End-of-Life Planning

Nobody wants to think about their own death, but if we don’t, we’ll just leave a mess for someone else to clean up. Someone has to plan the funeral, find homes for the pets, sell the house, distribute the jewelry and furniture, and do it far too often by guessing at what their mom “would have wanted.” It’s an ugly scene, uglier still if there are siblings or lienholders or any other kinds of complications. It’s exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to be doing while you’re grieving the simple human loss of your mother.

No institution ever imagines that it will end, either. Green Mountain College had existed as some form of college or another since 1834, and had every reason that it would continue on for another couple hundred years. And now it will no longer exist as a college after May 2019, but it will continue to exist for a while longer as a non-profit entity, charged with end-of-life planning. As with Mom’s demise, the work of grieving will be commingled with the distribution of assets.

Imagine how complex it is to wind down a non-profit of any reasonable size. It’s relatively easy to close a for-profit business, because whatever’s left after they pay its bills belongs to the owners, according to ownership agreements spelled out when people invested in the first place. In non-profits, there are no owners who hold a financial stake; there’s a board of trustees who enact the mission of the trust. I’m no CFO, but even I can imagine quite a few things that have to be accounted for in closing a college.

Students. Most of a college’s students are somewhere in mid-course at any moment, and the college has to be prepared to have them received somewhere else. New colleges and extremely small or specialized colleges are usually required by their accreditors to have “teach-out agreements” with other institutions, a guaranteed place for students to land and finish the degree they’d begun. But once a college has matured, teach-outs aren’t usually required. The presumption is that the school will endure. When it doesn’t, students are suddenly homeless, scrambling to plan for the coming fall.

Faculty and Staff. Who cares? Like any other factory closing, they’re out on the sidewalk. Best of luck…

The Campus and Facilities. The cultural geographer Paul Groth claims that our physical environment is marked by such extreme specialization that most places can’t be used for other purposes. There’s no good re-use for an airport, for example, or an interstate highway. College campuses are likewise tough to re-purpose. Fifteen major buildings and a couple of dozen outbuildings on a 150-acre campus represents one of three things: a college, an English country estate, or a golf course. My understanding is that the United States Department of Agriculture has a controlling interest in Green Mountain’s corpse, by the terms of a major rural economic development loan the college drew some years back. For any college, there’ll be bankers or bondholders with some interest in a collateralized portion of the campus.

The Stuff. How do you sell 250 staplers? Two hundred computers teetering on the edge of obsolescence? All of those painful, meager dormitory beds? The contents of the library? When Nora’s mom passed away a few years back, we discovered that she had 52 pairs of opera gloves, a hundred light bulbs, reams of letterhead from her old business, three rolls of surgical cotton and six tubes of Neosporin. Multiply that by several orders of magnitude, and that’s what the college trustees have to truck away from the estate. The rugs. The portraits of the presidents. The giant wool mascot head. It’s logarithmically larger than cleaning out your garage, but it’s the same endless series of decisions. Trash, sell, give away? Trash, sell, give away?

The Endowment. This is probably the toughest one legally. Any college has a pool of endowed funds, ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the billions. And every single component of that, every fifty dollar gift or fifty-million dollar bequest, has conditions under which the donor made it. Endowed funds to support scholarships can’t be used for scholarships if there are no students. Endowed funds for campus maintenance don’t work after the campus is sold. And some endowments haven’t even been claimed yet, as live alumni have bequests written into their own wills. The work of distributing assets in support of the goals of a donor is hard enough when it’s one person; colleges have to understand and adhere to the wishes of hundreds or thousands of donors. Can a donor request a refund if the college no longer can fulfill her or his terms? Yuck! What a mess.

In the next few years, we’re going to see the Mount Ida–Newbury–Burlington–Dowling–Green Mountain story played out over and over, with more than a hundred college closures since 2016. It’s not a pleasant task for anyone to consider, but there are an awful lot of colleges who had better start their end-of-life planning now.