Matt Hisrich, who was in his second year as Dean of Earlham School of Religion in Richmond Indiana, was abruptly banned from campus on Wednesday December 16 2020.
His Earlham email was revoked that morning, and he was directed to vacate the campus by 3 PM. Co-workers hurriedly gathered that afternoon to bid him a shocked, impromptu farewell.
Hisrich said in an interview with this blog that he was able to leave campus without the customary perp-walk escort by campus security, but only because, due to recent staff cuts, the college only has one remaining campus police officer, who was busy elsewhere.
A 2008 ESR graduate, Matt became Director of Recruitment and Admissions in June 2012. Appointed Acting Dean in July 2018, he was appointed Dean, in addition to becoming an Earlham College Vice President, in March 2019.
Early this month, Hisrich announced his intention to resign at the end of 2020.
However, his bums rush exit was early, evidently provoked by a letter he sent to the ESR Board of advisers.
In the letter, Hisrich criticized recent changes in the school’s status, called for them to be reversed, and denounced what he called a “toxic culture of fear of speaking out,” under the administration of new president Anne Houtman, which he said “debilitated the creativity, energy, and community so absolutely necessary to pull off a re-imagination of what the College could be in a radically new context.”
This “re-imagination” is underway, as Earlham struggles with major budget deficits and faltering enrollment. Major staff cuts have recently been imposed. (For our earlier posts on Earlham’s financial/academic travail, go here, and here, and here.)
Houtman sent a sharply-worded retort, to Hisrich and the Board of Advisers. (Full text of both letters here: Hisrich-Houtman-Bunner-12-2020)
In it Houtman declared that
To say I am saddened and disappointed would be an understatement. Matt never once expressed to me the concerns he shared with you, even when I gave him ample opportunity to do so. His “reflections” are filled with misinformation and misinterpretation, and reflect more than anything a deep misunderstanding of ESR’s fiscal situation, its relationship to Earlham, and more broadly the state of higher education in the United States at this time. This is not the first time Matt has behaved unprofessionally in our work together, but I have previously attributed this to his inexperience. It is an unfortunate way to choose to end a working relationship.
For his part, Hisrich firmly denied to me any “unprofessional” behavior, adding that no such charges had previously been made.
He also said that he and the ESR faculty had made numerous appeals to Houtman and other administration officials about ESR’s fiscal situation, and noted that the track record of Earlham’s administrations in recent years did not exactly evince any deep understanding of how to remedy the plight of colleges like Earlham.
About Houtman’s allusion to Hisrich’s alleged “misinformation and misinterpretation,” Hisrich pointed out that the key data his letter mentions are undisputed, namely, that last May ESR was abruptly “incorporated” into Earlham college. The school and its Dean, were now put under the direct authority of college officials. Further, and likely more important, the College “de-designated” (i.e., took away) half of ESR’s endowment (about $25 million dollars), which threw ESR’s financial and program plans into complete disarray.
Since then the faculty has been told their programs are subject to revision from above to make ESR a profit center for the College at large, as it struggles to overcome serious and often called “unsustainable” continuing deficits.
Previously, ESR had its own strategic plan, which was unfolding with reported considerable initial success. Enrollment had doubled between 2019 and 2020, and prospects have been very promising for 2021.
(Meanwhile, overall college admission trends are a mix of a few increases, with the elite schools out ahead as usual, and many others facing pandemic-driven declines or deep uncertainty.) Much of ESR’s endowment income has been going for financial aid for students from non-affluent backgrounds, and headed for non-affluent service professional careers.
Hisrich’s letter argued that
Going forward, tying ESR’s ability to survive to its ability to serve as a financial feeder to the College essentially pre-ordains a negative outcome for the seminary. As the only seminary of its kind, this would be an incalculable loss to the Religious Society of Friends – and many others who have and will find a welcome here.
“Negative outcome” is a euphemism for demise. ESR’s strangulation in an effort to save the College would be a double blow as it has shared facilities and cooperative programs with Bethany Theological Seminary, a school for the Church of the Brethren, for twenty-six years. An informed source told me that Bethany is currently financially sound, but losing its connection to ESR could be fatal.
Hisrich said he had been told that ESR had about eighteen months to reshape its program away from its current offerings to others which would attract a student body affluent enough to pay tuition that was high enough to make the school a profit center (aka “financial feeder) for Earlham’s overall budget.
The reshaping will likely be done from above, based on the conviction Houtman expressed that Hisrich (backed by his faculty) are mired in a “deep misunderstanding” not only of their own plight, but that of Earlham, “and more broadly the state of higher education in the United States at this time.”
An informed source recounted that in a November meeting with the ESR faculty, Houtman stated that her administration “had a vision” for ESR. Asked what that vision was, she gave no specifics beyond the expectation of it being an income producer. And frankly, it is quite possible to imagine a vision not unlike that of asset stripping by predatory corporate raiders, with ESR being sucked dry to prop up the larger, legally stronger “host,” and the husk then discarded. (Remember Mitt Romney and the depredations of Bain & Co?)
What might such new, profitable programs be? Law enforcement was one that’s been mentioned, Hisrich recalled. As well as preparatory courses for pastors in line to run megachurches, with their mega-budgets. Otherwise, the focus will be, as it is in most flailing schools, on attracting students who were shrewd enough to pick wealthy parents.
Well, good luck with that. Speaking from outside the ivy-covered halls, the mess that so many colleges are in makes a hash of claims that administrators have it all figured out.
Last spring, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Robert Zemsky, who has studied college conditions for years and had just published a book, The College Stress Test, based on his research. The paper noted,
“Before the pandemic, ” about 100 of the nation’s 1,000 private, liberal-arts colleges were likely to close over the next five years, predicted Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, in “The College Stress Test,” a book published in February. He now says 200 of those schools could close in the next year.”
It’s nine months later and there has not yet been a rash of actual college closures. But our peek into the machinations involved in keeping Earlham College afloat suggest just how desperate some schools continue to be, and the lengths to which they’ll go to stay afloat.
As for Matt Hisrich, he’s already put ESR behind him. He explained that his family was packing up, and by this weekend they expected to be back in his home town of Canton Ohio. There he’ll join with other family members working to help navigate the rapids and shoals of the current economic slump to save a family owned store there.
What kind of store? Wait for it — a hippie store.
That’s right: last week, Matt Hisrich was an eminently straitlaced theological dean. Next week, he’ll likely be in bell bottoms, and helping resurrect flower power, man, in a head shop, an authentic survivor, dating from the classic period in 1969.
Wait. In Canton, Ohio — home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
That’s right, man.
Matt & his people will be at The Quonset Hut, a lively emporium featuring, of course, crystals, all the paisley you’ll ever need, cool staff who know what an LP is, a smoke & vape shop, and even — wait for it — an eye-opening sex toys department (but strictly for 18 and up).
Well far freaking out, all you need is love, and who the heck knew?
Meantime, back at Earlham, Anne Houtman will be looking forward to, as she wrote to the Advisory Board,
the opportunity to conduct a national search for a Quaker theologian with administrative experience and expertise, who can lead ESR into a more engaged relationship with Earlham’s wider community while addressing its enrollment and financial challenges.
After taking all this in, I called an ESR alum who has observed the school for several decades. “Be straight with me,” I said, “you know the Quaker scene. Is there anybody out there you dislike so much that you’d suggest they apply for this job?
This Friend paused, and pondered. Then,
“No,” he said.