Daily News

AMHERST — The UMass Amherst chancellor search committee has selected two finalists: Javier Reyes, interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC); and Paul Tikalsky, dean of the College of Engineering, Architecture & Technology at Oklahoma State University (OSU).

Since last July, Reyes has led UIC as interim chancellor. UIC is Chicago’s largest university campus, with more than 33,000 students. The university, which holds the R1 research status in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, is classified as a Minority Serving Institution, a Hispanic Serving Institution, and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution.

With more than $440 million in research awards, the institution ranks among the top 65 out of more than 650 national universities in federal research funding. Reyes is responsible for a $3.6 billion budget, 13,000 faculty and staff, and 16 academic colleges, including one of the nation’s largest medical schools and Chicago’s only public law school.

Prior to his service as interim chancellor, Reyes was provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at UIC. As provost, he advised on matters of academic policy, strategic direction, enrollment management, and academic resource planning. He was responsible for all academic affairs and for fulfilling the mission of providing students with inclusive access to academic excellence and opportunity. As chief academic officer for UIC, he worked to support and retain close to 3,000 faculty and recruit the next generation of diverse scholars, researchers, and medical professionals for the institution.

Tikalsky is completing his 11th year as dean of the College of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology at OSU. A leading scholar in the development of long-life sustainable materials, Tikalsky is also known as an advocate for the public and land-grant university’s role in higher education, engaging diverse students in experiential learning and resourcing large-scale innovation in trans-disciplinary research.

Tikalsky has spent more than three decades as an award-winning professor and academic leader at public R1 and land-grant universities, raising more than $250 million for student success and scholarships, faculty support, and building world-class facilities for teaching and research. He successfully engaged state regents, industrial leaders, legislators, and public agencies to create the case that increased higher-education funding by more than $125 million over the next 10 years through the Oklahoma Engineering Initiative. At OSU, he has transformed the college with initiatives that finish more degrees in four years, provide pre-college bridge and STEM programs for students from economically disadvantaged communities, elevate academic standards, and increase the diversity of the students and faculty.

Previously, Tikalsky was chair of Civil & Environmental (Nuclear) Engineering at the University of Utah and the deputy director of the Larson Transportation Institute at Penn State University.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury and Murphy, P.C. (DWPM) announced that the firm has elected Kathryn Crouss and Erin Meehan as new shareholders.

Crouss joined the firm in May 2022. She has extensive experience in both family law and employment matters. She is a certified mediator and represents family-law clients both in court and through alternative dispute resolution methods. She is currently president-elect of the Hampden County Bar Assoc., serves on the board of Community Legal Aid, and has chaired Community Legal Aid’s Access to Justice fundraising campaign for the past two years. While a student at Western New England University School of Law, she served as editor-in-chief of the Western New England Law Review.

Meehan concentrates her practice in general civil litigation and municipal law. She joined DWPM as an associate in 2014. She is a member of the board of directors of the Hampden County Bar Assoc. She earned her juris doctorate from Suffolk University Law School and her bachelor’s degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is admitted to practice in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“Katie and Erin are very valuable members of the firm and the Springfield legal community,” said W. Garth Janes, managing partner at DWPM. “Katie is a leading family-law attorney in Western Massachusetts and also provides depth to our employment law practice. Erin continues our dedication to a strong civil litigation and municipal practice. We look forward to having them continue to serve clients throughout Western Massachusetts as shareholders of the firm.”

Daily News

WARE — Country Bank reported that its donations and sponsorships for 2022 totaled more than $1.3 million. The bank’s philanthropic efforts supported local nonprofits throughout its communities; more than 350 organizations received grants in 2022. In addition, the bank’s team members volunteered 1,091 hours of service, and 64 team members served on 33 nonprofit boards and committees throughout the region.

Recognizing the importance and overwhelming need to help organizations that address hunger, in addition to the $1 million, five-year pledge it made in 2021 to the Worcester County Food Bank and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Country Bank provided an additional $100,000 in donations to food programs throughout the region.

Other organizations receiving donations included Behavioral Health Network, the Hanover Theater, Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp., Revitalize Community Development Corp., Springfield Rescue Mission, the Children’s Trust, Juniper Outreach, United Way of Central Massachusetts, Ronald McDonald House, and YWCA.

During its annual “Season of Difference” campaign, Country Bank supported more than 1,000 local individuals with gifts of toys, blankets, hats, and other essential items for those in nursing homes, shelters, local YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs.

“As a community partner, we care deeply about the sustainability of our communities,” said Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank. “We are honored to support many organizations through donations and volunteerism to help them with their work. Supporting and enriching our communities is not only a part of our mission; it’s who we are as an organization, and we know that it makes a difference for so many.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — MassMutual has been named a World’s Most Admired Company by Fortune magazine, placing second in the life- and health-insurance industry category and leading among mutual company peers.

Notably, MassMutual ranked first for innovation in its industry category, the fifth time in the past six years the company has received this honor. The company has been named to the Fortune World’s Most Admired Company list 20 times since 2000.

“We are delighted to be named a World’s Most Admired Company again this year and to be recognized as the most innovative company in our industry,” said Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO. “Accolades like this demonstrate the talent and dedication of our employees and network of financial professionals who work hard each day to reach people on their terms and deliver holistic financial solutions that bring stability and security in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. While we are honored by this recognition, we’re especially proud of what it reflects: the progress we’re making toward helping millions more Americans secure their future and protect the ones they love.”

The 2023 Fortune World’s Most Admired Company survey was conducted in the fall of 2022 among executives, directors, and analysts in 52 industries. The annual poll assessed nine reputation drivers considered to be crucial to a company’s global success: innovation, people management, use of corporate assets, social responsibility, quality of management, financial soundness, long-term investment value, quality of products/services, and global competitiveness. The full list of recognized companies and survey methodology can be found at fortune.com.


It’s Not Simply Academic

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez says AIC strives to create a sense of belonging for students.

With high-school graduation numbers down in the U.S. and college enrollments following suit, Hubert Benitez says higher-education institutions must take a multi-pronged approach to enrollment management and their “overarching value proposition.”

“The academic portfolio of all our institutions across the region are very strong. So the students have options: wherever they will go, they will receive a sound education,” said Benitez, who began his tenure as president of American International College (AIC) last spring. “So, having said that, what truly differentiates one college from another?”

To answer that question, he pointed to a report called “AIC Reimagined 2022-2027,” which considers how to rethink strategies in six different pillars, including academics; student life, engagement, and support; fiscal growth; internal and external community engagement and development; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and athletics.

Take the first pillar, academics. “We realized, post-pandemic, that we have to reimagine our academic enterprise and what the collegiate experience is all about,” Benitez told BusinessWest. “We have to rethink how we offer education. Students learn differently, and they want to attend college in a different way. We have a lot of non-traditional students coming back to education, people who, post-pandemic, want to retool themselves for a career change — adult learners, students who have family commitments. If we are to address their needs, we really have to rethink how we offer our academic portfolio.”

Colleges and universities everywhere are having similar conversations about how to attract, and then shepherd to graduation, a smaller pool of potential college students than in past decades, due largely to changing demographics.

“The return-on-investment case has been made over and over again. The economics have been quite clear for a long time: people with a college degree earn over a million dollars more over their lifetime than those who don’t have one.”

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges fell by 1.1% in fall 2022 compared to 2021, a pace of decline that’s nearly returned to pre-pandemic rates. In between was a year, 2020, when enrollment dropped 3.4%, followed by 2.1% in 2021. The net effect of those years is an enrollment total that’s down close to 7% from 2019.

“The trend for higher-education enrollment had been on the decline, but this was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic years,” Elms College President Harry Dumay said. “But things are coming somewhat back to normal these days for us.”

That’s reflected in some healthy numbers for Elms’ various segments, including first-time freshmen, traditional transfer students, and especially graduate students; the only segment that has seen some erosion is transfers from community colleges, which were hit hard by the pandemic.

A stabilization of enrollment makes sense, despite the high cost of college, Dumay said. “The return-on-investment case has been made over and over again. The economics have been quite clear for a long time: people with a college degree earn over a million dollars more over their lifetime than those who don’t have one.”

What Elms and many other schools are now doing is providing more flexibility for adult and non-traditional students, such as stackable, short-term certificates that ease the way to gainful employment and accumulate toward a degree down the line.

However, he noted, beyond the economics, what shouldn’t be undervalued is the formative aspect of college, especially for the shrinking 18-22 age demographic. “Whether you go full-time or part-time, whether residential or commuter, there is something that happens in those years — forming character, learning to think critically — which affects the value.”

Benitez said culture is a key element of AIC’s message to prospective students and their parents.

“One differentiator is how we create a sense of belonging for the students. It’s very important to today’s students,” he explained. “When they arrive on campus, they need to feel like they belong. I truly believe AIC provides that value to any student from any background because we have intentionally created an environment where every single student feels like they belong.”

Once enrolled, he added, “we follow the student along their educational journey, providing support services at every single stage of their academic journey.”

“If any students are struggling for any reason that would keep them from persisting and staying enrolled at college, we have a whole team dedicated to helping them work through that.”

Darcey Kemp

Darcey Kemp

In fact, that’s a key element of one of the six pillars, and it’s important, especially for first-generation college students, to have the peace of mind offered by such supports.

“For a parent who did not have the opportunity to attend college, leaving his or her child in an environment where they don’t know if they’re going to feel right has to be daunting,” Benitez said. “We try to approach parents and students alike, making them understand that’s important to us. I hope they are relieved when they come here and feel the caring environment.”


Support System

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), whose enrollment figures are up slightly from last spring, is also heavily focused on culture and student support, said Darcey Kemp, vice president of Student Affairs.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” she added. “Our students are individuals, with individual experiences.”

The support starts early, with outreach to high-school students to help them with applications, placement testing, financial aid, choosing class schedules, and more. “We come to you,” Kemp said, noting that STCC also invites guidance counselors to campus so they can gather information to bring back to their schools.

Aware of the impact the pandemic had on men of color, who dropped out disproportionately during that period, STCC also created the Male Initiative for Leadership and Education (MILE), a program that provides inclusive academic support, mentoring, and community-engagement opportunities to male students, particularly Black and Latino students. Participants connect with professionals who serve as mentors throughout the student’s time at the college, helping them stay on track to reach their degree goals.

That can be a challenge at many institutions. The Education Data Initiative reports that first-time undergraduate freshmen have a 12-month dropout rate of 24%. Among first-time students in bachelor’s-degree programs, almost 26% do not earn their degree; among all undergraduate students, around 40% drop out.

The economic impact can be significant; the same report notes that college dropouts make an average of 33% less income than those who hold bachelor’s degrees, and college dropouts are almost 20% more likely to be unemployed than any degree holder.

That’s why student advisors at STCC work closely with students to make sure they’re taking the classes they need to achieve their degree goals, and why the college regularly looks back five semesters and reaches out to anyone who has paused their education and not returned during those two and a half years, to talk about what supports they might need to continue, and what steps to take to re-enroll.

“We need, in higher education in general, to invest time and energy into resources that help students reach their personal and academic goals,” Kemp said. “It’s an individualized conversation for each student.”

Dumay said 44% of Elms students are Pell-eligible, meaning they come from low-income families, so it’s important that they succeed. “You don’t want to come to Elms and not graduate, whether with debt or without debt, because of the investment of time. It’s really important we help our students graduate.”

With a student graduation rate and a first-year retention rate higher than the national average, that effort has paid off, he added. “There are a variety of things we put in place to ensure we help students be successful, including a physical Center for Student Access, but also supports like coaching.”

Benitez said 50% of AIC’s student body is Pell-eligible, and many are the first in their family to attend college. “We have a number of programs for first-generation college students that include very basic things like time management, how do you learn, how do you study, how to you financially plan? This is often new to them, so helping them navigate their college experience is very important to us.”

STCC’s Center for Access Services helps students tackle issues such as homelessness and food insecurity that could hinder their ability to get an education and climb the economic ladder.

“If any students are struggling for any reason that would keep them from persisting and staying enrolled at college, we have a whole team dedicated to helping them work through that,” said Kemp, adding that the STCC website also has a ‘chat now’ feature for student questions on anything from admissions to financial aid to understanding the Blackboard learning-management system. “It’s another way to demonstrate to students that we will engage with them in any way they want to engage with us.”


Rolling with the Changes

In short, Kemp said, “it’s important that we continue to share with students that there are opportunities to manage all the things they have going on. If a working parent wants to go to college, they can; they don’t have to choose between taking care of the family and obtaining a degree.”

That proposition is easier now, she added, with the program flexibility — in person, hybrid, or fully online — that emerged during the pandemic.

Benitez believes academic institutions today need to serve as engines for workforce development, and in AIC’s case, the impact is local, as most of its students hail from the region, and many stay and work here after graduation.

“We ask our business partners, what do you need in a graduate? What is the skillset, the competency set? And how are we going to revise and reimagine our academic offerings so it’s responsive to the workforce needs of this region?”

Because young people today plan to change jobs many times, one role of colleges is to teach them to be lifetime learners, he added, so they can easily adapt to their changing environment; in some cases, they’re training for jobs that don’t even exist yet. “We should prepare the groundwork for them to learn as they grow,” Benitez said.

Dumay told BusinessWest that the past few years have been a difficult time for all colleges, one in which they’ve had to be prudent financially. But he believes those efforts to tighten up and adapt are worth it.

“We’re providing a tremendous service to the general public — not just Elms, but all colleges like us — by helping the citizenry, both young people and not so young, get a foot on the economic ladder. That benefits all of us,” he said.

“If higher education struggles, the entire economy struggles,” he went on. “We are certainly staying strong, and the help that has been provided by the federal and state government helped a lot of colleges remain strong. But it is still a challenging time for higher education, and we want to remain healthy and strong so we can serve our students.”

To do that, Benitez said, requires a willingness to do things differently — in other words, to reimagine a college education. He believes the alternative, stagnation, is unsustainable.

“Academic institutions must be able to adapt to the current times, to meet the student where they are,” he said. “That’s critically important in these times.”


Beyond ‘If You Build It, They Will Come’

By Meg Sanders


The local cannabis industry is overflowing with weed.

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s open data platform reports 95 cultivators were operational and licensed as of Dec. 8, 2022. Hot on those heels, another 180 provisional licensees are seeking approval that would bring the state up to somewhere around 3.6 million to 4.98 million square feet of canopy for flower cultivation within the Bay State cannabis market’s roughly 250 cannabis stores. 

If your operating and business plan is based on an outlook written for investors in the previous presidential administration, or during the halcyon days of the great green rush of the past, it’s time to face the truth: Massachusetts is well beyond the point of “if you build it, they will come.” 

So those Massachusetts cannabis businesses still in the queue or just getting open need to revisit their market overviews for investors and operators. They need to do so today. Not tomorrow, not if a market event happens — right now.

“Those Massachusetts cannabis businesses still in the queue or just getting open need to revisit their market overviews for investors and operators. They need to do so today. Not tomorrow, not if a market event happens — right now.”

Meg Sanders

Meg Sanders

Take a very hard look at what needs to be rethought, or what needs to be immediately addressed, in regard to budgeting, SOPs, and overall market impact strategies for launch — and for long-term survival. Roughly 37% of all cannabis operators in the U.S. are not profitable, and too many businesses are unaware they are launching only to be licensed to lose money and fail.

For Massachusetts, the danger zone is already here. 


New Markets = New Consumers

As more retailers and brands emerge online, operators just now getting their operational licenses are typically doing so using plans they wrote when originally fundraising months or years back, often without taking into account how business plans and projections need to be tweaked, updated, or overhauled in the realities of the Massachusetts cannabis industry in 2023.

Canna Provisions is the ninth-largest independent cannabis company in the Commonwealth, has won multiple ‘Best Dispensary’ awards for selection and customer service, and has been named one of the best companies to work for in the nationwide industry. And even we are reworking our plans. 

Surviving the current market constriction and correction from the imbalance of supply and demand — something that has happened in other markets that came online, though it arrived faster here in Massachusetts — is a challenge of smart maneuvering and business forecasting. Ultimately, those businesses with clear eyes, that are as responsible with every dollar moving in and out of the business, will be the ones that make it out. That’s also why, to me, 2023 isn’t all doom and gloom, despite the headlines. 

Price compression has been on the industry’s collective mind for the past year, which makes it all the more important to create new strategies at the retail level. Differentiation for brands will come down to matters of quality of product, a consistent and predictable retail experience, and the education level of the consumer. 

What we know for sure, as seen from my experience in cannabis stretching back to the dawn of the legalized market in Colorado more than a decade ago, is that, when new markets flanking legalized states come online, it helps everyone in the existing legal retail market. But ultimately, the ones that really come out ahead are those with a key differentiating advantage and a realistic, thoughtful approach to the business. Many small first-time operators do not have the forward-looking business modeling abilities needed in the current market, especially when their average day-to-day will be spent just trying to stay afloat. 


Smart Business Savvy Is the Key to Success

As experience has shown, the sky doesn’t fall in an existing market when competition is tight and the supply is in surplus, but businesses do need to be responsible. For those that need a reminder, thanks to IRS Code 280E, the effective tax rate for cannabis companies is roughly 70%. Meanwhile, cannabis companies cannot deduct normal business expenditures. Our three biggest line items, in order, are inventory, payroll, and taxes (the statewide total collected for 2022 was roughly $284 million, to paint the picture).

“Surviving the current market constriction and correction from the imbalance of supply and demand — something that has happened in other markets that came online, though it arrived faster here in Massachusetts — is a challenge of smart maneuvering and business forecasting.”

In some instances, the towns themselves are waking up to the runaway nature of the market glut. Last month, Northampton city councilors set a new limit on local cannabis dispensaries allowed to open (capped at 12 retail locations now) for a municipality noted for having the most licensed dispensaries in the state. 

Even with our collective experience in retail cannabis operations and strategy, it’s still a massive challenge to make it work with so many ways our hands are tied or restricted compared to traditional industries. When the revenue numbers generated by legal cannabis in the state seem to defy the crunch-time feeling of the market, all businesses and consumers need to remember the lion’s share goes directly to the government instead of back to the business. That’s another reason why it’s important to be more careful than ever about how and where dollars are spent, and how we are utilizing the investor capital we raise for our ongoing expansion and scaling plans.


Best by Definition

Competition is already at a fever pitch in the state, and in cannabis, getting there first sometimes just makes you best by definition in the market’s eyes. At the retail level, look at any new cannabis state — say, New York — and what happens when the first stores open: lines around the block and product (or what variety there is at first) flying off shelves at steep prices that make investors smile and consumers wince. But when the market becomes more savvy and educated about the products and value system of a brand-new industry, first is no longer best. 

As challenging as this time and sector is, it’s as important for the turbulent tenor of the day to subside as much as it is important for it to simply succeed at a functional level. In fact, it must succeed for the greater industry to thrive.

There is no shortage of stories about widespread layoffs and restructuring for asset consolidation on a large scale with bigger companies, primarily multi-state operators (MSOs). But in comparison to the trials of new, very small operators that found it a matter of survival just to get to the doors-open phase, MSOs have it much easier. They can bleed money in a way small independent shops cannot. If they have operational experience already, they may still not have the ability to see the forest through the trees if they are not actively responding to the business climate of an ever-changing, statewide industry.

You will need more money — from either increased sales or investor dollars for market expansion. There will continually be massive restrictive aspects to operating as long as no new banking reform measures or full-scale legalization measures are enacted. So plan on enduring such aspects as much as you should plan to be noble and focus on what is a differentiating aspect of your business.

And don’t plan on having a future in the business until you get your business plan reflective of the industry we have versus the one we want. For those new or inexperienced operators that don’t get those lessons under their belt, theirs will be a back aching for the lash of “don’t say you weren’t warned.”


Meg Sanders is the CEO of Canna Provisions, which operates cannabis dispensaries in Holyoke and Lee.