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A whitewashed building on the Notre Dame de Namur campus

Notre Dame de Namur University

Notre Dame de Namur University may have found the miracle its leaders were praying for last spring. Through a transformative pivot to online and graduate education, the university may be able to remain open for the foreseeable future.

Just 10 months ago, the private Roman Catholic university’s future was more grim. It halted undergraduate admissions after years of declining enrollment and dwindling tuition revenue. Faculty members and higher education experts agreed that it looked as though Notre Dame de Namur was headed for closure within several years. But Dan Carey, interim president of the university, said in March that he was still looking for a potential intervention. On Monday, he said he'd found one.

The university will lop off its undergraduate programs and focus solely on online graduate education. It may also offer some degree-completion programs for students with associate’s degrees. While the university may hold some in-person classes, most teaching will take place online, which frees up the university’s operating budget significantly and may help stabilize its finances.

The university’s new transformation plan is not a silver bullet. Creating a successful online program will require more cash than the university has on hand, and standing out in an increasingly crowded online education market will also take work. Carey knows the university’s long-term future is not guaranteed.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID-19 and the new variants that are coming out, and what’s going to happen with our economy,” Carey said. “It’s possible that we won’t make it, but we think it’s worth the risk and we’re putting together the right people to give this a go.”

Carey’s announcement was welcome news to faculty members, said Vince Fitzgerald, chair of the English department and president of the university's Faculty General Assembly.

“We’re all thankful to the Board of Trustees and the Sisters of Notre Dame for believing in the future of the university,” he said. “We have a 170-year tradition, so they’re showing their willingness to keep that tradition alive.”

Fitzgerald’s upbeat summary of the faculty’s response is a marked change from last spring, when he called the decision to stop admitting undergraduates a “stay of execution” to an inevitable closure. At the time, faculty also called on several university leaders to resign, but excluded Carey.

In the months since, Carey has built trust among university faculty members, Fitzgerald said.

“Dan Carey has shown a willingness to incorporate faculty voices in this process of transformation,” he said. “I think he’s earned our confidence in his leadership.”

The university did not announce any additional layoffs or staffing changes along with the news of becoming an online graduate institution, but it’s possible as many as 50 percent of staff members could be let go, Carey said. Which faculty members are retained will depend on which courses the university will offer, and those details are still being worked out.

“It’s likely there may not be room in the short run for full-time English professors, so my time at the university may be coming to an end,” Fitzgerald said.

Notre Dame de Namur is not the first Roman Catholic college to pivot to graduate education in an effort to stay open. Marygrove College in Detroit cut its undergraduate programs in 2018 following years of enrollment declines and financial instability. It switched to offering seven graduate and professional degree programs.

The move did not set an optimistic precedent for the graduate-only strategy. Marygrove closed in 2019 after the graduate teaching programs it once relied on for attracting students languished when public schools no longer required teachers to have master’s degrees.

But Notre Dame de Namur has a shot, said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute, a think tank that works on education issues. Demand for online and graduate education is on the rise.

The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged dozens of institutions to scale up their online course offerings, and carving out a niche in the online space will be essential to the university’s success, Horn said.

Carey recognizes that without enough attention, the university’s online-heavy model will fail, and that drawing that attention will be a challenge. He hired a marketing consultant to help find new ways to attract students and plans to dedicate more resources to marketing and recruitment.

“For our graduate and online programs that are successful, they’re doing serious marketing,” Carey said. “While we’re going to be cutting back our workforce in a lot of areas, the one area where we won’t be cutting back -- we’ll actually be bolstering -- is in marketing and recruitment.”

One potential marketing strategy could be leaning into the university’s Roman Catholic affiliation. Horn was reminded of Brigham Young University’s online education program and noted that it is so successful in part because the university can cater to students who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who want to study online.

“Among Catholic schools, I think there’s a big opportunity for an institution to go big in online and make their mark there,” Horn said. “They have a chance.”

But, he wondered, is being Catholic enough differentiation in an increasingly crowded market?

“As everyone is going online, it favors those who have scale and do it well, and that implies a lot of investment,” Horn said. “This is a school that obviously has limited resources right now to make that sort of investment, so how are they going to win in, yes, a growing marketplace, but one that’s increasingly crowded?”

Successful online programs require a significant up-front investment that Notre Dame de Namur may not have the money to make. The university is working to sell all or part of its nearly 50-acre campus in Belmont, Calif., and Carey and the university’s Board of Trustees are hopeful the money will stabilize the university through the transition.

“The Board has acted to continue operations based on a high degree of confidence that financial arrangements in progress to sell lands on the campus to a compatible organization will provide the operating funds required to see the university through to sustainability,” Carey wrote in a letter Monday.

While undoubtedly helpful, cash from a land sale might not be enough to right the university’s finances. Horn pointed to Pine Manor College, a small liberal arts college in Chestnut Hill, Mass., that sold 5.2 acres of its campus to Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen for $4.5 million in 2013. The sale wasn’t enough to stabilize the financially strapped college, which announced last spring that it would merge with Boston College after its financial woes were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Notre Dame de Namur will continue to lean on alumni, donors and collaborations with local government and community agencies until it charts a path to financial stability, according to Carey’s letter.

Last March, Carey said it would “take something major” to keep the lights on at Notre Dame de Namur. On Wednesday, he said the past several months have been full of tiny miracles that allowed the university to chart a new path.

The board and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have been essential to this process, he said. The sisters told him that the university was worth fighting for.

“We’ve taken risks throughout our existence, from the time we left Belgium and we had to wait three weeks for the wind to be right to take a ship from Belgium to the West Coast of the United States,” Carey said they told him. “We’ve taken risks in the past, and we’re going to take risks with this. We want to do this.”

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