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    Local News
    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Esteemed Mystic college program fighting for survival

    Mystic — A prestigious local college program is in danger of being shut down after almost 50 years.

    Williams College is considering ending a partnership with Mystic Seaport Museum that would effectively shutter the collaborative Coastal and Ocean Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum known as Mystic-Williams.

    If the Williamstown, Mass. college decides to scrap the program, the spring 2025 semester would be the last for the Mystic-based, study-away program that has served over 1,800 students, including notable alumnus Teddy Kennedy Jr.

    Mystic-Williams Executive Director Tom Van Winkle said on Friday, “We want to continue educating our future leaders to tackle complex issues associated with our coasts and oceans. Progressive, forward-thinking institutions should be investing in award-winning programs like ours, not dismantling them.”

    From its 1977 inception until Williams assumed financial responsibility for it in July 2015, the rigorous marine studies program operated through the museum and was self-sustaining, with funding from tuition, donations and grants, among other sources.

    The program includes courses in American maritime history, literature, public policy and marine science, and it requires students to conduct independent research for each.

    Van Winkle said the program is small by design, and they have consistently met the college’s stated goal of five Williams students per semester and accepted students from other colleges, with enrollment ranging from 10 to 21 students per year over the last three years.

    The small nature of the program, with just five faculty and five staff, is also a fundamental piece of the college’s strategic plan.

    “This is a labor-intensive mode of education that requires a low ratio of students to faculty. But it would be a mistake to misread the effort as inefficiency. Our program is profoundly and distinctly transformative,” the plan reads.

    “The Williams-Mystic ocean and coastal studies program provides an example of how effective experiential pedagogy can be,” it continues, and adds that the college needs to “grow and expand” this type of programming.

    But this message and the public accolades the college has heaped upon the program seem to be at odds with what leadership at the U.S. News and World Report’s #1-ranked liberal arts college in the nation — for 18 years running — is now considering.

    Last fall, Williams President Maud Mandel visited the Mystic campus, calling it a “crown jewel” of the college’s study abroad program, so Van Winkle was blindsided by an April 17 email from Mandel informing him that senior college leadership was considering not renewing its contract with the museum.

    The current three-year contract will expire June 30, 2025.

    He said he learned in a later meeting with Mandel and Provost Eiko Maruko Siniawer that the college was questioning the future financial viability of the resource-intensive program, and a decision would be made on its future by July 1, less than a year before the end of the 2024-25 academic year.

    On Friday, Van Winkle provided an update on continuing discussions with college leadership. He said the leadership has agreed to continue discussions beyond July 1, but with the fate of the program hanging in the balance, he believes the time frame is too short for such a weighty decision.

    “It doesn’t give us a window that is viable to raise a lot of money to go independent, and it doesn’t give us a window to align ourselves with another college,” Van Winkle said.

    Though he said both are possible, a decision to end the partnership would leave the program and its 10 staff and faculty members less than a year to navigate the transition.

    The program’s operating budget for fiscal year ’24 is $547,000.

    Van Winkle said the program needs to raise funding, as the budget is nearly $30,000 less than it was when the college took it over in 2015, and the college often absorbs some of the costs for non-Williams students.

    To alleviate some of the financial pressures, Van Winkle said Mystic-Williams is working on a dedicated $5 million endowment with the college, amassing approximately $2.1 million to date, and is actively seeking funding streams to gain a firmer financial footing, regardless of the college’s decision.

    Siniawer did not respond to questions posed via email on Tuesday, and a spokesman for the college declined to comment on ending the program or what would happen with the money already accrued in the endowment.

    Van Winkle said students, alumni and colleagues are actively pushing back on the idea of shuttering Mystic-Williams, and more than 100 scientists, policy experts, and a wide array of scholars and other professionals signed a letter of support for the program in just 36 hours.

    “This isn’t over,” Van Winkle said, vowing to continue to fight for the future of the program.

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