Metro

Wheelock College report finds financial, faculty woes

Accreditation agency cites challenges at Fenway college

 Wheelock president Jackie Jenkins Scott
Aram Boghosian for the Globe/File
Wheelock president Jackie Jenkins Scott

Wheelock College faces financial challenges, an upheaval from overburdened faculty, and fallout from an exodus of top staff, according to a new report from a regional accrediting agency obtained by the Globe.

The report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges evaluates the small Fenway school’s progress under the leadership of president Jackie Jenkins Scott, who is leaving in 2016 after 11 years. Wheelock, which specializes in training teachers and social workers, has increased its enrollment during her tenure, but struggles to attract and retain students, according to the report.

Faculty hiring and salaries have not kept pace with a growing number of academic programs, and professors are overloaded with courses and unable to do research or take sabbaticals, it says. The NEASC report said the college would need at least 15 more instructors to handle current classes offered.

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The accrediting agency said the administration lacks fiscal transparency, a concern faculty have raised over the past year in letters to the board of trustees, and says minority and commuter students feel marginalized both in and outside the classroom.

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“Increased competition, high student debt loads, a desire to maintain small class sizes, fiscal constraints that have slowed faculty hiring, and balancing revenue generating activities with the core mission of teaching and scholarship are all challenges facing the college today,” the report says.

The evaluation is one of two dozen the agency issues each year. The accreditors visited Wheelock in March and April as part of a reaccreditation process that occurs every decade and affects a college’s ability to receive federal financial aid. In the fall, the college will formally respond and the agency will issue a decision about reaccreditation.

Jenkins Scott, 65, acknowledged that Wheelock faces challenges, but said they are no different than those confronting many other small schools.

“Wheelock is in a great position. We have had 10 years of steady growth,” she said in a phone interview.

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The report named several areas of success at the school, which has 1,331 students. Wheelock has dedicated staff, faculty, and students who are devoted to its mission to “improve the lives of children and families,” has well-maintained facilities, and strong professional programs in education and social work.

The school also has successfully used its athletic program to help attract more men to Wheelock, where 88 percent of students are female.

It is common for accreditation agencies to find one or two problems at a college, and accreditors usually give schools time to correct them, according to other accreditation agencies.

“Multiple issues? I don’t know if it would be the norm, but it does happen from time to time,” said John Hausaman, spokesman for the Higher Learning Commission, which evaluates colleges in the Midwest and West.

Last year, the nation’s six regional accrediting agencies reaffirmed the accreditation of 314 of the 420 schools evaluated, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Sixteen schools had accreditation withdrawn and 44 were given warnings, among other outcomes.

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At Wheelock, the report outlines a communication breakdown between the board, the president, and the faculty that it says must be remedied if the school is to improve. It says the college lacks comprehensive and coherent planning, hindering faculty and administrators when they attempt to put new plans in motion.

“The college administration will need to find a way to communicate its financial health, issues, and concerns in order to minimize mistrust and misinformation on campus,” it says.

Expenses exceeded revenue by $4.4 million in 2013, according to tax documents.

Some academic programs have no tenured professors, the report said. Wheelock has 68 full-time faculty and 26 part-time faculty, numbers that have stayed relatively stable in recent years.

Staff members are stretched thin because some positions are vacant and 18 staff have announced their departure in the past year, including the directors of admissions, financial aid, the library, and the school’s Singapore program. In a March presentation to the board, faculty highlighted the fact that five vice presidents of academic affairs have left in the past 10 years.

Jenkins Scott dismissed questions about the number of departing staff as typical attrition combined with her announced departure.

In recent interviews, faculty and current and former staff cited concerns beyond those listed by the NEASC.

The college in recent years has hired at least eight consulting firms, they said, and appears to be focused as much on its external image as it is on students. Wheelock said it spent $920,000 last year on consultants, including some who work on grant-funded projects.

Faculty members also questioned the president’s international travel, and spending of a fund designated for faculty research on other topics.

The college conducts an annual audit and has found no inappropriate expenditures, according to spokeswoman Beth Kaplan.

Professors say they are also concerned because the college has become less academically selective, according to federal data. SAT scores of incoming students have dropped as has the percentage of admitted students who enroll. The school admits 73 percent of applicants, the data show.

Enrollment growth has been a challenge and resulted in relatively flat tuition revenue, the NEASC report says. Wheelock depends on revenue from tuition and room and board for 86 percent of its overall budget. Tuition plus room, board, and fees will be $47,835 next year.

Jenkins Scott’s compensation grew from $269,000 in 2004 to $509,000 last year, according to tax filings.

Kate Taylor, chairwoman of the school’s board, said Jenkins Scott’s pay is on par with similar schools.

The concerns raised by NEASC were not new and are being addressed, she said.

“None of these are easy issues, and there’s not one magic bullet that solves them,” Taylor said.

The board is working to make finances more transparent and has increased the number of opportunities for faculty to participate and express their views, she said.

“We have a very strong community. We welcome debate,’’ Taylor said.

Related:

Why some small colleges are in big trouble (4/14/2013)

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.