Cazenovia College’s Sudden Closing This Year: Unintended Consequences of Government

Madison County headlines have been dominated for 2 months by the planned closure of nearly-200-year-old Cazenovia College at the end of the 2023 spring semester. This has upended the lives of its 700 remaining students, its 200 employees, its neighbors, and local government, in trying to plan for what will happen to the College’s $23 million bond default, which is secured by its substantial tax-free real estate holdings.  The Madison County Libertarian Organization has no immediate role to play, but since there seems to be little else being offered for this first weekly newsletter, I thought it might be interesting to bring up some of the issues that should be offering concern to Libertarians throughout New York.

1.  Has the Excelsior College Scholarship program financially crippled NY’s private higher-education instututions?  Gov. Cuomo created tuition-free higher education for SUNY students in 2017, without providing any comparable tuition subsidy for NY students attending private NY colleges.  Since then, not only Cazenovia College but also dozens of other small private colleges in New York have been placed under severe financial stress. 

Like many of these colleges, Cazenovia College suffered significant enrollment declines over 5 years, down to 700 in fall 2022, from its peak of a bit over 1000 five years ago.  It took out large loans during the pandemic, in expectation that the enrollment would bounce back, but this did not materialize.  With annual tuition payments of $35,000 per student, a loss of 300 enrolled students represents a loss of over $10 million in annual income.  

When the 2022 bond payment of $23 million came due in September, it became clear that there was no path forward besides cutting faculty and selling off buildings, to an extent that would jeopardize the school’s ability to offer degree programs.  This was clearly unsustainable. 

Libertarians need to ask the hard question:  Is the Excelsior Scholarship program a surefire route to a near-monopoly for SUNY schools?  Is that a good idea, considering the  inefficiency that has developed over 100 years of near-monopoly for public primary and  secondary schooling?

2. What is to become of the College’s real estate, and who gets to decide?  The rapidity of the closure took everyone by surprise, meaning that there will soon be a conflict between the bondholders and the Village and Town of Cazenovia, over what can be done with the College’s property. 

One of the buildings that has been used for nearly 2 centuries by the College was actually Madison County’s first courthouse, i.e. its first county seat.  The College’s parcel is zoned for educational use only, and historical preservation restrictions seem to make it impossible to redevelop the oldest of the College’s several dozen classroom and dormitory buildings for commercial use.

It has been suggested to use the dormitories and the cafeteria and library and recreational facilities for senior housing, and for senior center(s). However,  the 2-3 story buildings are old enough that they would have to be very expensively retrofitted with elevators, according to current codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There is no immediately identified nearby investor who could cough up $23 million at once. The town and village annual budgets are each on the order of $2 million.  The narrative that is taking hold now is that the bondholders will not tolerate the transaction costs of delaying or subdividing the holdings, instead aiming to sell the whole thing quickly in a fire sale to a rich foreign real-estate investor.

But those deep-pocketed individuals or corporations would want most of the campus, a mere 1/2 mile from Cazenovia Lake and 3 blocks from Main Street (Route US 20), for commercial and residential real-estate.  Then they would spend a few million more  to pressure the Town and Village to change the zoning. 

Some questions for Libertarians to ponder:  Is restrictive zoning of this sort good for our community?  In deciding whether to remove such zoning, is this kind of deep-pocketed foreign political influence good or bad?

3.  Did the  2021 decisions by the Town and the Village of Cazenovia to opt-out of cannabis sales deal the ultimate death blow to student interest in Cazenovia College?  The most important competitor for Cazenovia College’s world-famous equestrian degree programs was always SUNY Morrisville.  On top of the availability of much lower (free) tuition at the latter (see item #1 above), I think Cazenovia’s local governments may have dealt a death blow to the competitiveness of Cazenovia relative to Morrisville, by opting out of licensed cannabis retail in fall 2021. 

Both the Village and the Town of Cazenovia opted out, while both the village of Morrisville and its surrounding town (Eaton) opted in.  Hamilton Township and Village, where Colgate College is located, also opted in. This leaves Cazenovia as the only jurisdiction in Madison County that has a 4-year college but is not slated to have legal cannabis sales.  Hmmmm…. Make that “…had a 4-year college.”  

As a resident of the Town of Cazenovia, I passed petitions for an override of the Town Board’s decision, reaching about 1/3 of the required signatures almost single-handedly.  But a bad cold that hit me in the last 2 weeks of the petition period in November 2021 laid me low, and that was that.   The Town Supervisor has promised that the Board would reconsider once licenses started actually to be handed out.  But will this be like trying to open the barn door, after the horses have already chosen a different barn? 

Pandemic-weary applicants to SUNY Morrisville during fall 2021 knew that  by the time they turned 21 in 2023 or 2024, they would likely be able to walk a half-mile from their dorm to a nearby cannabis dealer for an easy supply.  From a Cazenovia dorm room, they would need a car or Uber to make the 10-mile drive to the nearest cannabis shop in Eaton or Morrisville.  Piled on top of the tuition difference, is it any surprise that the potential horse-husbandry majors might have just tossed their Cazenovia College applications into the trash bin in December 2021 and said  “Mom and Dad, I’m happy to save you money at Morrisville!”?

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