Thirty-eight graduates of the McNally Smith College of Music will gather Saturday at the History Theatre for the institution’s final commencement. With the school’s abrupt decision to shut down, more than 300 other students are scrambling to figure out how to finish their educations.
There had been signs of financial problems at the for-profit college in downtown St. Paul, but staff said Thursday evening’s e-mail announcing the closure came as a shock and will leave a hole in the Twin Cities music scene.
The school has taught students about all areas of the music industry — from performance to audio engineering to composition — for the past 32 years. Administrators said they plan to continue operating through Dec. 20 and asked teachers to stay on, unpaid, for another week so students can finish the semester.
Some students could have a hard time transferring their credits. Two former students recently sued the school, claiming McNally Smith has not sufficiently informed students that it doesn’t have a regional accreditation.
Regional accreditation is considered the “gold standard,” but it doesn’t guarantee credits will transfer and it is too early to say whether McNally Smith students will be able to transfer credits, said Kate McCartan with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
McNally Smith President Harry Chalmiers said the school is nationally accredited and students have transferred from their school to the University of Minnesota, Yale University and many other colleges. It is up to each institution to decide whether to accept another college’s credit, he said.
“We will do everything humanly possible to ensure these students are able to complete their degrees,” Chalmiers said. The school is negotiating with at least 10 colleges and universities to accept its students.
The school’s enrollment had been declining for more than five years and it has spent more on scholarships, he said, which cut into its bottom line. It has not been profitable for the past two years, Chalmiers said.
McNally Smith officials tried to make the school a nonprofit institution, Chalmiers said, but the process was slow and “the sad truth is, we just ran out of time.”
Loss of a community
Students from across the country and outside of the U.S. are trying to figure out where to go next, and those who lived in the school’s dorm must look for new housing, said Alyssia Kangas, a music business major who was two semesters from graduation. “Everybody was really astonished, frustrated, angry,” she said.
This is the latest in a string of Twin Cities music and business schools to shut down. Globe University and Minnesota School of Business shut down amid charges of fraud last year. The Minneapolis Media Institute also recently closed.
Kevin Washington, an instructor in three departments at McNally Smith, said he knows private colleges are having financial issues and understands that “things fall apart.” But he was shocked that staffers were not warned about the closure and have since been left in the dark.
“What makes me angry is the way it was done,” Washington said. “We’ve got mortgages, we’ve got kids, we’ve got wives and you’ve got international students who are stuck. … We know nothing.”
In the McNally building on Friday morning, students were directed to the student services office. There, they lined up to ask about their thousands of dollars in tuition and credits for the semester.
Despite the likelihood they were out a paycheck right before the holidays, many instructors came to work, consoled weeping students and urged them to carry on. When one student asked for a comparable school in Minnesota, he was told, “Well, there really isn’t one anymore.”
It is rare to see so many musical resources marshaled in one place, said Sean McPherson, a former McNally Smith staff member and a bassist with Heiruspecs and Dessa. The school was a hub where students, staff and traveling musicians who stopped by for workshops connected, he said.
“I’d say six out of 10 times that I walked into a gig, the sound person is a McNally alum, somebody in one of the other acts is a McNally alum. We did a lot of work at that school not just to generate star power, but cogs in the musical world,” McPherson said.
The school was tied to the Twin Cities in many ways, said Chris Osgood, the school’s vice president of community relations. It worked with the History Theatre, held regular performances at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and helped put on the annual Lowertown Guitar Festival. He said he wants to continue some of those projects without the school.
“McNally is just a great community,” Osgood said. “And today we’re all weeping, not just for the loss of our income, but the loss of our community,”
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this report.