The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology will live to fight another — independent — day.
I wrote two months ago about the scrappy technical school in the South End, whose board was then engaged in a highly questionable merger negotiation with Wentworth Institute of Technology. The merger would have effectively closed a 112-year-old school of higher learning, one whose student body is 75 percent people of color.
Last Thursday, the board — under pressure from the community, alumni, and elected officials, including Mayor Marty Walsh — voted to reverse course and end the once-secret Wentworth negotiations.
BFIT (as it now brands itself) traces its roots to a bequest from its Founding Father namesake. It was founded in 1908, and has operated since then from a campus on Berkeley Street in the South End, offering certificate programs and two-year degrees. In recent years, its student body has become perhaps the most diverse of any college in the area.
Without question, these are hard times financially for small colleges in New England, and BFIT is no exception. In recent years, Mount Ida College and Newbury College have closed, and other schools have been pushed to the brink of extinction.
But BFIT — whose South End campus is in the process of being sold to a major developer for an undisclosed sum that has been estimated to be around $50 million — had seemed to be poised to be an exception. The school had already announced plans to move to Nubian Square in Roxbury, a move that would place it in the center of the community it now serves. Its student body of 600 was growing modestly, thanks in part to its affordable tuition of $16,000 a year. Despite that, board members, including one who served on the boards of both schools, were talking about a deal to absorb BFIT into Wentworth.
That changed only when people started pushing back after the talks became public.
“What’s changed is that we’ve had a series of community voices, elected officials, and internal voices who have raised their hands to say they would like to make sure that... we’ve turned over every rock to make sure there aren’t pathways forward for us as an independent college,” said Benjamin Franklin’s CEO, Aisha Francis.
“I think the sense of partnership from people who consider themselves invested in the institution is much more apparent,” she added.
That’s a diplomatic way of saying that once the public had an opportunity to be heard — in part, through community forums organized by Francis and her staff — they wanted no part of the merger. In effect, public exposure killed the deal.
The school still has plenty of work to do to ensure a viable future as an independent institution. In a meeting with its leadership last week, Walsh said he wanted 60 days for the city, working with outside consultants, to help craft a plan for the move to Nubian Square.
Walsh told me that many details of the move to Harrison Avenue have yet to be figured out. And he pledged to help the school find partnerships with the business community that can help ensure a smooth transition to Roxbury and, beyond that, a stable future.
“In this 21st century economy, there’s a major place for BFIT as it educates young people in computer science and technology,” Walsh said. “If it were to go away, that would be a big loss for the city. So I asked for some time to work on how we can help.”
It’s conceivable that, down the road, BFIT will still engage in partnerships with other colleges, including Wentworth. But those would be collaborations, as opposed to the unilateral surrender that was just narrowly avoided.
Most importantly, the survival of BFIT and its move to Roxbury keeps open a door of opportunity for a community that needs and deserves it.
BFIT’s independence matters, because it is inseparable from its mission. It opens a door of opportunity for students who have been shut out, and no city has enough of those.