Declining enrollment proves fatal to the liberal arts college, which dates back to 1893

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Marylhurst University announced May 17 that it will close its doors by the end of the year. The 125-year-old institution is the oldest Catholic university in Oregon.Marylhurst University has announced that it will cease operations by the end of 2018.

The decision was made by the school's board of trustees last week after an analysis found that Marylhurst could not counter a trend of declining enrollment, university officials said.

"At the beginning of the 2013-14 fall term, 1,409 students were enrolled," school officials said. "By fall term 2017-18, enrollment had declined to 743 students. Projections for fall 2018-19 show enrollment will continue to decline."

ROSEChip Terhune, chair-elect of the Marylhurst University Board of Trustees, told The Review he believes the board's decision is the most responsible of several options it considered over the past several months.

"At the end of every analysis, under every rock we looked, we increasingly grew to understand that the structural deficit of Marylhurst could not be overcome given the reality of our declining enrollment," Terhune said. "At some point, you're left with a choice: You can choose to, in essence, architect your own closure, in partnership with your community, in a dignified, respectable and responsible fashion, or you can wait for accreditation to be stripped, for damaging cuts to occur and a for a legacy to be tarnished.

"There was only one right decision, as heartbreaking as it was," Terhune said, "and that was to pivot to closure for the students, faculty, staff and 125-year legacy of Marylhurst."

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Marylhurst's student body is older on average than at most universities — 34 years for undergraduates, 38 for graduate students. Nearly one-third of Marylhursts students attend online and about one-quarter attend evening classes, according to the university website. The school, which dates back to 1893, is the oldest Catholic university in Oregon and was the first liberal arts college for women in the Northwest. Its sprawling 50-acre campus sits between Lake Oswego and West Linn on Highway 43, next to the Willamette River and the Mary's Woods senior living community.

Marylhurst University President Melody Rose said students, faculty and staff will be her focus throughout the transition. Academic advisers will be available to answer immediate questions from students, she said, and meetings and information sessions are being scheduled with other colleges and universities, financial advisers, human resources and others in the coming days.

The university is working with 81 students who could complete their degrees by the end of summer 2018 by taking additional summer classes, Rose said. The university is also preparing individualized transfer plans for the estimated 324 students remaining this fall to help ensure they're able to complete their degrees.

Ben Cannon, executive director of the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said the HECC has been in touch with Marylhurst's administrators and also stands ready to help.

"Because Marylhurst is legally exempt from the HECC's oversight and approval processes, the HECC has limited formal authorities related to this closure. That said, the HECC stands ready to support Marylhurst and its students in every way we can," he said, "including to help facilitate transfer options for students to complete their degrees."

Cannon directed students, faculty and staff to, where Marylhurst has posted information about what will happen next. Regular classes are expected to continue at least through the end of spring term, school officials said; all operations will cease by the end of the year.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Marylhurst University freshman Amy Hakanson practices the violin outside the BP John Administration Building. Twenty-three area schools have pledged to help Marylhurst students find a new home.   As the board's chair-elect, Terhune will oversee the realignment of Marylhurst's resources. He made the announcement to faculty and staff last Thursday morning.

According to Terhune, the board's decision was the result of a long and thoughtful decision-making process in which the trustees worked closely with university leadership to determine a solution that put students, faculty and staff first. The board reviewed numerous reorganization scenarios and strategies, he said, including bringing residency back to the Marylhurst campus and pivoting to a graduate-program-first structure.

(Marylhurst's student body is older on average than at most universities — 34 years for undergraduates, 38 for graduate students. Nearly one-third of Marylhurst's students attend online and about one-quarter attend evening classes, according to the university website.)

"Despite these efforts, there was no viable financial path that would have enabled us to sustain the high level of academic programming for which we have always strived without putting an extreme, unsustainable burden on our students, faculty and staff," Terhune said.

The decision to close also ensured Marylhurst didn't encounter the accreditation issues, recalled loans or negative audits that often accompany other universities' closures, he said.

"Hours after the board vote late last night to move forward on closure, calls were placed to our sister institutions to begin the effort to make sure bridges began to get built for students immediately. This is our intensive focus along with taking care of faculty and staff," Terhune told The Review. "The institution will retain its accreditation, and those degrees (already earned) will remain incredibly valuable for our alumni. This is one reason we chose to close in the manner in which we did."

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Sister Carole Strawn, an historian and former longtime employee at Marylhurst University, looks out over the school's sprawling campus. Marylhurst is a heritage site of the Sisters of the Holy Names. Following the closure of the university, the campus will be returned to the Sisters, the university said. The May 17 decision brought immediate reaction from the surrounding community. Lake Oswego Mayor Kent Studebaker and City Manager Scott Lazenby called the closing "sad news."

"I am just saddened by the decision, even though I trust that it was the only viable option the university had," Studebaker said. "I have lived in Lake Oswego and Gladstone a long time, and Marylhurst was always there as a place to get a good liberal arts education."

Lazenby echoed those thoughts.

"Marylhurst University has for years been a key member of the Lake Oswego community, and we've been proud that it's part of our city," Lazenby said. "The campus is a real gem, and we'll work closely with the Board of Trustees and the Sisters as they consider the future of the property."

Marylhurst is a heritage site of the Sisters of the Holy Names. Following the closure of the university, the campus will be returned to the Sisters, the university said. According to Terhune, the school's closure will have no effect on the ongoing commercial and residential development at Mary's Woods next door.

Keith Dickerson, CEO of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce, said Marylhurst's closure "has saddened our hearts at the Chamber."

"We have had a longstanding relationship with the school in membership and many other ways. For years, representatives sat on our board of directors and committees while taking part in our programs," Dickerson said. "They were partners in our Leadership Lake Oswego program, and professors from the Marylhurst School of Business served in our Forge Educational Series, which were hosted many times on the campus.

"Especially of note to me," he said, "is the fact that my first introduction to the Chamber was at one of its hallmark Friday-morning networking events hosted at Marylhurst in November 2007."

Eric Allenbaugh, who helped create the influential Service Above Self: Educational Excellence awards program for the Lake Oswego Rotary Club, said Marylhurst was a key partner in honoring the city's students, teachers and citizen volunteers.

"They have been a beacon of light in our educational community and a source for personal and professional growth for thousands of students over the years," Allenbaugh said, noting that the school has hosted the SASEE awards banquet since the program's inception. "Marylhurst University is leaving our community with a proud legacy."

Lake Oswego Public Library Director Bill Baars said he was sad to hear the news on several fronts.

"As the Rotary Club president, I have relied on Marylhurst University as an excellent venue for Rotary events, and as the library director, I have enjoyed a terrific relationship with them as a host for Lake Oswego Reads programs," Baars said. "Marylhurst has been a fixture of the community and a treasured purveyor of academic excellence, as well as a center for concerts, programs, education and enrichment in this community, and the institution will be sorely missed."

Marylhurst's fate is the symptom of a larger issue being felt by small, private liberal arts colleges and universities across the country. Research published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows declining enrollment over the past six years nationwide.

Enrollment at more than 7,400 U.S. colleges and universities has dropped from 21 million students in 2010 to 19.8 million in 2016 — a nearly 6 percent decline, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But that's not the case everywhere, according to Christian Feuerstein, director of media relations for Linfield College in McMinnville.

"While these are tumultuous times in higher education, we recognize that Marylhurst's story is not the story of every private college," Feuerstein told The Review. "At Linfield, our endowment is at an all-time high and we were among the top Oregon producers of Fulbright Scholars in 2017-18. One of every four Linfield students is first-generation, and the college's student body is significantly more diverse than the population of Oregon."

Linfield and 22 other schools have pledged support to Marylhurst's students, offering transcript reviews, academic advising and information about admission and financial aid on an expedited basis. Representatives of the schools are expected to attend a transfer information session at Marylhurst; it's scheduled from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, May 24.

Contact Lake Oswego Review reporter Sam Stites at 503-636-1281 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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