March 5, 2018

Editorial: 135-acre campus for sale in Lancaster?

Atlantic Union College's campus in Lancaster has gone underused since the school lost accredidation in 2011.

Last year's withdrawal of an $800,000 annual subsidy to Lancaster's Atlantic Union College from one of its major funding sources appears to have been the death knell for the struggling Seventh-day Adventist School. Classes will cease by year end. While only 69 students were enrolled last year, the shuttering will have consequences for the school's employees and the town. Originally founded in 1882, Atlantic Union had close to 1,000 students just 20 years ago. While the closure is stunning in many ways, it's hardly a surprise.

In 2011, the school lost its accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and was inactive for the next four years. In 2015, efforts were made to restart academic programs, and while the school could not grant degrees, the hope was it could build momentum and gain sufficient financial stability to earn back accreditation. That has proven to be a quixotic effort, and now the 135-acre campus with housing for 420 students, a library, dining hall, gymnasium and a number of charming buildings in varying states of disrepair will again go largely idle. That is not good for the school or the town of Lancaster.

Knowing when to cut your losses can be the hardest decision of all, but that is when true leadership arises. The plight of the struggling nonprofit is a familiar story. Plan after plan for turning operations around gets put together, resources get stretched to make do, and all the people involved work and hope for the best outcome. But when those outcomes don't yield results, and before the organization becomes unsustainable, it's the job of the board to make the tough decisions. The power of positive thinking can only get you so far when the money runs dry.

A town can thrive when its major institutions are strong, and suffer when they weaken. Atlantic Union has traditionally had a positive impact on Lancaster and the businesses in the region, but an empty, aging campus is a huge liability. The sooner Atlantic Union works with the town to find a buyer for the bulk of its holdings, the better. But timing is critical if a sale to another academic institution or other major user is to succeed. Reinvestment in the campus infrastructure has been sorely lacking for years, and most of the buildings will need significant upgrades or restoration. Buildings not on the main campus may be best marketed separately while others, like the respected Thayer Performing Arts Center & Community Music School may be strong enough to be sustained without the college community. It will be a big job to assess and plan for the future use of the site, but the town and the local economy are going to suffer until the campus gets a new owner who can breath life back into it.

The news of the closing is still fresh, yet judging by statements on the school's website from its leaders, there does not appear to be an acceptance of the new reality.

The fat lady is singing at Atlantic Union College in Lancaster – can the school's board and leadership hear her?


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