Massachusetts Bay Community College spent at least $450,000 in the past fiscal year on a range of marketing, public relations, and consulting firms, an unusually large outlay for a two-year school that has renewed controversy on the Wellesley campus and raised eyebrows throughout the community college system.
Faculty leaders, who in November delivered a vote of no confidence in MassBay president Carole Berotte Joseph for causing "institutional chaos," are criticizing the use of outside specialists as excessive and unnecessary. They contend that the college, whose nursing program was sanctioned last year because of an understaffed faculty, is shortchanging students through what they call frivolous spending.
"It's fine to hire consultants on a small scale for specific expertise, but this is outrageous, and in the context of what's happening at MassBay, almost obscene," said Joseph LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, a union that represents faculty at the state's 15 community colleges.
The 5,000-student college's spending on consultants last year outpaced its peers across the state. For instance, Massasoit Community College, which has more than 7,000 students, spent $63,000 on communications-related consulting services. Bunker Hill Community College, with 8,800 students, spent $43,000; Middlesex Community College, with more than 8,000 students, spent nothing.
"We do everything in-house here; we literally print our own posters," said Brenda Loucks, Middlesex Community College's dean of communications. "It's a lot of money to go outside."
MassBay officials staunchly defended the outside services as central to improving the school. For instance, marketing consultants helped the college launch a new website, publish its first alumni magazine, increase the number of transfer agreements with four-year schools, and boost marketing for programs with low enrollment. It also helped the college increase its overall visibility and name recognition, officials said.
"Criticisms about spending in the public relations and marketing areas are shortsighted," Joseph said in a statement. She said the college's overall marketing efforts have trailed that of its peers for years, and that the recent spending marks the first major investment in the area in a decade.
"This is especially important when one considers that all major contracts in this area have ceased for 2008," she said.
Overall, the college has sharply reduced consulting costs during Joseph's three years as president by hiring more staff to perform previously outsourced tasks, she said. That strategy has reduced overall expenditures for consultants from more than 5 percent of the school's $37 million budget to 2.5 percent in the past fiscal year, Joseph said. For instance, information technology services, which had been completely outsourced, are now done in-house.
With open admissions policies and an overwhelmingly regional base, community colleges face less competitive pressure than four-year institutions to attract students. As a result, they typically spend relatively little on marketing and public relations.
Catering to many working students with little money to spare, many community colleges struggle to keep costs down and operate on tight budgets. Hiring high-powered marketing firms, MassBay critics say, runs counter to the school's mission.
"It's in contrast to everything community colleges are supposed to stand for," LeBlanc said. "I've never heard of anything close to this, at any community college across the state."
The statewide faculty union, which is calling upon MassBay trustees to remove Joseph, also said the college was significantly understating its outsourced spending. The union reviewed consultant contracts that were provided by the college in response to a public records request and calculated that the college spent $614,000 in the past fiscal year.
Joseph O'Neill, president of MassBay's faculty union, said professors gasped when the scope of the outsourcing was announced at a recent faculty meeting.
"When you have one of the worst teacher-to-student ratios in the community college system, it seems like an incredibly excessive amount of money," he said. "People are flabbergasted."
Other colleges said they spent much more modest sums on outside firms.
Greenfield Community College, for example, spent $11,000 last year on one public relations consultant who attended trustees meetings and wrote press releases and articles for the alumni newsletter and the local newspaper.
"We're a pretty small college," said Tim Braim, chief financial officer for Greenfield Community College in Western Massachusetts, which has about 3,000 students. "I think we'd find something else to spend that kind of money on."
Roxbury Community College in Boston said it spent only $7,500 last year for a fund-raising consultant and makes a concerted effort to keep outside costs to a minimum. Northern Essex Community College spent $110,000 to create a total quality management program and a new strategic plan, according to president David Hartleb.
Community college officials cautioned that definitions of public relations and marketing may differ, making spending comparisons tricky.
Eileen O'Connor, a spokeswoman for the Board of Higher Education, said the board was aware of the faculty criticisms but leaves spending decisions to individual colleges. The board anticipates that the schools will spend money to promote themselves.
"In many cases, consultant expenses are perfectly justified," she said.