Keene State College’s alumni weekend this fall kicked off with a 5k run around campus. Justina Reichelt, a 2003 graduate, crossed the finish line pushing her 2-year-old son in a stroller.
Reichelt actually grew up in Keene. She now lives in Vermont, so not far away, but she almost didn’t come back for alumni festivities this year. “I was at one of those turning points where I was thinking - maybe I should take my degrees off my wall and put them under my desk,” she said. “You know, I was embarrassed.”
Embarrassed, she said, because there’s been a whole lot of bad news about the college in the past few years. There were the riots at the local pumpkin festival in 2014, where students were behind extensive property damage around town. There was controversy in the athletics department and coaching staff that made statewide news. Reichelt said, the school she was reading about wasn’t the school, and wasn’t the community, she remembered.
But then she saw this summer that Keene State had named a new interim president, Melinda Treadwell, who’s also a graduate of the college. Reichelt got a letter in the mail from Treadwell and she liked what she read. She felt hopeful things would turn around.
“I mean literally because Melinda is president, I was like, I want to get my son … a shirt,” she said. “I wanted to get him a Keene State shirt.”
With the new leadership, Keene signaled a turn, but the school’s challenges are steep. The college has run a deficit for the past three years, tied in large part to falling enrollment, which has meant less money coming in through tuition.
Those enrollment struggles are not unique to Keene. There’s simply a smaller pool of high school grads applying to colleges all across the northeast. But Treadwell, who previously served as Provost and CEO of Antioch University New England, said Keene’s fared significantly worse than what demographic trends alone might have forecast.
Keene State is part of New Hampshire’s broader state university system, which includes the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University and Granite State College.
With the transition in leadership and strategy at Keene State this fall, the system’s chancellor, Todd Leach, said he’s channeling a lot of system resources into the college to help keep it afloat. “Right now, the system office CFO is functioning as the CFO for Keene,” he said. “Our chief human resource officer is functioning as the chief human resource officer for Keene. We’re stepping in and helping.”
The college this spring will graduate more seniors than new students it will likely welcome in the fall. That’s one reason it’s facing a budget gap of more than $5 million for the fiscal year starting in July, Treadwell said.
The staff and faculty buyouts, and potential layoffs down the line, will help the college reach a balanced budget, Treadwell said. A proposed academic restructuring, a shifting of departments and schools within the college, will also contribute to a leaner organization.
It remains to be seen how these changes will manifest, and how enrollment numbers – and thus the college’s income – will ultimately shake out this spring. Treadwell is relying, in part, on conservative forecasts, she said, and she’s confident the school’s balance sheet will remain sustainable. “We are not an institution in peril, she said, “we’re just an institution that needs to rethink its model and its design.”
Niall Moran, head of the school’s faculty union, said faculty are waiting to hear details of the restructuring plan and buyout offers -- there’s still a lot of uncertainty. But overall, he said, faculty feel they are in competent hands under Treadwell, and have been encouraged by her transparency and openness this summer and fall.
“It’s sad that anyone might not be with our community,” said Kim Schmidl-Gagne, president of one of the staff unions on campus. “But that it’s optional at this point is important to us. And we have to see what happens.”
School finances may not be on the mind of every Keene State student these days, but one exception is the staff of the college’s student newspaper. Not only does the newspaper report on administrative issues, but it saw its own budget cut last spring by almost half. That meant reducing the size of the paper and cutting back on color printing for its pages, said Alexandria Saurman, a Keene State junior and top editor at the paper. Plus, she said, newspaper staff weren’t able to attend an annual conference this year that’s valuable for their training, visibility and recruitment.
Even after all that, Saurman said Keene remains, for her, a great place to be at school. That’s in part because of the small class sizes and the relationships students can form with teachers. “Personally, my advisor … has been like a dad to me,” she said. “He’s just always there.” She said she’s texted him in the middle of the night with questions, only to get an immediate response. She’s happy she chose Keene, 110 percent, she said.
That sentiment – of a strong bond between faculty, staff, students and the community as a whole in Keene – is echoed by many around campus. Treadwell and others are hopeful the strength of those relationships helps the college navigate its enrollment challenges and, to use one of her favorite phrases, “right size” for the future.