MANCHESTER, NH – A group of students and alumni of the SNHU culinary arts program have organized a meeting for Monday to persuade university President Paul LeBlanc not to cut the culinary arts major.
The meeting is a direct response to notice sent out Jan. 19 by Michael Evans, vice president of academic affairs, alerting students that the program will likely be phased out. Via email, Evans told current students that he wanted to inform them of a “difficult recommendation” he had made, to “teach out” the culinary program, and then close the program permanently.
In his letter to students, Evans cited “data and research” that led him to the conclusion that shutting down the program is the only “appropriate option” for the university. The data includes a drop in enrollment over the past four years, and the lack of return on education investment dollars for students who will find themselves in more debt than their peers, based on average salaries in cooking and baking careers of $22-25,000.
Jon Talbot, a 2010 graduate of the program, who also did a stint as an adjunct professor at SNHU, sees it differently.
“They’re about to close the only culinary institute in Manchester, a city that has become such a foodie scene – we even have another high-end restaurant, Cabonnay, about to open, which is just one of many great restaurants in the region,” says Talbot.
He says he hasn’t seen the data yet on which Evans and LeBlanc are basing the teach-out decision, but he also believes the program is too valuable to shutter simply because it’s not a money-maker for the university. He’s spearheading the effort to save the program.
Talbot launched an online petition at Change.org with close to 1,200 signatures so far, and also has created a Facebook event, “Save SNHU Culinary!” for like-minded students, alumni and residents, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. at the on-campus Quill restaurant.
“What we want is a chance to convince them that it’s a mistake to shut down the program. Rather than look at is as failing, we want them to try to compete with the other programs out there. President LeBlanc is a reasonable man. He’s grown the university from its NH College days to what it is now,” says Talbot. “He’s interested in growth. And he’s done things, like buying the naming rights to the Verizon, so that every concert T-shirt you buy has the SNHU brand on it.”
Talbot believes shutting down the program will have a domino effect on the New Hampshire restaurant scene, as it serves as a feeder program for the state’s booming hospitality industry. The decision would directly effect young people like Talbot, who are able to “stay work and play” in New Hampshire, rather than go elsewhere for employment opportunities.
“Why do away with something that’s working and successful? We have more than 1,200 signatures on the petition, and every one of those people who signed that petition took something from SNHU that made them successful today, whether they’re a cook, or like myself, working successfully here in Manchester because of that program,” says Talbot.
He currently is food and beverage manager for Sky Meadow Country Club in Nashua, and credits his culinary professors, not only for helping him get through the program, but connecting him while still a student with Chef Joe Drift – also a SNHU alum – considered among the best in the business in New Hampshire. Drift is former owner of Nashua’s Saffron Bistro, and former executive chef at 11 Eleven Bistro in Manchester, who is now Executive Chef at Sky Meadow.
“I’m 26 and I run two restaurants and assist with banquet operations. I wouldn’t have been given this opportunity if not for Professor Brigid Flanigan – we call her Flanny – and others who challenged me to do my best. She recommended I take a position at Saffron Bistro in Nashua, because she thought I’d work well with Joe Drift. And she was right. We’re still working together all these years later,” Talbot says.
LeBlanc told Talbot that he has office hours at 3 p.m. on Monday, and his door is open to anyone interested in discussing the proposed phasing out of the program.
On Friday, Libby May of the university’s communications team said a final decision about the program’s fate would be made in mid-February, and that the recommendation to teach-out the program is under review.
However, an email response by LeBlanc sent out on Jan. 19 to answer several student inquiries had a tone of finality, as he cited some of the data driving the recommendation. Below is an excerpt (you can read the full email at the bottom of the post):
1) Demand for Culinary programs has been steadily dropping. We’ve seen enrollments drop by more than a third and applications are down 29% over the last four years. This is not just an SNHU phenomenon – it is a national trend, and even better known culinary programs than ours are contracting. Overall, SNHU’s UC overall enrollments are strong and growing, but Culinary stands in stark contrast and in steep decline.
2) Salaries in baking are at a median of $25,000, while the median for cooks is $22,000. Now consider SNHU’s $40,000 cost of attendance and the fact that culinary students take on more debt than most of their peers and we face a growing ethical and practical issue. I’ve stepped in any number of times to help students with financial aid problems and I’m struck and worried by the level of debt many have taken on to enroll with us. Knowing the average starting salaries in the industry, I worry about their ability to ever catch up financially – to buy a car, rent or buy a place of their own, and to make their monthly payments.
It’s not like we haven’t worked at turning things around for Culinary. We’ve been in conversation with the faculty for some time now. We have substantially invested in Culinary, completing an expensive and thorough renovation of the Quill, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the bread machine and facility, and generally supporting the program. Even with such investments and dedicated recruitment efforts, we have not been able to alter the broader reality: there is declining demand for Culinary programs and their cost/debt/value calculus makes less and less sense. No one, including the Culinary faculty and staff (a great and dedicated group), has developed a workable model to reverse Culinary’s fortunes and the situation only worsens.
Talbot still remembers how he found his way to the SNHU culinary program. He was a Central student who was enrolled in the Manchester School of Technology culinary program when a representative of the university program came in to do a demo to interest the high schoolers in continuing their culinary education locally, at SNUU.
“It was a chicken dish, something simple, and he told us he wasn’t a chef, but the chefs at SNHU taught him a few things so he’d be prepared enough to do a cooking demonstration for the students. Of all the demos we saw from all the culinary schools, that was the one that impressed me most,” says Talbot.”He wasn’t a chef, but he was able to do this great demo based on what the professors had taught him.”
Talbot was also swayed by the fact that SNHU offered a two-year degree program, a unique and affordable alternative to other regional culinary programs.
“If they close it down, there will be a giant gap in training programs that someone will have to fill,” says Talbot. “If enrollment is down, they should be sending someone out to high schools to show students what the program’s all about, like they were doing when I was in high school. I’d be willing to do that. Instead of giving up on it, why not try to make it better?”
The full text of President LeBlanc’s email is below: