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Simmons University in Boston considers cutting several liberal arts departments amid financial crisis

Simmons University, Boston’s only women’s college, is considering cutting several liberal arts departments.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Simmons University, Boston’s only women’s college, is considering eliminating many undergraduate departments in the liberal arts, including philosophy and sociology, in response to substantial financial challenges and declining graduate enrollment.

The private university, which has trained generations of social workers and nurses, is the latest women’s college to confront existential threats to its business model, which has increasingly relied on graduate tuition to fund its operations in recent years. Its struggles are prompting concern among faculty members and alumnae.

Simmons president Lynn Perry Wooten, a scholar of crisis leadership, said the college must make difficult decisions to achieve financial stability, including adding revenue streams with new graduate programs and accelerated degree programs, discontinuing majors with low enrollment, and offering early retirement packages to faculty members. She estimates the turnaround process could take three to five years.

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Simmons enrolled 1,803 undergraduates and 3,981 graduate students last fall. Total enrollment has fallen 11.5 percent from the fall of 2019.

“Change is coming, but this change is going to position Simmons better,” said Lynn Perry Wooten, Simmons president.Simmons University

Also on Wooten’s plate is trying to change a long-term contract with an online learning company that sharply limits the amount of tuition the university gets from most of its graduate students.

“Change is coming, but this change is going to position Simmons better,” Wooten said in an interview. “So yes, some majors may go away but it’s [about] letting everyone have a voice in the change, and then making a process that works.”

Like other small, private colleges in New England, Simmons faces a declining population of college-aged students and fierce competition from less expensive public and online-only competitors. The school, which opened in 1902 (before women could vote) with funds from the will of Boston clothing manufacturer John Simmons, enrolls students who identify as women in its undergraduate program, while its graduate programs enroll both men and women.

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Simmons charges undergraduate non-nursing students living on campus $67,593 a year before financial aid, while graduate programs range in cost from $1,110 to $1,500 per credit hour. One third of Simmons current undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants and 40 percent identify as LGBTQ.

Simmons ended fiscal 2022 with a loss of $14.5 million. A spokesperson said fiscal 2023 numbers are not yet available, although the school expects a smaller deficit.

Women’s colleges across the country have struggled to maintain enrollment in recent years, prompting some to either enroll men, close, or merge with other institutions. Fifty years ago, there were about 200 women’s colleges; today only about 30 remain.

Lasell University in Newton started accepting men in 1998, and Emmanuel College in Boston followed suit in 2001. Mills College in Oakland, Calif., last year merged into Northeastern University following years of declining enrollment. Schools with strong brands and large endowments, such as Wellesley College, are in a better position to fare the challenging market conditions.

“Women’s colleges, if they’re going to thrive, we need a mega community,” Wooten said. “We need corporate philanthropy, we need major gifts from donors. We also need the involvement of government [increasing funding opportunities] the same way we’ve seen with historically Black colleges.”

Simmons alumnae said in interviews that they hope the college can persevere.

Amy Cody, a 1980 graduate, said she supports “whatever they need to do to make it work financially,” short of accepting men to the undergraduate program.

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“I really hope Simmons can pull it off and figure out how to keep the legacy going,” said Cody, who is retired and lives on Martha’s Vineyard after working for Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts.

University leaders started notifying faculty members earlier in June of plans to close certain undergrad departments, including modern languages, philosophy, literature, art and music, and sociology. Wooten said that no decisions are final yet. A final plan will be presented to the university’s board in October after university leaders meet with all departments, she said.

Current students in affected departments would be able to finish their majors, Wooten added. Simmons currently offers more than 50 undergraduate majors, with just 10 of them accounting for 88 percent of undergraduate students.

Faculty members expressed concern about Simmons offering fewer liberal arts degrees, which they say complement professional programs such as nursing.

“They’re cutting out the very heart of the university,” said one Simmons professor who asked not to be not to be identified because a college official instructed faculty not to speak with the press. “Cutting out the humanities and social sciences is like cutting out the heart and then seeing if the body will still walk.”

Professors also said they feel left out of the decision-making. Simmons professors are not unionized and some fear layoffs could be coming.

“There is so much frustration and so many people are upset,” said another professor who also asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

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At the same time, the university is consolidating its campus facilities in the Fenway neighborhood under a real estate project called “One Simmons.” After 10 years of planning, developer Skanska USA will build a dorm and student center in exchange for a 99-year ground lease of the residence campus, which will be redeveloped for commercial use. Simmons’ neighbor Emmanuel College in 2000 agreed to lease one acre of its campus to pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. for 75 years for about $50 million, a deal that was vital for the college to overcome its struggles.

Further complicating Simmons’ financial stability is a long-term contract with online learning platform 2U, initiated by then-Simmons president Helen Drinan in 2013 to help jumpstart the small college’s foray into online learning at the graduate level.

As part of the agreement, the company takes 50 percent to 62 percent of tuition for each student in its online programs — more than half of all Simmons’ graduate students. Wooten said she is working to renegotiate the contract with 2U, which runs through 2039.

“The contract was something that was signed by my predecessor and no contract post-pandemic is on autopilot,” Wooten said. “We’re continuously thinking about evolving that contract, and having to prioritize what works for Simmons.”

A spokesperson for 2U declined to comment.

The contract was born out of a desire to boost revenue following the subprime mortgage crisis, when the college faced “very serious financial problems,” Drinan said in an interview.

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At the time, college leaders saw online learning as an opportunity to scale graduate programs but Simmons couldn’t afford the upfront marketing and tech expenses to launch its own initiative, Drinan said. The programs with 2U “grew tremendously” in the early years of the partnership, Drinan said.

In 2018, Simmons extended the contract to 2039.

“We grew our graduate programs in a way we could never have grown organically,” said Drinan, now the interim president of Cabrini University in Radnor Township, Pa. “They all had a fine return on investment.”

Now, 10 years later, the online higher education space is much more crowded and competitive, said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at education consulting group Eduventures. The downside to such online partnerships, he said, is that contracts tend to be lengthy, while graduate enrollment waxes and wanes.

“At a time when a school is struggling overall it’s challenging to give up 50 percent or more of revenue to this company,” Garrett said. “It’s the logical playing out of a contract.”

Wooten arrived at Simmons in 2020 from Cornell University, where she was a dean at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. She said she was drawn to Simmons in part because she attended an all-girls high school and “believes in the power of women’s education.”

While Wooten was aware of the challenges facing small, tuition-dependent colleges, she said she could not have predicted how much her background in crisis leadership would serve her during the pandemic and subsequent financial fallout.

“The world of higher ed has been disrupted since I’ve taken the job,” she said. “I have really had to practice what I preach and embrace my own theory as a live case study and think, ‘OK, how do we take this crisis and make it an opportunity?’”

Correspondent Ellie Wolfe contributed to this report.


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.