Notre Dame de Namur University, the third oldest educational institution in California, is beginning to scale back operations, but will remain open through at least the spring semester of 2021, the school’s Board of Trustees announced Monday.
Enrollment of new students has been suspended, the university will help current students transfer elsewhere, and the entire athletics program will be discontinued after spring semester 2020, according to the announcement.
The move is due to ongoing financial and enrollment challenges, and officials have been openly discussing the possibility of permanently closing the university since fall of last year. But they maintain it still hasn’t been decided whether the university will close for good.
“Closing could be in our future, but we are not closing now and we intend to stay open at least long enough to serve our students who are graduating,” according to the statement. “We hope to find a way to remain open in the future, but we cannot make that guarantee.”
For professors and faculty, the announcement is the beginning of the end of the university and largely did not come as a surprise.
“This is a slow walk to a close. It feels like a temporary stay of execution,” said Vince Fitzgerald, chair of the university’s English department. “[The board] kept repeating NDNU is not closing at this moment, but short of a miracle, they’re not doing anything that makes it seem like closure isn’t inevitable.”
The news is also deeply disappointing to students. While juniors and seniors are relieved closure won’t come before their graduation, some said relief is overshadowed by sadness for underclassmen, faculty and staff.
“It’s relieving to know that I will be able to graduate from the school in which I have invested so much time, money and passion. However, I’m more flushed with pain and sadness than anything,” said junior Damaris Bonner. “I’m worried for the future of the underclassmen, for the staff and the faculty.”
And many questions remain. Bonner is concerned about the validity of his future degree if it comes from a university that no longer exists. Other students are worried many of their credits won’t transfer to other universities and they’re also concerned about how the move will affect financial aid.
Junior Javon Young was heartened that students will have more time than previously thought to get answers to those questions and prepare for their next move. He hopes the Board of Trustees also uses the time to think hard about how to keep the school open and be more communicative with students, who have been long frustrated at the board’s lack of transparency as it considers closure.
“I hope during this time the university looks for new ways to improve how they handle finances, transparency and communication with students,” he said.
For his part, Fitzgerald has little faith in the board and said board members who are not willing to fight to save the university should step aside.
“We don’t think the board has tried everything possible. They haven’t put energy into creating partnerships as other universities in similar straits have done. They’ve given up,” he said. “If they’re not willing to put in the hard work to save NDNU they need to step aside and let others who are willing take over.”
Rosanne Foust, president and CEO of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association and an NDNU alum, recommended dismissing the existing board and not accepting further input from them in a letter she sent last week to the Sisters of the Leadership Team of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the group that will make the final decision about the fate of the school.
In the letter, Foust recommended forming advisory groups to outline a five-year plan for the university. She also urged officials to hire a local consultant to help with the process and hire a new interim president — someone with local ties and a “willingness to roll up their sleeves and figure this out.”
Foust and other local business leaders and politicians sent a letter to the Board of Trustees last year offering their help and it was roundly ignored, she said.
Belmont Mayor Warren Lieberman was saddened by the university’s announcement, and said he’s confident officials are working hard to “do right by the students.”
“They’re trying to do right by their students, but this is extraordinarily disappointing news and I can’t imagine what the students are going through,” he said.
Fitzergald said faculty are going to do everything they can to keep the school open.
“We’re not just going to lay down and die,” he said. “We have too many supporters and too much invested in the university to see it go down so easily without a fight.”
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