cohorts; the other state colleges in Massachusetts can all be found in the bottom category. But Alcock’s goal is to move Fitchburg State into the second tier and thereby to become “the leading Massachusetts state college.” It burns him that state colleges in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have dominated the second tier of the rankings in recent years.

Alcock thinks one reason for the Bay State’s poor comparative showing is New York and Pennsylvania’s recent emphasis on the accreditation of individual academic programs. So-called secondary accreditation is granted by private and professional associations in fields such as nursing and computer science. The process requires institutions to undertake rigorous assessments of their quality and effectiveness in those fields. While Fitchburg and other Massachusetts state colleges have long been accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the principal accreditation agency, Fitchburg State has only recently adopted a voluntary goal of gaining secondary accreditation for all of its specialized programs. (Secondary accreditation is currently not required by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.) Alcock thinks secondary accreditation of all programs is the best way for Fitchburg State to move up–in part because those who bestow these certifications also vote on the U.S. News rankings.

But Newman maintains that U.S. News-style assessments are not enough. He says institutions of higher education need to explore a new generation of performance measures that look specifically at what students are actually learning. Call it MCAS for college.

A pioneer of this type of measurement is Truman State College in Missouri, which has developed a series of tests to track student learning. Newman says the assessments used at Truman State range from measures of a student’s writing ability to competence at solving mathematical and scientific problems. “It’s seldom that potential employers want someone with a detailed knowledge of the Punic Wars,” he says. “They want a good set of independent skills.”

Alcock agrees, noting that the search committee at Fitchburg State specifically directed the next president to institute a “systematic institutional plan for the assessment of student learning outcomes.” But he acknowledges that this approach to outcome measurement is controversial –and unpopular with faculty members, who don’t want to tailor their teaching to the tests.

Mission control

The question remains whether all these approaches–a push for secondary accreditation, moving up in the U.S. News rankings, measuring student learning outcomes, and forming regional partnerships–will be enough to chart a new and reliable course for Fitchburg State College, the mission of which has been changing rapidly with changing times. Like many other state colleges, Fitchburg State started out as a teacher training academy. In 1932, it became the State Teachers College at Fitchburg, offering a four-year degree in education. It wasn’t until 1960 that the institution, then called the State College at Fitchburg, expanded its purpose to offer degrees beyond education.

Professor Ben Lieberman:
“You’re not pigeonholed here.”

That mission has continued to grow. Today, the state Board of Higher Education says it is the role of state colleges to “integrate liberal arts and sciences with professional education.” In addition, “each college has a distinctive academic focus based upon its established strengths and regional and state needs. Each college is a leader and resource for the community and contributes to the region’s cultural, environmental, and economic development.”

Fitchburg State defines its own mission, in part, as “integrat[ing] high-quality professional programs with strong liberal arts and sciences studies” and “foster[ing] excellence in teaching, service, and research.” It is a mission broad enough to encompass teacher training and Vatche Arabian’s film-studies programs, a nursing school, and Ben Lieberman’s research on the Weimar Republic. Indeed, under this rubric, Fitchburg State now offers more than 50 undergraduate degree programs and 30 master’s degrees.

Rivard says that the broad nature of its mission is the school’s strength. If nothing else, he says, Fitchburg State knows what it is not. “We know what our mission is,” he says. “We’re not the land grant institution. We’re not the vocational training school. We educate nurses, teachers, computer scientists. We do business, some liberal arts, criminal justice, social science. We provide the people who make Massachusetts work.”

Fitchburg State carries out that mission through work with the city of Fitchburg and area businesses, Rivard says. He mentions a training program for teacher’s aides that the college runs in conjunction with the Lowell public schools and Middlesex Community College. There are 38 women in the program, he says; nine just graduated. Fitchburg State also has a number of programs linked to area businesses, including one in which business students provide survey research and marketing services to private firms.

A laundry list of degree programs may not add up to a coherent purpose.

Institutionally, Fitchburg State has contributed to revitalizing a section of the city along North Street, Sen. Antonioni notes. Other civic collaborations include sponsorship of the annual AmeriCulture Arts Festival in the city’s downtown, an annual film festival, the college’s Center for Italian Culture, and the annual fall cleanup of Green Corner’s Park and nearby areas by Fitchburg State students.

But some critics say that a laundry list of degree programs and civic projects may not add up to a coherent academic purpose. It may, in fact, be an indication that a school’s mission has become too diffuse.

“There is a tendency for the missions of state colleges to be blurred,” says Newman. “There’s a tendency to try to be all things to all people. There’s a tendency to compete for the best students. That’s not where Fitchburg State belongs. Everyone says, ‘We have to have a program in X.’ Someone needs to say, ‘Let’s sharpen the mission. Let’s focus on things we do and do them well.'”

Alcock agrees with the need for focus but takes issue with the insinuation that Fitchburg State is spread too thin in its degree offerings. Many are quite similar to each other, he says, and are based on similar curricula. Earlier this year, Alcock notes, the college shut down its clinical lab services program because it had only 13 students enrolled. In the business program, however, 300 to 400 students are enrolled, and they want wide choice in degrees, Alcock says.

“We will not be all things to all people. I can definitely say that,” Alcock insists. “We will always do what we can do extremely well and nothing else. That is what we believe in.”

Show them the money

The biggest hurdle in making more out of Fitchburg State may not be reaching agreement on what to do, but rather finding the money to do it. Efforts to institute performance measures and to gain secondary accreditation for programs cost money. And money is growing scarcer in the wake of the continuing cuts in state appropriations.

In May 2002, budget problems at Fitchburg State caused by state funding cuts resulted in an increase of student fees of $700 a year. Last summer, more than 20 administration and staff employees and nine faculty members took advantage of a state early retirement program. In January, a mid-year budget cut resulted in further reductions in administrative spending at the college, and four months later Rivard had to plan for an additional $5.2 million reduction in state funding. He immediately put the brakes on the planned hire of 10 new faculty members and began looking at “significant numbers” of layoffs. There will also be another fee increase this coming school year of between $500 and $800.

“We can manage the fiscal side,” Rivard says. “But it’s going to mean increased class sizes and less service.”

As his own career at Fitchburg State approaches an end, Rivard is still heavily involved in the college’s day-to-day affairs, hurrying from one meeting to another. Heading for a meeting with a group of administrators, he offers one last assessment of the college and the challenges before it.

Meet the Author
“I’ve been here 37 years,” says Rivard. “Long after I’m gone and all of these current players are gone, this school will still be here. It’s been here since 1894. It’s weathered these crises before, and it will weather them again.”

David S. Kassel is a freelance writer living in Harvard.