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Beyond sadness, Cardinal Stritch University closure is 'an issue of justice' for one professor

Dr. Barb Spies is a professor in communications and the director of mission integration at Cardinal Stritch University. She's been at the school since 2003.
Audrey Nowakowski
Dr. Barb Spies is a professor in communications and the director of mission integration at Cardinal Stritch University. She's been at the school since 2003.
It's an issue of justice because we are serving a population that does not get served otherwise — both through who our students are and through who our students serve when they leave this place."
Dr. Barb Spies — Cardinal Stritch University professor of Communication & Director of Mission Integration

On April 10th, Cardinal Stritch University president Dr. Dan Scholz announced the school would close at the end of the semester. The Franciscan liberal arts college has been a part of the greater Milwaukee community for the past 86 years.

Since the announcement, staff, faculty and students have been trying to process the news and figure out their next steps. Dr. Barb Spies first came to Stritch in January of 2003 as an adjunct faculty member in the communication department. Over her career, she’s worked her way to full professor and also started a new, additional role as director of mission integration this past August.

When asked to reflect on what's kept her at Stritch for 20 years, Spies says that the Franciscan nature of the university is her key motivation.

"It's that mission of the university that has really given me hope for the future, hope for our students, and it's the thing that's kept me here," she says.

Regardless of what major students pursue, all who attend learn about the Franciscan tradition, who the Sisters of St. Francis were and the Franciscan values of showing compassion, creating a caring community, making peace and reverencing all of creation.

That caring community at Stritch has always been present for Spies, no matter the size and state of the school. She notes that there were a lot of operational changes made before the announcement, and even before the pandemic. "We thought that we were at a point where we were what they've been calling 'right-sized,'" notes Spies.

However cuts to budgets, programs, and relying on more adjuncts has been the case for many schools in higher education, and Spies didn't think it was a main indicator of having to eventually close the school.

"That's happening everywhere so why would that be the sign for us because universally that is happening," she says. "So yes, we saw some signs and of course we knew the enrollment had declined. But we were hopeful because we kept having increases, you know it just wasn't apparently enough."

Spies found out about the school closing the same day as the students, alumni and wider public. She says staff received an email for an urgent, emergency Zoom meeting about an hour before it was shared more widely.

"[The announcement] was stunning, I mean when you think about something that's jaw-dropping — that's what it was. We didn't expect it," says Spies.

In fact, Spies was part of a group that was working to form a board that was supposed to take over sponsorship of the university in the fall in order to transition the ownership from the Sisters of St. Francis.

"We were working on that because we wanted the place to still be who we are," says Spies. "And that was the goal of this formation —was to make sure that the legacy of our Sisters remained."

Despite the devastation, Spies understands why the news wasn't shared earlier.

"If there's anything that comes out about that, then people stop coming and you're doomed. So you can't say, 'This is really scary.' ... As much as [it already is] making people angry, I understand. I mean, I don't know that if we had known any earlier [that] we could've done something magic to save it," she notes.

While education gets less funding overall, and small, private Catholic education gets even fewer resources, according to Spies, the closure of the school goes beyond the fiscal realities.

"I do think that situations like this, especially here, it’s an issue of justice because we are serving a population that does not get served otherwise — both through who our students are and through who our students serve when they leave this place," she explains.

Outside of the roughly 200 faculty and staff members, Spies notes their diverse student population includes a 25% international student population, over 50% population of students of color and assisting undocumented students through scholarships and their paths after graduation.

Students, employees and alumni of Cardinal Stritch University are in shock after finding out the 86-year-old school is closing this year.

"That 86 year legacy of [the Sisters of St. Francis] serving the underserved is something that disintegrates, it dissolves and I don't know where our people go," says Spies. "Banks don't care, boards move on and support some other institution, but where do these students go? That's to me where the justice issue is — our doors close and we can't do that anymore."

Despite the current state of higher education and few openings for local, full-time teaching positions, Spies would still love to continue her teaching career.

"I would love to teach. This is who I am and this is what I feel like I've been called to do. It's hard though," she admits. For now, Spies' priority is helping her students — from writing letters of recommendation, calling other schools on their behalf, or just being a listening ear for a "constant stream of students."

"[There's] students coming in, students with questions, students who are crying, students who just want to have some ideas of what to do, people who are feeling lost, upset and even angry," she says.

"Remember how we learn about the stages of grief, right? I mean, you see it everywhere ... We don't know where we're going, we don't know what we're doing and we wish we had known earlier," adds Spies.

For Spies personally, her main emotion is sadness.

"This is family, this is home. We offer something that just doesn't exist in other spaces... Despite anything else, like anger about anything or shock, confusion, or frustration — [there's] deep, deep sadness that this is not going to exist anymore," she says.

For anyone who is in a position to accept any students, faculty and staff from Stritch as they look for their next steps, Spies encourages them to warmly welcome this population.

"They need to find a new home. It's been such a beautiful place to be. There's nothing like this and we're all going to miss it so much," she says. "[And for] the people who are going through this, and alumni, [I just want them] to know how much we've loved being with everybody."


Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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