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An exterior view of the Multnomah University campus showing trees, blue sky and a white building with a steeple.

Multnomah University will become a satellite campus of Jessup University.

Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps no single city has seen a greater proportion of its colleges struggle financially than Portland, Ore. Marylhurst University shut its doors in 2018, followed by Oregon College of Art and Craft in 2019 and Concordia University in 2020.

Another of Portland’s independent colleges—Multnomah University—will live on, but not as an independent institution. The private Christian institution announced Tuesday that it will become a satellite campus of Jessup University, a Christian institution located 600 miles away in Rocklin, Calif.

“This new partnership represents a necessary intervention in order to preserve the legacy of Multnomah while launching into the future,” leaders of the Oregon institution said in an FAQ on its website. “Without this partnership with Jessup University, the challenges of financial sustainability and declining enrollment left us with no viable path to continue independently. However, by becoming the Multnomah Campus of Jessup University, students can rest assured that the Christ-centered education and sense of calling they have come to expect will continue.”

Jessup, in its own news release, said it would “receive all of [Multnomah’s] assets and liabilities” and “continue its faithful legacy in Oregon and beyond.”

Multnomah fits the image of many struggling private institutions today: small (608 students, including 378 undergraduates, according to the latest Education Department data) and not wealthy ($8.7 million in endowment funds in 2021). It isn’t rural, which tends to be a third strike for many colleges, but Multnomah County, which contains Portland, is losing population faster than any other county in Oregon and faster than most similarly large counties, according to The Seattle Times.

Inside Higher Ed reported in August that Multnomah was dropping its long-standing requirement that students sign a statement of faith, which the university’s president, Jessica Taylor, characterized at the time as a “faith decision” to “expand our mission and our vision to share and spread the gospel,” not an effort to raise enrollment or bring in additional tuition dollars.

Taylor acknowledged in an interview Tuesday, though, that the institution has been “in some form of financial decline or struggle for at least a decade.” A series of leadership changes put her in the presidency about six months ago, and she said it became apparent to her that the university could not turn things around on its own.

Taylor said Multnomah’s leaders considered a range of options, such as budget reductions and outsourcing shared services arrangements with other colleges. “But all of those were Band-Aids to the actual fundamental problem, the business model,” she said.

“There’s a lot of ego in higher education that got us to this place, of not asking for help or admitting what’s really happening,” Taylor said. “A lot of presidents are shamed into not talking, selling a blue-sky vision.”

Multnomah’s announcement focused on the alignment between the two institutions’ approaches to religion and faith, noting that they were both formed in the 1930s and have “remarkably similar histories of equipping students to make positive impacts in their local communities and the world.”

“The partnership represents a ‘merger of mission’ and will propel the legacies of both Multnomah and Jessup forward while retaining their foundational principles of spiritual formation and academic rigor,” Multnomah said in its news release.

The FAQ also notes that the arrangement is greatly preferable to a “catastrophic university closure,” because “the facilities and programs will remain mostly intact” and all students’ course credits will transfer. “Many universities are closing without a pathway for their legacy to endure,” it said.

Employees will be affected, Multnomah’s officials conceded in the FAQ. “The majority of faculty will remain, though some may have changes in their specific titles. Jessup values our faculty and their dedication and expertise. We are excited to better support our employees and we have made as little change to the faculty as possible though some of our beloved faculty will be reduced.”

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