Gothic Arch and Ghost Town

Peter Wood

This is move-in day for summer students at Princeton.  They are being greeted by sunny skies after a week of downpours and drizzles, and they are finding their places at one of the most attractive college campuses in America.   This is a campus in love with the gothic arch—gothic arches leading into quiet courtyards, gothic arches soaring into the heavens in the campus chapel, and the stunning Blair Arch that opens out to a vista of one side of campus.  

Not that the campus is all arches.  It also has Greek revival temples and the wonderfully quirky Romanesque Alexander Hall, and the imposing Cleveland Tower.  At the formal entrance to the campus on Nassau Street stands Princeton’s original building, Nassau Hall, which survived bombardment during the Battle of Princeton in 1777 and had a brief career as capitol of the United States (July to October, 1783). 

The summer campus is crisscrossed by shady paths, some of which lead out of the dignity of nineteenth century academic architecture into the pretenses of the modernist age and beyond.   Fortunately, the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Science Library, which looks like the wreckage of a UFO, is off on a hillside some distance from the main campus.    Even with its handful of barbarian intrusions, such as the army of headless folk mustered outside the doors of the art museum, Princeton is a gracious campus and speaks to what remains of the ennobling spirit of higher education.  Try as some of its recent masters might, they haven’t been able to drown in nearby Lake Carnegie or in the ironic waters of postmodernism the sense of human aspiration for something higher in higher education.  

The great tradition that is manifest on Princeton’s campus, however, is indeed floundering—intellectually for some time and now financially.  As Ashley Thorne wrote here last week in "Endangered Colleges,"  the U.S. Department of Education has put a record number of private non-profit colleges on its list of institutions that have failed its tests for fiscal responsibility.   The Department of Education doesn’t seem to have a comparable list for public colleges.  Their distress is harder to measure since the states typically scramble the real costs of their colleges.  In Massachusetts, for instance, the cost of construction at public colleges and universities appears in a capital works budget that is separate from the higher education budget. 

But such sleight-of-hand goes only so far, and it is clear that across the country, public colleges and universities are hurting at least as much as private ones.  For instance, the University of Massachusetts flagship campus at Amherst appears to have reached the point of financial exigency where it is considering, in the words of its chancellor, Robert C. Holub, “significant program reductions and layoffs.”  UMass is now anticipating a $45 million shortfall next year.  Holub wrote an email to the UMass “campus community” last week laying out the harsh realities and attempting to rally a can-do response:  We cannot simply maintain the status quo going forward – we

 …must be innovative and forward thinking. I am confident that, working together, we will develop innovative and creative ideas, and the plans to implement them.

Holub’s email does not yet seem to have made it into print.  In the interest of historical documentation for what may be a turning point in American higher education, I’ll remedy that by posting it as an appendix to this article. 

Much of what Holub is facing at UMass Amherst is playing out at other public universities, and in some cases the situation is even more dire.  Holub, of course, circumspectly leaves out certain details, some of which bear directly on the portrait of this particular institution that we have assembled in the last year.  UMass has stood out in American higher education as one of a handful of public universities that persistently disregards even a semblance of intellectual fairness and political neutrality.  It offers a wacky left-wing degree program in “social justice.”  It advertises faculty positions couched in language meant to ensure only politically correct types can apply.   Until it was shamed out of the practice, it offered college credit to students who campaigned for Obama.   You can find the details of these and other follies in our archive:

No Escape at U Mass Amherst

A Degree in Agitprop

Socialism for Sophomores

College Credit for Campaign Volunteers

About Face in Amherst

A Prodigal Field

Activists Only

I bring them up again as further evidence of how precarious the situation has become for UMass—and by extension other public universities.   UMass has said goodbye to Provost Charlena Seymour, its leading advocate of racially specific faculty hiring and a stalwart supporter of other politicized misuses of public education funds.   Our UMass sources also report that “there is a shift from the traditional ‘Planet UMass’ stuff to the type of things that get kids jobs when they graduate.”  The University also rather suddenly seems interested in shifting away from preparing cadres for the social justice revolution and instead helping capitalist biotech companies by providing graduates who can fill useful jobs. 

This may not be a sign of the impending Apocalypse but surely it testifies to financial desperation.  Are other colleges and universities beginning to jettison some of their huffy anti-American ideology in the hope of attracting more public support?  We’ll see.  The shift at UMass itself may be short-lived, and there is also the complication that we are in the midst of a larger ideological re-deployment on campuses across the country.  The “diversity” star is setting, and “sustainability” is on the rise.   Part of what this portends is a shift in rhetoric away from denouncing “America the oppressor” and towards cajoling “America the wasteful.” 

Watching families moving their sons and daughters into the residence halls at Princeton on a summer Sunday seems worlds away from the financial turmoil in higher education and the ideological preoccupations of the academy.  Princeton is a rock of stability.  But about five miles north of Princeton, if you take the back roads though the rural countryside, you can come upon a site that speaks in a gloomy way to the vicissitudes of institutions.   It is called Skillman Village.  In 1898, the state opened the New Jersey Village for Epileptics here.  The Village was the first of its kind in America—a whole community dedicated to the idea that epileptics could lead “productive and meaningful lives.”  It thrived and it grew.  By the 1930s, it had more than 1,500 patients, a thousand acres, and over a hundred buildings, including its own library, shops, hospital, and waste treatment plant.  And its own cemetery.  It also had worldwide recognition as a model of humane medical care. 

But modern medicine was catching up with epilepsy and by the late 1940s segregation of epileptic patients no longer seemed necessary or wise.  The Village for Epileptics closed in 1952 and was replaced with the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute for patients with severe disorders.  It lasted in this form until the mid-1970s when the vogue for deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill came along.  The Neuropsychiatric Institute disappeared and was replaced with the North Princeton Developmental Center for people with severe developmental disabilities and drug addicts.  It persisted in this form into the 1990s, but was finally shuttered in 1995.

Since then—nothing. 

Well, not entirely nothing.  Buildings decayed.  Some were demolished.  The artificial lake silted up and disappeared.  Wildlife moved in.  The local township bought part of the land and built an elementary school.    Another part was sold off to make a sod farm.  In 1998, the last of the remaining patients were “removed.”   And as the years dragged along, the local and state politicians haggled over what to do with the site.  In 2006, the state Legislature and the Governor signed a Memorandum of Agreement  that supposedly will redevelop the site under the name “Skillman Village.”

I drove through the Village yesterday.  White tail deer were grazing in the tall weeds and leaped over a fence as I approached down a crumbling asphalt road.  Some of the inner roads were blocked off, but you can still drive around the maze of roads leading from one boarded up building to another, some of them torched but most holding up surprisingly well.   Here it is, just a few miles from Princeton, a genuine ghost town.  Here lies a whole state-sponsored community that was born with high ideals and died out entirely in less than 100 years. 

Perhaps Chancellor Holub should pay a visit. 

Or not.  Skillman Village is, however, a reminder that societies can outgrow worthy institutions.  It is sad to walk around among the remnants of some once thriving community, but the purposes that community served are now served much better in other ways.  With all the other troubles facing higher education, we shouldn’t forget that this could be the fate of a good many colleges and universities too.  Fear of that possibility is one of the ingredients in the current rush to hugely increase college enrollments.  President Obama says he wants to double the number of students attending college by 2020.  The College Board, the Carnegie Corporation, the Lumina Foundation, and many others are pushing the same agenda in the name of increasing national competitiveness and “21st century skills.”  In "Is America Losing Its Innovative Edge?" I’ve expressed my doubts about that rationale.  Sending more students to college won’t make us more competitive.  It could, however, accelerate the decline of many ordinary colleges and universities.    That’s because the flood of new students would mean drastically lowered academic standards, a further erosion of the quality of campus life, and an over-abundance of people holding college degrees.  Offering a worse product at a higher price is not an especially good business strategy. 

But if higher education somehow escapes this plan for massive expansion what will they do instead?  

Somehow I can’t shake the image of the optimistically re-named Skillman Village.   I suspect there is more than one bucolic college campus awaiting its transformation into a 21st century sod farm.   


From: UMass Chancellor's Office

Subject: Update on Campus Budget

To: [email protected]

Date: Thursday, June 18, 2009, 11:10 AM

To the Campus Community,

Since I became Chancellor last August, I have sought to provide the

campus with regular communications, something I believe is especially

important in times of economic crisis. Today I am writing to provide

an update on our budget situation. Although we still await crucial

decisions from the Legislature and the Governor, the general direction

is becoming clearer and will require us to continue to prepare now for

difficult circumstances ahead.

Massachusetts, like many other states, has chosen to frontload funding

from the federal grants for state stabilization. If the current trends

hold, the campus should receive a significant amount of one-time

federal support in FY10, but will likely receive very little or

nothing in FY11. We must therefore revise our original strategy of a

gradual reduction in budget over two years and deal with a “funding

cliff” in FY11. Our campus administration will continue to work very

hard to advocate for support from the state and federal governments,

just as we did in helping to secure the stimulus funding we are slated

to receive, but the economic realities require that we plan for

significant funding reductions even as we advocate for stable funding

and investment in higher education.

Three additional complications potentially affect the amount of money

we receive from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

1. The line in the state budget for Commonwealth College was

eliminated in both the Governor’s budget and the Senate budget. The

loss of this special appropriation effectively reduces the campus

allocation by $3.2 million. Our efforts to restore this budget line

have thus far been unsuccessful, but we remain committed to this

important program.

2. The federal stabilization funding will not come with the fringe

benefits that accompany state allocations, effectively reducing the

funding to us. For each dollar we receive from federal sources, the

campus will therefore have to supply close to 30 cents, which means a

loss of approximately $7 million in state funding. In effect, then,

even if we are “made whole” and “funded at the FY09 level,” we will

face a $10 million deficit.

3. The Governor has filed the labor union contracts, but it is unclear

how the agreements will be funded, especially in years 2 and 3. If the

campus has to fund these agreements in FY11 (and FY12), it will mean

additional reductions in our budget of approximately $12 million per

year. We will work closely with all our constituent groups to attempt

to secure stable funding in the face of this additional funding

challenge, and will work hard to make the strongest case possible for

the support necessary to build an even stronger public research

university for the Commonwealth.

We enter FY10 with a base budget deficit of $29 million. We will

likely receive enough in federal stimulus funding to cover this

deficit for one year. Most observers are convinced we will have

mid-year cuts in FY10. We must also remember that covering a base

budget deficit with one-time funding causes the deficit to be carried

to the next fiscal year; it does not eliminate budget reductions, it

simply postpones them. While we are committed to using appropriate

bridging strategies, it is fiscally irresponsible to ignore funding

level reductions and not make the cuts that these reductions require.

Even if the Trustees decide to maintain the full fee increase of

$1,500 from FY10 and a cost-of-living increase of 3% in FY11, we face

a deficit of approximately $30 million in FY11, assuming we are called

upon to fund obligations contained in the collective bargaining

agreements and there are no mid-year cuts in FY10. Reducing the campus

budget by such a large sum in a single year would result in

significant program reductions and layoffs – something we have worked

very hard to avoid in order to maintain the high quality of education

and support we provide here at UMass Amherst.

We are clearly facing daunting challenges. To meet these challenges we

have formed a series of task forces with faculty and staff

representatives to investigate revenue generation. We will be looking

at enrollment management, summer session, Continuing and Professional

Education, and other options to create additional revenue, and lessen

the impact of cuts. I have also met recently with leadership in the

Faculty Senate and asked them to take a leadership role, along with

the Provost and me, in dealing with curricular reforms that can help

the campus achieve savings. Now is the time for us to look hard at how

we can best maintain our commitment to quality in an adverse economic

climate. We cannot simply maintain the status quo going forward – we

must be innovative and forward thinking. I am confident that, working

together, we will develop innovative and creative ideas, and the plans

to implement them.

In addition, I will request soon that every non-instructional unit

participate in a zero-budgeting exercise, so that we can approach cuts

with insight into what will be lost and where we might achieve

efficiencies. I will ask the Provost to develop an appropriate

approach to examining the budgets of academic units once he begins in


We are fortunate that the federal stimulus funding gives us a year to

develop revenue-generating initiatives and curricular reform – that we

have the time to find creative ways to mitigate the damage to the

institution. We should not deceive ourselves and believe that the

relative stability in FY10 will continue in FY11 and FY12.

If we do not use this year with productive planning, our actions in FY11 will

surely do damage to core values, important programs, and many

individuals across the campus.

In these times it is essential that we come together as a campus

community, face the tasks before us, and act without delays. The

campus will be forced to make many decisions in the next year or two.

Some may be unpopular; some may involve elimination of programs or

jobs; some may implement reforms or structures that individuals will

deem sub- optimal. None of us would choose this challenging reality,

but working together we can emerge with our values and our commitment

to the institution intact.

In this economic climate, we must keep in mind the good of the campus

as a whole and our common desire to emerge from the current downturn

in a position to move rapidly into the highest ranks of public

research institutions in the country. I know that we can achieve this

distinction, and I want to thank you for your cooperation thus far in

difficult times, and express in advance my appreciation for your

understanding of actions we as a campus community will have to take in

the difficult times that lie ahead.

Robert C. Holub


Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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