Exigency leads to layoffs at Hannibal-LaGrange University
On the morning of May 2, the leaders of Hannibal-LaGrange University called faculty and staff into a meeting to share good news: they had raised $1. Employees had been waiting anxiously for such news since March, when the nearly 100-year-old Baptist college in Missouri received a dire financial assessment. Ray Carty, Hannibal-LaGrange’s vice president for institutional advancement, called the fundraising success a sign of God’s blessing. “People are responding to the work that God has yet to do at HLGU,” he told The Pathway, the official news arm of the Missouri Baptist Convention, which also owns Hannibal-LaGrange. A few hours after the meeting, administrators began calling individual faculty and staff into Harrison’s office for the bad news: they needed to let people go to help fulfill an additional $1. The layoffs included multiple department chairs, a sitting Missouri state representative and a two-time Fulbright scholar who was the sole faculty member in the history department, according to the university's employee directory. Christina Brennemann, chair of HLGU’s communications studies department, and her husband, Kyle Brennemann, the university's public safety director, were let go in back-to-back meetings. Louis Riggs, an English professor who is also a Missouri state representative, said senior faculty members were most affected by the layoffs. “The quality of the education is going to be much different,” he said. These are not the first cuts the university has made since its exigency announcement in March. In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Harrison and Vice President Robert Matz declined to give the exact number of faculty who were laid off, but they said that 15 percent of “faculty positions” had been eliminated or reduced to part-time roles, and some of the workforce reduction took place through retirements and resignations. “While we grieved at the departures of these valued colleagues, there was not another option that carried HLGU into the future,” Harrison and Matz wrote. Faculty sources contacted for this article said that at least a dozen professors and staff would not be returning in the fall. Because their 12-month contracts were exchanged for nonbinding two-week contracts in March, faculty said they did not expect to be paid past the end of this month.
Harrison and Matz said that while all faculty contracts were canceled as a result of financial exigency, “the board and administration are committed to honoring what we hold to be a moral obligation to the impacted faculty and staff as revenue and giving allows. Tim Fuller, the founder of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions, a consulting firm for Christian colleges, said that when an institution appears to be headed for a cliff, the desire to stay open may conflict with the college’s educational mission. “Christian colleges see their mission as going beyond just them, preparing these people for whatever it is God is calling on them to do,” he said. Harrison and Matz wrote that in addition to fundraising and workforce reduction, they undertook a “reworking of the institution’s entire business model to create a more sustainable path for the university’s future. As of Wednesday, the vast majority of classes in HLGU’s course catalog for fall 2022 were marked “TBA” where the assigned professor would normally be listed. Still, Louis Riggs fears that the exigency measures will have a lasting impact on enrollment numbers and said students are “looking at a very unsure future. “How do you expect to instill confidence … when you continue to cut and cut and cut, to the point where there’s basically nobody left, and at the same time advertise yourself as offering a world-class education?” he said. In the past decade, Hannibal-LaGrange has seen its enrollment drop by 35 percent, from around 1,200 students in 2012–13 to 780 in 2021–22. For a small institution that is largely financially dependent on tuition, reversing that trend—or, at the very least, capping the losses—is crucial for the university’s future. Harrison and Matz said that while fall enrollment won’t be finalized until the term starts, they are “pleased with the retention numbers. Christina Brennemann said the changes and instability have not gone unnoticed by the student body. “If you want to keep morale and trust and help students return, you help them feel better about what they’re coming back to,” she said. Fuller said that when there’s a public financial crisis and wide-ranging cuts like those at Hannibal-LaGrange, attracting new students—and retaining current ones—can be difficult. “It’s already challenging enough to recruit students given everything else that’s going on,” Fuller said.
Christina Brennemann’s perspective on Hannibal-LaGrange’s financial and management challenges is not just one of a longtime faculty member: she wrote her Ph. For her research, she spoke with about 50 faculty members, administrators and staffers at the university, and she said the vast majority shared the same concerns: that stakeholders outside the administration had virtually no say on matters of enrollment, fiscal management or strategic planning. “What came out in my findings was that there was this great distance between faculty and staff and administrative decisions,” she said. When she offered to share her findings with then president Anthony Allen and other officials in 2018, they listened attentively during the hourlong meeting—and then did nothing, she said. Louis Riggs said that there was “no shared governance” at Hannibal-LaGrange, which he believes may have contributed to the university’s financial troubles and, ultimately, the need to lay off so many longtime faculty. “Some of the warning signs I saw, I’m not going to say they were ignored, but they didn’t get a lot of attention,” he said. After nearly two decades at Hannibal-LaGrange, Louis Riggs said he truly hopes the university is able to remain open past the fall semester. “I don’t think there’s an awareness that this is the first taste of a bitter cup,” he said. “Higher education in general, not just Christian higher education, was heading for a thinning of the herd before the pandemic,” Fuller said. Fuller said the choice between succumbing to years of declining enrollment trends and “hunkering down” through austerity measures is a difficult one, but one that more institutions like Hannibal-LaGrange may have to make in the coming years. “It’s a choice between death by a thousand cuts and ripping the Band-Aid off all at once,” he said. Though concerned for his out-of-work colleagues, Louis Riggs said he isn’t worried about his financial future; he plans to go back into law and will still have his political career. “I would have loved to have taught there until the end of my life,” he said.
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