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Northfield closure has blood boiling

NORTHFIELD -- When half of Northfield Mount Hermon closes next summer, reminders of tea dances, May Day plantings, and Trish Dolben could disappear, too.

Dolben was a 1954 graduate of the former Northfield School for Girls. After she died in 1985, her husband, Don, donated $1 million to create a library in her honor. In a year and a half it will no longer be a part of the school.

"What damn fool would give money for a memorial to his wife that would be used for just 15 years?" Don Dolben said. The former trustee is angry with school leaders. "To cavalierly abandon a campus without stating a purpose seems to be a breach of fiduciary duty, if not a legal duty then a spiritual one."

In the staid world of boarding schools, the decision to shut down the Northfield campus is a radical move for the 126-year-old Northfield Mount Hermon School. The board of trustees' decision, announced three weeks ago, has drawn woe, invective, and threats to withhold donations.

The private boarding school, begun by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody, plans to group all its students and faculty on the Gill campus, site of the original Mount Hermon Boys School. It also will shrink its population, now at 1,000, by 25 percent.

The move was necessary, administrators said, because the school's $110 million endowment could not adequately maintain such a large plant and offer financial aid to increasingly needy students. By making such changes, the preparatory school -- where tuition, room, and board tops $30,000 a year -- hopes to assure its place in the super-competitive world of elite boarding schools, one made rougher by bad economic times.

The school says it has no plans yet for the Northfield campus and will form a committee to consider options. The uncertainty has left teachers fretting about layoffs and students disappointed that they must leave the "artsy campus," where Italian and Victorian buildings house the theater and visual arts classrooms, to join the jocks on the Mount Hermon campus, where dorms ring a football field.

Others worry the school is losing its quirkiness. Despite a $30,000-per-student cost for tuition and board, the school prides itself on a history of educating the working class.

Alumni like Dolben are perhaps the most bitter. The school, they say, is unnecessarily destroying its history. Many graduates are piqued at what they say was a hasty, clandestine decision. They are nervous that this change is the first in a series of cost saving moves. They worry that, in an effort to woo more students and more donations and compete with better-endowed schools, the keepers are shedding the school's quirky image.

"New England does not need another Deerfield, Andover, or Exeter," said Jonathan Rini, class of '96, referring to expensive, elite academies. "NMH has always stood apart and many people close to it think that it should continue to do so."

Several alumni said a radical change carries a whiff of desperation.

"How is the outside world looking at it?" Dolben asked. "They think it's in financial trouble. Are you going to send your kid there? Are you going to support a school you think is dying?"

School administrators insist Northfield Mount Hermon is healthy, just not overly wealthy. Officials find themselves walking a tricky line: They want to justify their decision in terms of finances and education mission. But they don't want to appear alarmist.

Administrators say that running two campuses, a 10-minute drive apart, is wasteful. Both campuses house gym facilities, dorms, dining halls, libraries, teachers, and support staff. The school would need to double its endowment to support the maintenance on a campus worth $300 million, said Peter Ticconi, dean for development and alumni relations. The school needs to spend $5 million for deferred maintenance, but can muster only $2.5 million.

Donations haven't come through either, he said. The school embarked on a capital campaign in 2002, but gifts from the traditionally most generous alumni were markedly off in the downturn after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ticconi said.

"We could not fundraise our way through this," he said.

Then administrators noticed another worrisome trend: Parents seemed leery about sending their 14-year-olds to a sprawling 3,400-acre estate, and seemed to desire a smaller setting. Applications dropped slightly for the current school year and trustee Barbara Freedman of South Londonderry, Vt., blamed it on post-Sept. 11 anxiety.

By admitting fewer students, officials argue, the school will be able to offer larger packages of financial aid. Tom Sturtevant, the associate head of the school, said each trustee board has contemplated consolidating the campus since the boys and girls schools merged in 1971. The current board, he said, had the courage to make the obvious choice.

"We have made a decision to get smaller as a way to improve selectivity and improve standards and quality," he said.

Administrators insist that they're ensuring NMH's future, not degrading its history.

In the private-education world of blue blazers and bluer blood, Moody's schools always stood apart.

Moody created Northfield in 1879 and Mount Hermon in 1881 to educate the working-class in ways spiritual, civic, and academic. Socially, Moody was radically inclusive: the schools' earliest classes included Native Americans from Oklahoma and a freed Virginia slave, along with kids from farms and mill towns who might otherwise have never finished high school. Today it is still known as a blue-collar campus, where kids from the South Bronx become the first in their families to attend college.

Moody's bearded visage and Golden Rule philosophies influence the campus today. To graduate, all students must perform several hours of physical labor each week, be it scrubbing dishes in the dining halls or harvesting maple syrup at the Mount Hermon farm.

NMH prides itself on churning out articulate, public-spirited men and women who carry fierce attachments to the little campus near the Vermont border. And there is a strong international presence, something the trustees say they are committed to preserving.

Shrinking the campus worries students, not just alumni. Courtney Fields , a 15-year-old from the South Bronx, said her mother told her to keep up her grades. "If I'm not doing well, one bad grade and I could be gone," she frets.

Dolben, who also sent his children and granddaughter to the school, believes Northfield Mount Hermon could have saved itself by asking its alumni for help. Its actions, without alumni comment, have forged a deep divide. "Don't you think they'd get more money if the alumni were happy?" he said. "A lot of people think this will put NMH in a death spiral."

Suzanne Sataline can be reached at sataline@globe.com

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