Students, faculty hope Marylhurst University can still be saved
Marylhurst University's decision to cease operations by the end of 2018 has left students, faculty and alumni heartbroken, angry and looking for answers.
School officials announced May 17 that the 125-year-old university would shut down later this year because of declining enrollment and dwindling finances. But students and faculty alike say they were left in the dark by the university's Board of Trustees and President Melody Rose about the school's impending closure, and were not notified until a decision was already reached.
Now, a grassroots group called "Marylhurst Resistance" has formed in response to the announcement, with the goal of doing anything possible to keep the school's doors open. On Friday, Marylhurst students, alumni, faulty and staff gathered to discuss the closure and brainstorm ways to keep it from happening.
"The decision to close was made totally unilaterally, with no input from any faculty or students," said a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of termination. "We want to say to the university, 'What you did was wrong because it was unilateral in nature, and we ask respectfully that you make up for that by bringing us to the table now, and let's see if there's a way out of this.'"
The faculty member said that despite continuous requests to attend meetings of the Board of Trustees, faculty members were always told they could not. "It's not OK what's been done here, on so many levels," he said. "They just simply did not do the right thing."
The faculty member said that he and other university employees feel they cannot speak freely about the Marylhurst closure without fear of consequences. "As faculty members, we have to be careful of what we say, because if we are fired before the school goes down, we are not eligible for unemployment benefits," he said. "It may seem like we're afraid to come forward, but it's because we have families and children who would like to have health care in the fall."
In a one-page statement to the university's board on May 16, faculty members suggested working on a plan for a smaller, 500-student university.
"We see this as an opportunity to reconnect with our mission and ask how we can most effectively support the board's work of keeping Marylhurst open and able to serve our students," the faculty statement said.
But in a brief response, board members defended the decision against faculty criticism, noting that enrollment had dropped to about half of what it was as recently as 2013-14.
"The board considered every possible alternative, including the faculty's suggestions, and concluded the only viable course of action was the one we took," the board said.
University officials told OPB, The Review's news partner, that they had created new academic programs and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months to rehabilitate buildings — even as enrollment and revenues were falling — in an effort to attract students through a new vision.
"As part of its Renewed Vision and turnaround plan, Marylhurst University invested in two capital projects: a facelift renovation of a comprehensive Student Services area, which allowed us to relocate all student services to [one] building," Marylhurst officials said in a statement.
That project was completed for $186,000.
"In addition, Marylhurst began a renovation project on the Villa Maria dorm, which was strategically important to the University's Renewed Vision," the statement said. The dorm project was "budgeted at $2.36 million; $230,000 was spent before the project was put on hold."
Neither effort succeeded in boosting enrollment; indeed, the university said, projections for 2018-19 showed enrollment would continue to decline.
"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," Board of Trustees Chair-elect Chip Terhune told The Review. "There was only one right decision, as heartbreaking as it was, and that was to pivot to closure for the students, faculty, staff and 125-year legacy of Marylhurst."
Just as faculty members face an uncertain future, so do many Marylhurst students. Regular classes are expected to continue at least through the end of spring term, school officials said, but all operations will cease by the end of the year.
President Melody Rose told The Review that the university is working with 81 students who could complete their degrees by the end of summer 2018 by taking additional summer classes. That would leave an estimated 324 students who will have to transfer to another university to complete their degrees.
Last week, representatives from 23 area colleges and universities gathered at Marylhurst to meet with students and help them chart their educational future. Rose and other school officials also hosted two Q&A sessions for students and said they were "focusing our attention on helping our students make the best possible arrangements under extremely challenging circumstances."
One student, a psychology and art student named Brittany who asked that her name not be used in print, told The Review that she was set to graduate from Marylhurst after spring term. She had completed the first couple of years of her Marylhurst education online from Montana, she said, and came to the university to finish her degree.
But two days before spring term started, Brittany said she learned that all three of her classes had been canceled. "I was very frustrated, because I had my whole year planned out," she said.
Fortunately, she said, she was able to find and enroll in classes at Portland Community College to satisfy her degree requirements. "The people at PCC got back to me faster than anyone from Marylhurst," Brittany said.
Brittany said that while she and the other students were left in the dark about the specifics of the impending closure, they all knew something was going on because things on campus started to change.
"All of a sudden there were new security guards, and there was just a lot of tension on campus and a lack of transparency," she said. "After we would return from a break, another teacher would be gone, and there would be no explanation. After three years, all of a sudden my advisor was gone."
And when the teachers disappeared, so did the classes.
"At a certain point, the environment really changed. Classes stopped becoming available. Where there was once a multitude of classes available, now there were none," Brittany said.
A fine arts student, who also asked that her name not be used, said she feels let down by the school she once loved.
"As an older woman going back to get an education, I found them to be really welcoming. Then I started to notice that they weren't supporting the teachers and staff like they should have been," she said. "Leaving my former career, I had a lot of faith and trust in the school. It's a very special place, and there's really nowhere else like it. My initial experience was amazing. But then a lot of things started to change, and it didn't feel so good anymore."
Meredith Olson-Goldsby, a Marylhurst alum, medical social worker and director of community programs at Pathfinders of Oregon, said she is devastated for Marylhurst students and staff who are dealing with the closure. "This situation has the potential to re-traumatize someone with past traumas, or to create new trauma for people," she said at Friday's meeting.
Olson-Goldsby offered to donate her services free of charge to anyone dealing with Marylhurst's closure. "You being able to complete your education is a matter of social justice," she said. "It's our talent, passion and compassion for one another that is going to get our needs met.
Coleman Joyce, a Marylhurst alum and vice president of enrollment and student services at the University of Western States, pointed to a similar situation on the East Coast, where the private school Sweet Briar College nearly closed. The administration decided to close Sweet Briar in 2015, she said, but alumni fought back in the courts and on social media, and the school was able to stay open.
"Sweet Briar was able to save itself, and I think we can too," Joyce said. "I don't believe it's dead, and I hope you don't either."
For more information about the efforts to keep Marylhurst open, visit https://www.facebook.com/saveourmarylhurst2018.