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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

4 of 5 Stories

Barat College’s “Strategic Alliance”
Financially troubled small school merges with DePaul University

By Kathy Witkowsky

Lake Forest, Illinois

When Erica Van Schaik returned to Barat College after Christmas break, she discovered some unexpected changes. Gone were the seven-foot-high wooden lockers and floor-to-ceiling paneling that had lined many hallways of Old Main, the 1904 red-brick Georgian Revival centerpiece of the school's wooded campus in the north Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. Hall doorways actually had doors, fire doors, no less, and workmen were busy installing sprinkler systems. Van Schaik realized that the changes were necessary safety improvements, but still, they temporarily upset her and many of her classmates.

"I came back and it was like, 'What school is this?'" said Van Schaik, 22, a junior from Wauconda, Illinois.

Van Schaik's reaction may seem extreme, but these days, her question is a fair one. She transferred from a community college to Barat (pronounced "berra," as in Yogi Berra) a tiny Catholic liberal arts school with an enrollment of 800, because she liked its small classes and personalized attention. She didn't mind that the physical facilities had suffered from neglect; in fact, she sort of liked it.

"Look at this place, there's wobbly windows, the floors creak, the desks are from, like, the 1930s," said Van Schaik, as she gestured happily around one of the worn classrooms. "That was part of the reason I came here, because the school has this unique look." Like many of her classmates and professors, she was taken aback when Barat announced last December that it planned to become part of DePaul University, the nation's largest Catholic university, based in nearby Chicago.

Van Schaik and her classmates still can graduate from Barat College. So can students entering this fall, who may choose whether to enroll in Barat College or the newly created Barat College of DePaul University. But by fall 2002, all new students must enroll in Barat of DePaul. The two schools will co-exist until 2005, when Barat College graduates its last class.

The Barat-DePaul arrangement is one of the latest of several mergers and closures that have struck financially troubled schools across the nation. But officials from both Barat College and DePaul University say that they are determined not to allow Barat to be subsumed by DePaul the way other small schools have been swallowed up through educational mergers in the past. "We didn't want a Mundelein," said Sheila Smith, former board chair of the Barat Board of Trustees, in a reference to the way Mundelein College, another small Catholic women's college, was absorbed into Chicago's Loyola University in 1991.

Instead, administrators hope to create a new model. By retaining all 33 of Barat's tenured and tenure-track faculty, and developing new interdisciplinary programs exclusive to the Barat campus, they say the school can maintain a separate identity while still benefiting from DePaul's brand name and resources, including an endowment worth about $180 million.

"I'm very optimistic," said Smith, a Barat alumna who spearheaded the merger, or "strategic alliance," as she prefers to call it. "We're hoping to create a unique college here, and that college will be part of DePaul. That's very different from being merged out of existence," said Smith, who now chairs the newly formed Barat Education Foundation. The foundation will oversee the school's remaining endowment, alumni affairs and fundraising for the Barat campus. A new and temporary Barat College board, comprised of eight members named by the Barat Education Foundation and nine named by DePaul's board, will oversee the school as it phases out over the next four years, while DePaul's board will take over the running of the school in its new incarnation.

"Higher education is changing in this country, and either you adapt or you become a victim of it," added Smith. "And Barat is certainly not going to be a victim of it."

"We're seeing an era where small colleges really are struggling," said Tom Emmet, president of Higher Education Executive Associates, a consulting firm that encouraged Barat to look for partners. "Any school that has less than $10 or $15 million in endowment is in a gray area," said Emmet, who estimates that about 50 schools have endowments of less than $8 or $9 million, which puts them in "very dangerous water." Barat's endowment was under $2 million when it decided to join up with DePaul.

"I think the financial circumstances for many small colleges have gotten more severe in recent years," said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. Private schools are facing higher operating costs at a time when they're offering increasingly greater tuition discount rates. Still, despite a handful of recent well-publicized mergers and closures, Ekman said, "It's not right to think that small colleges are all going to be subsumed into larger entities. I think that many, indeed most, small colleges are likely to find ways to not only survive but thrive." He estimated that only about a dozen schools are "on the edge."

 
Barat College graduates enjoy the college’s last ceremony as an independent institution before Barat merges with larger, wealthier DePaul University. 
In general, the nation's 1,600 independent colleges and universities are healthy, said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Each year, about five institutions close, he said, but at the same time, three new ones open. Relatively speaking, that's not a big change, according to Warren. "I don't think we have a trend here of either closings or any kind of dramatic increase in mergers," he said, and added that the issue is not even on the list of his members' concerns.

But, he conceded, "If you are a school with a small endowment, $10 million or less, and a small enrollment of a thousand or less, you're going to have to be incredibly ingenious and innovative and flexible in order to keep ahead of the curve." It is becoming increasingly common for schools, even public institutions, to share faculty and academic programs, or pool their resources to jointly purchase expensive laboratory, computing equipment, and even electricity and health care, Warren said. Some are consolidating "back of the office" positions such as registrars, bursars and business officers. "The sky is not falling," said Warren. "The sky has different colorations to it."

But the sky was falling at Barat. The school couldn't attract enough students, it needed between 1,000 and 1,200 to be viable, and was dipping into its endowment to pay its bills, according to Smith. And that endowment was too small to last long. An all-women's college until 1982, Barat has suffered from a lack of large donors, since alumnae either didn't have the financial resources to give generously or concentrated on their husband's alma maters.

"I was surprised to find out how vulnerable the college was," said Smith, who joined the Barat College board in 1995 and became its chair two years later. She quickly came to the conclusion that if Barat was to remain open, it needed a partner with greater financial resources. "I knew we had to have an alliance that would allow us to compete in a very technical world," she said.

Barat and DePaul are a natural fit, said Smith. Both are long-standing Roman Catholic institutions that emphasize public service. Barat was founded as a women's academy in 1858 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a French order of nuns; DePaul was founded as a men's college in 1898 by Vincentian Fathers. Both now serve a co-educational student body with about 30 percent minority populations. About 40 percent of undergraduate students at both schools are first-generation college students.

"What we found was that there was a convergence of missions," said Richard Meister, DePaul's executive vice president for academic affairs. Meister recognized that Barat offered more than a 30-acre campus in the wealthy suburb of Lake Forest. It offered an established presence and a loyal faculty, student body and alumni base on which to build.

That is one of the reasons Meister insisted on retaining the tenured Barat faculty, even though the DePaul faculty would have preferred to have had a voice in the matter. "If we were going to be successful up there we had to build off the faculty," Meister said. "Otherwise we'd still be fighting. They'd be in court. We may never have signed."

But the task of blending without merging is tricky at best. The upgrades to Old Main were simply the first of the changes yet to come as Barat College transforms into Barat College of DePaul University over the next four years. Officials from DePaul wouldn't even finalize the agreement until they had begun to sink what will amount to $1 million in safety features and maintenance into the school.

DePaul expects to spend another $4 million upgrading the physical facilities, improving dorms, purchasing furniture, remodeling faculty offices and installing new technology, over the next year and a half. That's more than double the size of Barat's entire endowment.

Improvements to the physical plant are expensive, but they're far less complex than managing enrollment and course logistics. Barat will keep six standard majors and some of its unique programs, such as community service, arts therapy and its Learning Opportunities Program for students who have learning disabilities.

 
  Barat College student government president Silas Betten has some doubts about the Barat-DePaul University merger.
But Barat's beloved dance conservatory is being phased out due to its high costs. Administrators said that decision was made before the alliance with DePaul, and that the DePaul administration had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, the decision, which was announced not long after the alliance was made public, has upset many Barat students and faculty members, even those unaffiliated with the dance department.

"It's going to make a big difference in the atmosphere of the place," said professor of English Amy Kessel. She'll miss hearing the music and watching the dancers stretching in the halls, she said, as well as the discipline and rigor they bring to class, where they often serve as role models for less mature students.

Most of Barat's academic programs will be incorporated into existing programs run by DePaul, though many of those classes still will be available on the Barat campus. Meanwhile, Barat of DePaul will launch four new interdisciplinary programs to distinguish itself from DePaul's other colleges.

"You can be anything except what you are now," DePaul's Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs Laura Hartman told the Barat College faculty this spring. "You can be anything except a traditional liberal arts college."

That's a tall order, but also an exciting opportunity, said Gene Beiriger, a Barat associate dean, who is in charge of developing an interdisciplinary curriculum in the humanities, social science, interdisciplinary science and leadership. Tentative new programs include environmental science, peace and social justice, global studies, ethics and human values, and non-profit leadership. "If we are going to be distinct within this greater university, it falls to us to do that. If we fail, it won't be because of a lack of opportunity," said Beiriger, who hopes to have the new interdisciplinary programs in place by 2002.

Faculty are relieved that the school has a future, and that they have jobs. "I'm very happy that Barat College will continue to exist," said Lesley Kordecki, chair of Barat's English department. At the same time, she said, "I'm worried about the changes. We are told that we are continuing, but of course with a whole other set of rules. It makes a difference in terms of people's careers."

Kordecki also is concerned about class sizes, which are expected to increase from the current average of 13 students to an average of 20. Administration officials downplay the increase, but "that's a huge difference," Kordecki said.

And then there are the transitional difficulties. The agreement went through 19 drafts, mostly due to nitpicking by attorneys, before the alliance was finalized and signed on February 1, 2001. Even so, there were a number of issues no one thought much about.

Throughout the 2001-'02 school year, Barat College courses will remain on the semester system, but at the same time, professors also will have to teach Barat of DePaul courses on the quarter system. Other logistical hassles include transferring federal aid from Barat to DePaul and bringing Barat's tuition in line with DePaul's. Students will be charged on a two-tiered system: Current Barat College students will continue to pay tuition tied to Barat's current tuition, which in the 2000-'01 academic year was just under $14,000; students enrolling in the fall will pay DePaul's new-student tuition of $16,500. DePaul also needs approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education before it can begin offering degrees in Lake County.

 
DePaul University official Richard Meister presents a diploma at the last Barat College graduation. The college becomes part of DePaul in the next academic year. 
"It is more difficult than I thought," acknowledged DePaul's Meister. But the long-term gain is worth the effort, he said. "We can't even foresee the possible benefits of this decision ten or 20 years down the road."

The immediate benefits, though, are obvious. DePaul already has two Chicago locations, the original campus in tony Lincoln Park and one downtown, as well as five suburban campuses, including a small one near Barat (Its classes will move to the Barat campus within the next two years). With the acquisition of the Barat campus, DePaul gains an established presence and a residential campus in the underserved educational market of Lake County.

That fits with DePaul's expansionist mission, which is to make education available to the masses in order to promote a better society. "We are committed to making education accessible to the many who are qualified, rather than the few who are elite," explained Meister. If the alliance with Barat works out as hoped, Meister said he could imagine entering into similar agreements with other area colleges.

Once known as "the little school under the el," a reference to its Lincoln Park location near Chicago's elevated train, DePaul has bounced back from the early 1980s, when it suffered from declining enrollment. With the help of an ambitious ten-year strategic plan the school adopted in 1988, enrollment has increased from about 12,300 in 1984 to 20,500 today; at the same time, the school's endowment skyrocketed from under $15 million to $180 million. Its current strategic plan calls for enrollment to reach 24,000 by 2006.

The acquisition of the Barat campus should help significantly: Within the next three years, DePaul hopes to have a thousand full-time students taking courses on the Barat campus, including freshmen it couldn't accommodate at its Lincoln Park campus. In addition, DePaul wants 1,500 adult, part-time students there.

But the Barat campus is more than just a land acquisition. It gives DePaul an opportunity to attract a different kind of student, someone looking for an isolated, residential campus and small classes. "We could add 2,000 students in the Loop (downtown) or Lincoln Park, that's what we do," said Meister. "But to add 2,000 students up there is really going to change the nature of DePaul. It's going to change our future."

But not as much as it will change the future of Barat College. Students say that after an initial period of anxiety, they are looking forward to the infusion of capital and other opportunities that the alliance represents. "I think at first there were a lot of harsh feelings, but I think it's eased up a lot," said Samantha Schrunk, 21, a junior from Dubuque, Iowa. "I've always trusted the administration," she said. "I don't think they're going to allow DePaul to swallow us." In fact, Schrunk said, "I think DePaul is really going to help us out."

Still, some students remain concerned that increased enrollment will cause Barat to lose some of its small-school feel. "I have pretty much mixed feelings about it," said Silas Betten, president of Barat's student government. He credits Barat with showing him the value of an education after he flunked out of Merrimack College in Massachusetts, which he was attending on a basketball scholarship.

 
  A lone student in the library during Barat College’s last days as an independent campus. After acquiring Barat, DePaul University plans to spend several million dollars on upgrading its physical facilities.
"You can't hide here. That's the good thing about Barat," said Betten, a 25-year-old senior who said he never expected to get involved with anything other than basketball. These days, he often lunches with his professors, an opportunity he hopes won't be lost as enrollment increases.

Another potential danger of a merger is the possibility of losing alumni support. But Barat alumni are overwhelmingly in favor of the Barat-DePaul deal, said Catherine Miserendino, director of alumni relations. "They realize that the DePaul administration is very sensitive to our identity and the Sacred Heart mission and core values," she said. "I see my job being only enhanced." Through the Barat Education Foundation, alumni still will be able to support the Barat campus and programs.

"We want the feeling and spirit of Barat to continue," said Rosalind Hodgkins, who was one of Barat's numerous non-traditional students when she returned to school as an adult and graduated in 1983. "I don't want this to become just a country campus satellite of DePaul," said Hodgkins, who is often back on campus because her alumni book group meets regularly at the school.

There is no question that the alliance is a huge turning point for the school. But Paul Hettich, a professor of psychology who has taught at Barat since 1970, is quick to point out that it's not the first time the school has adapted to changes in the educational marketplace. Prior to 1970, Barat had a "convent-school image," and its students were generally white, wealthy girls aged 18 to 21, said Hettich. But in 1969, the operations were turned over to a lay board, and by the mid-70s, Barat had begun to reach out to non-traditional, and non-white, students: often married or divorced women with children who came for Barat's new nursing and education programs.

In 1982, in need of money, Barat went through another radical change when it began accepting male students.

"That was really a shock," said Hettich. "I can still remember how unhappy many of our alums were. Some of our students thought that was the end of their education."

It wasn't, and the alliance with DePaul won't be, either, Hettich said. "We are not dead. We have changed radically again to survive and offer our students education."

And that's exactly the point, said Sheila Smith, the former Barat College board chair. "If 'It's the students, stupid!'" said Smith, playing off a well-known Clinton-era campaign slogan, "then I'm convinced we did the right thing."

But in the end, Smith said only time will tell. "I will be thrilled if four years from now you are interviewing me and saying, 'You were right.'"

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