Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Requiem for a College--a WIP

“Counseling services will be available afterward.”
There is no possible way a meeting can end well with an addendum like that.
Nevertheless, we filed into the auditorium at the appointed time on February 3rd, “we” meaning the students, faculty, and staff of Saint Joseph’s College. Boxes of tissues sat at the end of each aisle of seating. A priest said a prayer at the podium. He thanked God for bringing us together and for “the continuing of our mission.” The Chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees then came to the mic. He wore a blazer and a shirt beneath it with the top button undone. What hair that remained on his head was a dark brown. He bore a more than passing resemblance to former Sen. Bob Dole.
Fear has a distinct smell. I wish I could convey it but chances are you know what I mean. It’s there in that split second just before a car crash or an injury involving sharp objects. It settles in like an ominous cloud in those moments after someone says, “Sit down. I need to talk to you.” I smelled it when the Chairman bent the paper in his hands with slow, thick movements.
He said that in the best interests of the college’s future, we would be “suspending operations” on our campus. “There will be no students here in the fall,” he said, capping off his statement.
I heard the wind go out of several stomachs. There was then a single, sharp wail from somewhere on my far left. A chorus of sobbing ensued. I could say nothing. I could only breathe. Intentional, pained breathing, the kind where you have to force it. It didn’t last long. The wall cracked and I fell onto the shoulder of my brother next to me. We just stood there, saying nothing. We didn’t need to.

Saint Joseph’s College rises up out of farmer’s fields in Rensselaer, Indiana, a town with a population of just under 6,000. As you approach town, the iconic twin towers of the college’s chapel are visible from a distance along with the college water tower and the Jasper County Courthouse. My first memories of life on this Earth are of sitting with my grandmother in front of the fountain and reflecting pond on campus. My father came to the college in 1968 to teach philosophy. He also implemented the college’s crowning achievement, the Core program. It was an interdisciplinary program for all undergraduates, ingraining a cycle of reading, discussion, thinking, and writing. I attended St. Joe’s for undergrad and experienced many of the best years of my life. My brother followed and even met his wife at the college, marrying her in the aforementioned chapel. After our respective graduate work, we returned to campus to teach, each one of us anticipating a “happily ever after” scenario.
But we returned to a college fraught with financial problems. The construction of new buildings in the mid-1990s and renovations in the 2000s burdened the institution with considerable and growing debt. Compounding matters was an enrollment level that remained either stagnant or falling at just under 1,000 students as recruitment and retention efforts faltered throughout the 2000s. Through it all, the business model did not seem to change.
The college began in 1891 founded by the Catholic order known as the Society of the Precious Blood. For many years that followed, the faculty consisted of priests and brothers who drew meager stipends but whose livelihoods were covered. Times changed and it became necessary to hire expert faculty from outside the church. This meant higher salaries and greater expenditures. The 21st Century faculty who believed in the college remained with few raises in their salaries, egregious insurance deductibles, and significant drops in their retirement contributions. It was hoped these sacrifices would be temporary. By working together, streamlining our academic programs, and a full court press of fundraising and recruitment, we could evade the fate that seemed to plague so many small colleges these days.
The Board of Trustees decision on February 3rd 2017 brought a sudden end to those aspirations. The Sword of Damocles fell and so many of us lay scattered in its wake, not having even the first clue as to what was next.
“What does that even mean? ‘Temporary suspension?’” asked Maia Hawthorne, a colleague of mine in the English Department.
I could offer no further explanation other than what the Board presented because there was nothing else. As nothing else came from “the deciders,” conspiracy theories flourished in the vacuum of information. “They’re going to turn the place into a completely online program run out of one building,” said one rumor. “I keep hearing the phrase ‘planned incompetence,’” said another.
“That’s it,” Maia said with a soft slap of her hand on the desk. “I’m going to see about teaching in one of the public high schools.
I asked her if that’s what she really wants to do.
“I’m…geographically bound,” she replied.
She went on to explain about how her husband teaches at history Rensselaer Central High School while her two young daughters attend elementary and middle school in town as well. Maia and her husband just finished building a house last year on land that was left to her by her parents. The Hawthorne family is rooted. Planted. She would have to make the best of what is available to her in the area.
“I may leave teaching altogether,” said Dr. April Toadvine, a colleague in the English Department. “Maybe do online content or admin work.”
Each faculty member would face his or her own challenges in finding new work. Our History Department is a study in the ends of the challenge spectrum.
Chad Turner is second year ABD faculty. He will receive only a small severance. Meanwhile, Dr. Bill White is a 32 year veteran of the History Department. He shook his head and muttered a laugh when he heard the Board thought tenure and years of experience would be an advantage for senior faculty in the marketplace. What is his severance? Well, that’s something of a debate. You wouldn’t think so, but it is.
The faculty handbook states that if laid off, a tenured faculty member is entitled to one year’s salary as severance. The week of March 20th, a letter was issued to tenured faculty by the Vice President for Academic Affairs. It stated that said faculty will receive this severance but should they obtain new employment in the next year, they receive only the difference, if any, between the new and old salaries. This is not stated in the handbook. As of this writing, the tenured faculty are taking the matter to court and Bill White is leading the charge.
“If we win, we are entitled to triple damages plus attorney’s fees,” White said. “That will guarantee no possible resurrection of Saint Joseph’s College.”
It’s safe to say that he is angry. It is not without good reason. Both professors of the History Department, along with the rest of the faculty, must look for new teaching positions at one of the worst points in the academic year to do so. This is in addition to teaching out the rest of the semester. How anyone teaches or learns in this situation is beyond me.
 I asked Ashley how she does it and she said she can’t concentrate on classes. She’s a second semester freshman with long red hair and a ring in her nose. She loves two things, English literature and marching band. Saint Joseph’s College afforded her the opportunity to pursue both those passions and at a location she could commute to from home. This latter point was critical in her selection of colleges. For one matter, living at home would cut the cost of higher education, an already expensive undertaking, by a significant amount. It would also allow Ashley to continue to care for younger sister. That needed to happen because their mother just got her second DUI, cutting off both employment and mobility. For Ashley, St. Joe’s became only way to spin all the various plates of education, home, and work.
She works part-time at Subway and chicken bacon ranch sandwiches will never be the same to her. Ashley was making that sandwich for a customer when her phone buzzed with an email on February 3rd that announced the college’s demise.
“I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said of when she went to read the message. “I broke down. My future seemed secure and they took my security.”
It’s uncertain where Ashley will continue her degree as much was predicated on scholarships she received from Saint Joseph’s.
“The only comfort is the number of colleges stepping up to help us transfer,” she said. “The employees of St. Joe’s and the people of Rensselaer don’t have that.”
The shockwave of the college’s closing is yet to be felt by the Rensselaer community. St. Joe’s is the third largest employer in Jasper County, Indiana. Steve Wood, Mayor of Rensselaer, reports that the college is a major utility customer for the city, spending $640,000 in the last year. There is a string of stores, businesses, and restaurants like Ashley’s Subway that line the street up to and across from campus. While their existence is not necessarily predicated upon the college, the dip in customer base is not in question.
“Kate” (not her real name) works at the McDonald’s across the street from campus. In her mid-50s and with only a high school education, working at the fast food establishment provided Kate a way to get off of food stamps. What’s more, she even got to know her “regulars,” college students who would come into the McDonald’s on a consistent basis, sometimes daily. She gets to know what they like.
“A few of them I’ll see come through the door and I’ll already have their order in,” Kate said.
Rumors circulated in the wake of the college’s announcement. There was speculation that the franchise location would have to close down. Where would that leave Kate? Everyone wondered about the future of the town as a whole, knowing that many of the nearly 200 employees who were laid off from the college will need to relocate in order to find work. Will Rensselaer become a ghost town?

My earliest TV memory is from around age four. I watched a scene of chaos unfold on a tiny black and white screen. People rushed about, many of them soldiers. There were helicopters on a roof and people boarding them single file, their hair and clothes whipped by the fierce winds generated by the rotors.
“That was the fall of Saigon,” my mother later told me.
Walking around campus now, I can’t help but think of that scene. A little over one hundred different colleges and universities descended on our campus, setting up in the student center ballroom to recruit transfers. Like vultures circling, then dropping down and picking at our carcass. It makes me angry, but it shouldn’t. These people are trying to help our students continue their education after a traumatic event. The colleges are the “helicopters” in this case and we need to make sure all of our students get on them and evacuate.
I wish there were helicopters coming for the faculty.
There are three men walking the grounds between the baseball diamond and the field house. I don’t recognize them. They are pointing here and there at the buildings while stopping at different points to take a look. It becomes obvious to me who they are. They are developers or such “businessmen.” They are here to see what could be broken off and sold, what property could be converted, and so on. I hate these men. I shouldn’t, but I do. They are no doubt “just doing their jobs,” but I can’t help but wonder just how it is that they can sleep at night.
I know our college was never shielded from the realities of the world. Whole lives and communities have been torn asunder by the closings of steel mills, factories, corporate offices, and other industries and there is no reason to think we should have enjoyed any special immunity from such things. Just because I’m an academic, why should that mean I get a free pass? But it’s quite different when it actually happens to you. For me, this is not only the immediate, existential crisis of a loss of income and a far from certain future. It is the loss of an entire community, of an identity, and of an investment from my entire family that goes back nearly 50 years. The seniors of the graduating class of 2017 are the first “orphans” of Saint Joseph’s College. There will be no campus homecoming for them this fall or any other year. They know this as they get asked that most common of questions posed not only to new graduates but now to our underclassmen: “What’s next for you?”

I find myself back in front of the waters of the reflecting pond asking myself the same thing.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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