CAZENOVIA — On Wednesday, Dec. 7, the Cazenovia College Board of Trustees announced its decision to permanently close the college following the spring 2023 semester due to financial concerns.
Founded in 1824, Cazenovia College is the eighth-oldest private, independent college in New York State and the 28th-oldest independent college/university in the United States.
In a Dec. 7 press release announcing its decision, the college said it will finish out the fall 2022 semester as scheduled and continue to be fully operational through the spring, holding classes and events, including athletics and other normally scheduled activities.
During the spring semester, the college also intends to assist students with their transferring plans and provide additional supportive services such as counseling.
“We’re deeply disappointed that it has come to this,” said Ken Gardiner, chair of the Cazenovia College Board of Trustees, in the press release. “Considerable time and effort have been spent on improving the college’s financial position over the past several years. Unfortunately, the headwinds and market conditions were insurmountable, leading to a projected deficit of several million dollars for next year. As a result, the college won’t have the funds necessary to be open and continue operations for fall 2023 and beyond. Our plan is to be open for the spring 2023 semester during which faculty and staff will work with students to help them transfer to another college for the fall.”
As of Dec. 7, the college had entered into teach-out transfer agreements with the following higher education institutions that will provide pathways for students to continue their studies beginning with the fall 2023 semester and will assist students with their transitions: Daemen University, Elmira College, Excelsior University, Hilbert College, Keuka College, LeMoyne College, Mercy College, State University of New York College at Oneonta, Utica University, and Wells College.
Additional institutions will be added as agreements are finalized.
According to the college, the “business realities” that led to the decision to close were accelerated by the global pandemic, “skyrocketing” inflation, and a shrinking population of college-aged individuals that makes it hard for small private colleges to maintain enrollment levels.
Since its peak with nearly 1,000 full-time students on campus for the 2014-2015 academic year, the college’s enrollment has dropped by over 40 percent.
The college explained that the pandemic impacted the institution’s recruitment and fundraising efforts while increasing its economic burdens. In response to the pandemic, large investments were made in technology and campus safety measures as enrollment dropped due to students choosing to postpone college or take a leave of absence.
Additionally, the college said, recent uncertainty in the bond and stock markets made it particularly difficult to refinance the college’s bond debt, which came due in September.
The college defaulted on a $24.92 million bond payment in September after an unsuccessful attempt to refinance it with a long-term loan. The college borrowed the money in 2019.
“Being a small college without a large endowment has made the college’s challenges formidable,” said Cazenovia College President David Bergh in the press release. “We have worked tirelessly to strengthen the financial position of the college through fundraising campaigns, adding graduate offerings, streamlining transfer pathways, and exploring alternative options. Unfortunately, these efforts did not create results to ensure long-term viability for the college.”
Bergh added that the campus community is a family and that this is an extremely difficult time for everyone, but the college remains committed to its students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
After the college announced its decision to close, Bergh invited employees and students to join him in two separate forums.
“I really wanted to finish my entire [four years] here, but I only got two years in and now we have to get shipped somewhere else,” said Savanna Elliott, a sophomore, as she waited to hear from the president. “I picked [Cazenovia College] because of how I thought the community was going to be and how calm and nice and fun it looked here, and I’m glad I did come here.”
Elliott, who is studying graphic design, said she had a feeling the closure was coming after the college sent out an email to its students earlier this fall.
“I have a plan B because our teachers told us to have one just in case this ever did happen, and today it’s happening,” she said. “[The first email] was sent at the end of October and they were talking about how they had to discuss bonds and see if they could get it extended, but they didn’t know. They told us they’d let us know in December, and this is what we’ve all been waiting for.”
Following the forums, Bergh held a virtual press conference to address questions from the media.
Bergh on the college’s finances
Bergh began by stating that despite the exhaustive efforts of the college leadership and board of trustees, they were unable to identify a path to financial sustainability.
“So, out of obligation to our incoming students, we could not have ethically in good conscience recruited a new class of students knowing that we could not secure long-term financing,” he said.
According to Bergh, the leadership and board were willing to think broadly and creatively about the future of the college. One of the avenues they explored was forming partnerships with other institutions of higher education or in industry/business.
“I think we were clear in our outreach to our elected officials at the federal, state, and local level that we were open to such creative ideas and to alternative pathways,” he said. “Unfortunately, none of those have materialized in time for us to be able to change the calculus that we are currently facing. . . We recognize that [for] an institution like ours to be viable and relevant into the future, it needs to reimagine itself, it needs to reach new audiences and look at its program mix. That’s something that we’ve been talking about doing for some time. Unfortunately, COVID really took away the planning runway that we had to do so.”
Bergh noted that some aspects of the growth plan were already underway. In the past year, for example, the college had rebuilt and strengthened its admissions operation. It was also in the process of rebuilding its institutional advancement (fundraising) operation and strengthening its alumni affairs. Part of that plan was to leverage the college’s bicentennial in 2024 as a thematic basis for a capital campaign. Additionally, the college was exploring new programming with various constituencies and age groups (pre-college up to senior citizens), different credential levels, certificate programs, etc. through its adult and continuing education operations.
Bergh said that after two “down cycles” in enrollment during the pandemic, the college saw some marginal growth this past fall.
He added that the college felt positive about its trajectory in terms of enrolment growth, but there were challenges to overcome.
“One is that you have a couple of low classes and those feed through the system for four years,” he said. “You have a low incoming class, you are going to have low overall enrollment for several years, so it was going to be a multi-year build-back approach. We needed time to fully execute on the enrollment growth process. We needed to deliver on some of these other initiatives as well in the meantime and to secure funding for the future to enable us to do all that work as well.”
According to Bergh, the college leadership and trustees remained hopeful that they would find a path forward as recently as the day before announcing the closing.
“As we engaged in the process of attempting to get an extension on our debt and a long-term financial plan in place that would allow us to go forward, we had very positive assurances from experts in the financial industry about our prospects of attaining such a deal,” Bergh said. “[With] that, combined with our previously strong financial footing, we did not have concerns coming into this academic year. I think obviously that changed as we were unable to secure long-term funding.”
Bergh later described the college’s financial decline as a “slow roll” and reiterated that it was the result of a “perfect storm” of multiple external considerations, including unfavorable demographics; the announcement of the Excelsior Scholarship, which allows eligible students to attend New York State’s public colleges and universities tuition-free; decreased enrollment and increased expenditures during the pandemic; turbulence in the bond market; and inflation.
“We were really experiencing [increasing] cashflow issues that [had] compounded during the period during which we were negotiating the extension,” he said. “I want to be clear; this is not all about the bond extension, it really speaks to our underlying financial situation, which had deteriorated in the last year for all the reasons that I noted previously.”
Bergh on students and employees
In response to a question regarding the college’s transparency about its financial challenges and the possibility of closing, Bergh said the college has been communicating as much as it has been able throughout the fall semester as it attempted to secure financing. During that period, the president personally communicated with different on-campus constituencies, including faculty, faculty leadership, administrators, student leaders, and the student media. He also periodically sent out emails or other communications to on-campus groups plus alumni, parents, and others.
As a result of that communication and transparency, Bergh said, the campus community was very aware of the broad situation the college was in and the challenges it was facing.
According to Bergh, the messaging emphasized that the college was pursuing every possible opportunity to find a path forward and, at the same time, that the college was preparing for the possibility that those efforts would be unsuccessful. The communications specifically highlighted the college’s efforts to create a teach-out plan to help students meet their educational needs going forward if the school closed.
“I sent an email to all our students a while back explaining what would happen if we closed and the supports that they could expect to receive from us in that situation,” he said.
In addition to finding comparable programs for all its students to enter next fall, the college has also committed to providing as many resources as possible to its faculty/staff to assist with their job searches and professional development. Such assistance will include career services, resume review, and references.
According to Bergh, multiple higher education institutions have already reached out to the college about their employee needs including faculty, administrative and technical positions.
“I do anticipate we will be engaging in conversations with a number of our fellow institutions, making arrangements even conceivably in which employees might work here through the spring and then become employees of those other institutions,” he said.
The day after the college’s announcement, Dr. Thad Yorks, professor of biology and environmental biology, said he was still in shock and feeling a bit numb.
“I’m just sort of in a state of disbelief that this didn’t get sorted out,” he said. “I pretty much figured that in the end, we’d have to sell a couple of properties and cut some programs but would live to fight another day. And fight we would.”
He added that he started feeling increasingly upset as he began processing the implications for everyone affected, including his family which has called Cazenovia home for nearly two decades.
Yorks and his family relocated to Cazenovia in 2004, and his two now-adult children came up through the Cazenovia Central School District. One of his children earned his degree from Cazenovia College in 2020 and, according to Yorks, landed an excellent job in the field of his choice as a result.
Yorks also lamented the loss experienced by all the college’s students and employees and the Cazenovia community.
“I can’t speak for all others, but I have friends in essentially every different area/department here, because we all work together toward a common and very important mission — educating and preparing our students for meaningful, satisfying careers,” Yorks said. “And we are [really] good at it. Not by accident, but by doing the homework and working our tails off. Working with the best [colleagues] a person could hope for to develop a curriculum. . . and then cranking out grads whose placement-after-graduation record can be pitted against anyone else? I can’t imagine being able to do that again anywhere but here.”
The Cazenovia community
During the Dec. 7 press conference, Bergh stated that although the college’s students and employees are its top priorities, the Cazenovia community is right behind them.
“We are the heartbeat of this village; we are the pillar institution of this village,” he said. “We have an estimated $55 million of annual economic impact in the region. We feel an obligation and a commitment to do anything we can to assist with any conversations about potential future uses of the campus.”
Bergh expressed that he is hopeful that there will be interest in the campus from various entities such as businesses, industries or other colleges for example.
He also said one of the most common questions he has received regarding the future of the facilities has been related to the buildings used by the equine program, which he described as one of the college’s “programs of distinction.”
“I can’t [say] yet what specifically will happen with the equine center and the horses other than that it will be overseen by professionals with appropriate expertise,” he said.
The college is not only an institution of higher learning, a major employer, and a physical focal point of Cazenovia, but it is also a supporter of local businesses, a community partner, and a cultural resource for the Cazenovia area and other Central New York communities.
“The college has been at the core of our village for nearly two centuries, and its closure will have an enormous impact, not only economically, but culturally and personally,” said Village Mayor Kurt Wheeler. “The faculty, staff, and students of the college are our neighbors and are all valued members of our community. We will keep them in our prayers as they navigate this transition. President Bergh and the rest of the college’s leadership team have been great partners and we will continue to work with them as we all look for the highest and best future use for the campus.”
On the evening of the announcement, Wheeler reported that he was working to assemble a meeting of local leaders to begin looking at what the future will look like without the college.
Anna Marie Neuland, executive director of the Greater Cazenovia Area Chamber of Commerce, remarked that the loss of the college could mean a loss of both help and customers for some local businesses.
“The community is certainly going to miss the many interns that have worked with our businesses for many years,” she said. “The businesses will no doubt be coming up with ways to address the loss that they may or may not suffer next year without the college students and their parents shopping and dining in our village.”
According to Yorks, a few popular downtown destinations for students are Les Pâtes et Les Nouilles for Thai food, Kinney Drugs, and McCarthy’s Irish Pub.
“I literally never, after work, go to my vehicle parked at the health center without seeing at least one, usually more than one, group of students on their way to or from the downtown area,” he said.
Pat Carmeli, owner of Pewter Spoon Café and Eatery at 87 Albany St., said the news of the institution’s closing came to her from a tearful Cazenovia College professor and long-time customer as he was leaving the café.
According to Carmeli, who manages the café with her daughters Ava and Dana, the Pewter Spoon will survive without the college, but the business is sure to make fewer sales during such times as graduation, move-in days, parents’ weekends, and orientations.
“But that’s not what is on my mind right now,” she said. “Rather, it’s the teachers and administrators at the college who come in to share a coffee and a chat with co-workers, [and] the students that come in to study for exams or grab a quick caffeinated drink as they head to class. These folks are now scrambling mentally, right before the holidays, to consider their next moves in an economy that is fraught with uncertainty. In our 10 years of business, we’ve employed quite a few Caz College students and graduates, each with their own stories about how much the college and the friends that they’ve made there have meant to them. Many have chosen to make Cazenovia their home post-graduation because they fell in love with our quaint and close community. Cazenovia will also survive, albeit with a major hole in its very heart.”
McKenzie Houseman, another downtown business owner, remarked that the college has touched multiple generations of her family.
“My aunt, Val Barr, was the valedictorian of her class, and they gave my grandfather, Grey Barr, an honorary degree,” said Houseman. “I worked there for many years myself as a sign language teacher and a writing coach. I loved it so much.”
Houseman is the owner of 20|EAST, at 85 Albany St., a farm store that sells gifts, art, Cazenovia Cut Block wood items, artisan products, fresh flowers, and food items from all over Central New York.
“The college always made sure to keep things local by buying flowers from me, introducing incoming classes and their families to the community, and having parties at local restaurants,” said Houseman. “It cannot be denied that this will definitely be felt by the businesses. My hope is that someday something wonderful can happen with the college campus. Our community is resilient, and we will persevere but never forget the beauty of Cazenovia College.”
The college has played a significant role in providing residents and visitors with cultural, recreational, and educational experiences ranging from art exhibits, performances, and lectures to annual events like the Fashion Show, BioBlitz, Science night, and Jazz-N-Caz.
For example, the Art Gallery in Reisman Hall and the adjacent Sculpture Court regularly feature work by students, faculty, and alumni and showcase regional, state, national, and international artists. Exhibitions are always open to the public.
“I am honored to have had my position teaching a population of students with diverse interests for 20 years,” said Cazenovia College Professor and Art Gallery Director Jen Pepper. “I am equally honored to have worked with my talented colleagues and supportive staff members at the college. As the gallery director since 2005, it has been my privilege to curate and bring both international and national artists and designers to Cazenovia to support intersections between educational programming, our students, the CNY community, and the region with professional artists and designers. Our active exhibition cycles and lecture series have continued to support our mission that fosters appreciation and education of the arts while stimulating and igniting lifelong learning opportunities and connections. The college has made enormous strides in assisting with the vitalization of the arts in CNY as a rich and active cultural base. We are a vital community, not that far from Syracuse, NYC, Boston, and Toronto, with enormous amounts of talented, curious, and interesting folks.”
According to Pepper, the gallery’s exhibition roster is full through spring 2023 with several shows, including student exhibitions.
“It is my hope for the future that the gallery may continue as such [and] bring diversity in the visual arts to Cazenovia and the community beyond,” she said. “I am very disappointed by this news.”
The Catherine Cummings Theatre at 16 Lincklaen St., formerly known as Cazenovia Opera House, was built in 1897 and first acquired by Cazenovia College in 1968. Today, the 250-seat theatre is the setting for drama, musical, and dance productions, Jazz-N-Caz events, concerts by the Cazenovia College Chorale, lectures, seminars, classic and family movies, theatre camps, fundraisers, and many other activities.
“Having run the theatre as the executive director for 21 years, it saddens me to think that its operation as a vital part of the CNY community will likely come to an end,” said theatre manager Colleen Prossner. “What I do know is that the theatre will operate as normal through the end of the academic year. The future use of campus facilities beyond that point is to be determined. The college will do all it can to provide the best outcome for the Cazenovia community.”
For some community members, the loss of the college’s athletic complex, including its gym, pool, and indoor courts, will be yet another blow.
“Cazenovia College’s closing will be a big disappointment to the large, enthusiastic group of pickleball players that enjoy the three indoor courts available daily at the college’s athletic center,” said Cazenovia resident Sue Duffy.
The college has also been a valuable partner to numerous organizations, including the Cazenovia Preservation Foundation, the Cazenovia Public Library, the Cazenovia Community Development Association, the United Climate Action Network, the village, the town, Trout Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League, and the Cazenovia Lake Association (CLA).
“Our long-standing relationship with the college has been an important asset for the CLA as we strive to ensure the overall quality of our lake,” said CLA President Dave Miller. “Thad Yorks and his students have conducted annual fish surveys, led the effort to eradicate the invasive Frog Bit weed, and provided the CLA with phosphorus levels and other helpful data from their work on the streams that flow into our lake. Additionally, they have provided technical guidance on various issues throughout the years. These have all been very valuable to the CLA, and we will have to fill this void that is left by the closure.”
Miller stated that going forward, the CLA will continue its work with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cornell, and other partners as they evaluate potential options to continue the college’s work.
“We are disappointed to learn of the college’s plan to close but want to thank Thad and his students for all their support over the years and wish them the best in their future endeavors,” concluded Miller.
Cazenovia College opened nearly two centuries ago as the Seminary of the Genesee Conference, the second Methodist seminary to be established in the United States. In 1839, the seminary also developed a curriculum focused on the education of women. In the 1940s, the trustees decided to add a junior college. Displeased, the Methodists withdrew church sponsorship in 1942, and “community leaders stepped in to form a new non-church-related board for Cazenovia Junior College.” The institution then became Cazenovia College for Women in 1961. In 1982, it returned to being co-educational and adopted the name Cazenovia College; however, it was not recognized as a bachelor’s degree-granting institution until 1988. In 2019 it began its first graduate program, a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.
For more information, visit cazenovia.edu.