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Merger off the table, Hilbert navigates campus worries

Hilbert College and St. Bonaventure University have charted separate paths forward since their merger talks fizzled a year ago.

The lack of an accord barely registered a blip at St. Bonaventure, the institution with a richer history, deeper pockets and vast alumni network. But at Hilbert, a merger was viewed as a way to shore up the long-term viability of the small Catholic college with little name recognition and a tiny endowment, especially amid growing financial pressures and shrinking student numbers.

So when the boards of both schools announced last March they would not join forces, many people at Hilbert wondered, what now?

The college of about 1,000 students has kept on plugging, sticking to a strategic plan developed years ago, before the merger talks, while also undergoing over the past several months a top-to-bottom self-evaluation as part of efforts to renew its accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

But it has not been an easy time at Hilbert. The normally quiet campus in Hamburg has had its share of unrest in recent months, including the circulation of an unsigned letter that accused President Cynthia A. Zane of failing to have an alternative plan to keep the college on a viable financial path.

The three-page letter was sent in January to the 33 members of the college’s board of trustees, and it purported to have been approved for circulation by the college’s Faculty Senate. It was addressed to Zane, although the president said a copy was not sent to her office. The letter blamed Zane for creating a working environment “marked by fear, intimidation, and an endless parade of self-imposed crises.”

It also accused Zane of not addressing “growing discontent” among students over how the college has handled recent “racial incidents and discord.”

And the letter criticized the “ongoing turnover” at the college as well as “repeated egregious breaches of shared governance.”

Trustees received the letter, along with a separate unsigned cover letter asking for their help.

Edward Gelia Jr., chairman of the Hilbert board of trustees, said he and other board members investigated the letter’s claims and found no merit to them.

“The board is comfortable that the allegations are unfounded and not based on fact,” said Gelia, head of United Insurance Agency in Amherst.

Faculty role

The Faculty Senate did not vote to send the letter, said Michael Degnan, a professor of English who is president of the Faculty Senate.

“It was not an official Faculty Senate position,” Degnan said. “The faculty overwhelmingly condemned the sending of the document. It’s not representative of the faculty.”

The cover letter stated that the Faculty Senate voted, 22-3, in favor of sending the letter to Zane. It also said that it was “forwarded to you in this manner for fear of reprisal (another piece of the morale problem.)”

Degnan acknowledged the Faculty Senate considered sending a letter to Zane.

“Everybody’s kind of concerned about enrollment and finances, and within that anxious atmosphere, a couple of faculty members wrote up this highly critical draft letter to President Zane,” he said.

In the end, though, faculty voted to request a meeting with Zane to discuss the future of the college.

“It’s just the case of a concern for the demographics in the area, asking the president to clarify a little bit about where she would like to take us at this point,” said Degnan, who has taught at Hilbert for 40 years.

Degnan said many faculty members felt embarrassed that the letter was sent to Gelia and other trustees under the guise of the Senate approval.

‘Collaborative model’

Zane, who received a two-year contract extension from the board last fall, wrote Gelia a 19-page point-by-point refutation of issues raised in the letter. She acknowledged the college has undergone tremendous change in the 10 years since she was named president. Not everyone at the college is thrilled by the changes, Zane said.

She acknowledged some racial tensions at the college stemming from an off-campus incident in October involving Hilbert students.

“We’ve been trying to address the issues students have raised,” she said.

But Zane said that making claims and leveling criticism anonymously were not in the spirit of a collegial academic environment.

“It’s so disappointing that one disgruntled person could take up so much oxygen and put Middle States in some turbulence and difficulty,” she said. “I don’t know who it is for certain. The timing is unfortunate.”

Zane and Gelia also disputed the notion that faculty have not been involved in decision making at the college.

At Zane’s insistence, the board includes a faculty member on each of its seven standing committees, Gelia said.

Zane said she meets regularly with faculty leadership.

“I have to lead the college, but it’s a collaborative model,” she said.

Zane said the college’s faculty and staff were closely involved in mapping out the self-study that is crucial to whether the college gets reaccredited.

Getting reaccredited

The reaccreditation process typically is fraught with a certain degree of tension and trepidation for colleges in the midst of it. Without a seal of approval from the appropriate accrediting agency, colleges and universities face the prospect of federal sanctions, negative publicity and possible shutdown.

Hilbert completed its “self-study” document in 2015, and representatives from Middle States are scheduled to visit the campus in early April. A determination on its accreditation status will be made sometime after.

“My concern is I don’t want my faculty and staff to be discouraged going into this Middle States visit,” she said.

The lack of a merger with St. Bonaventure doesn’t mean that the two institutions, which share a Franciscan Catholic heritage, have gone their separate ways entirely. They share a coordinator to run veterans programs on both campuses, and St. Bonaventure still offers weekend graduate courses at Hilbert. The two institutions also jointly developed a new bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity that will be offered beginning this fall on both campuses. The schools will share faculty resources to offer the programs, but students and faculty won’t have to travel between campuses because any shared courses will use distance-learning technology.

Hilbert also is exploring other new programs on its own, including the possibility of offering a four-year degree in risk management.

“We’re trying to look at where are there gaps in the region, where are there opportunities to launch a program to drive enrollment,” Zane said.