Author Jordan DeLong, PhD enjoyed life as a university professor – until the day the university closed its doors. An introduction to our series on why colleges are beginning to shutter, and what we can do about it.
Once, I was a college professor.
In the summer of 2016, after a seemingly endless search for a stable faculty position, I finally grabbed the brass ring: a tenure-track position in the Psychology Department at Saint Joseph’s College, a small Catholic college nestled in the wide-open farmland of my home state of Indiana. After years of struggling financially as a graduate student and working as visiting faculty, I was looking forward to some stability.
My wife and I bought a house with ten acres of land, adopted a dog, and prepared to settle into a small-town, midwestern lifestyle where I could start the long, difficult process of earning tenure.
Not quite six months later, on the evening of February 3rd, 2017, the students of Saint Joseph’s College were gathered into the largest auditorium on campus. After a short prayer, the devastating announcement was made to the student body and streamed live on Facebook: after 128 years, the college would be closing its doors at the end of the semester. I watched the event over a student’s Facebook Live feed; shock, anger, and disbelief streamed in from alumni around the country.
I had recently realized what was coming. I was embarrassed that I didn’t see it sooner. For me, the beginning of the end started a couple weeks prior when the president of the college released a statement: Saint Joseph’s College would need a cash influx of 100 million dollars to survive in the long term, with 20 million arriving in the next five months. Everyone was stunned. Tuition at Saint Joseph’s College was close to $30,000 dollars a year! Where was the money going?
The administration refused to answer any questions, causing rumors to circulate. For the faculty, gossip centered on whether there was any hope that the college could survive intact. We had hope. A grassroots alumni group, not supported by the college, had taken up the banner to fundraise. The president was travelling a lot, and whenever he was spotted at other colleges, talk about a partnership or a buy-out would ripple excitedly through the hall. It was easy to slip into a state of denial about the state of the situation. Nobody wanted the closure to be real, and many of the faculty who gave decades of their lives in underpaid service couldn’t imagine a world without the college. One-hundred-twenty-eight years is a legacy that nobody expects to suddenly disappear.
An online advertisement snapped me out of my own denial. Hours before the college’s Board of Trustees took the final vote to close the school, a competing college in Indiana accidentally posted an advertisement to their website in the hopes of recruiting the soon-to-be displaced students of Saint Joseph’s College. Suddenly, the administration’s last-minute, closed door phone conversations were cast in a new light. The leadership wasn’t looking to save the college, they were advocating to shut it down. The closure was spun as a temporary suspension of operations, but it didn’t change the fact that students scrambled new colleges, faculty and staff were laid off, high school students had athletic and scholarship commitments revoked, and businesses within the town shuttered their doors.
After graduation, the buildings were closed up, concrete blocks were put in the middle of roads to keep people out, and students were relocated. Desks, dorm furniture, musical instruments, and anything else the college owned was sold off piece by piece, including plaques from the athletic Hall-of-Fame and framed photos commemorating past theater productions. Across the street, a small group of people are still trying to fulfill the promise of bringing Saint Joseph’s College back, but most of the administration and board that made the decision to pull the plug are gone. I’ve moved on, fortunate to land a new job that allows me to work remotely and stay anchored in my newly acquired home.
But the town that once held Saint Joe’s has “For Sale” signs on nearly every block. The looming question remains: what killed Saint Joseph’s College? While it would be easy to point fingers at a person or a single factor, the reality is that there is no singular cause of death. While ultimately the college went down because of finances, factors such as maintaining accreditation, pressure from online education, a declining college population, financial mismanagement, and a lack of interest in Catholic education all took their turn with the knife. Unfortunately, St. Joe is far from alone: in a 2015 report, Moody’s Investor Service projected that colleges will be closing at an increased rate1, and in 2017 characterized the outlook of Higher Education as ‘negative’2. In this series, I hope to shed light on some of the ways that you can kill a college and how we might prevent those institutions from failure.
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1. Behr, E., Kedem, K., Fitzgerald, S. I. & Smith, K. M. Small College Closures Poised to Increase. (2015).
2. Moody’s Investors Service. US higher education sector outlook revised to negative as revenue growth prospects soften – Moody’s. (2017).