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Here is Cardinal Stritch President Dan Scholz's explanation for the university's sudden closure

President Dan Scholz says as Cardinal Stritch's enrollment continued to decline, it couldn't keep relying on reserves to pay its operating deficit. "It's not sustainable anymore," he says.
Emily Files
President Dan Scholz says as Cardinal Stritch's enrollment continued to decline, it couldn't keep relying on reserves to pay its operating deficit. "It's not sustainable anymore," he says.

Students will cross the stage at Cardinal Stritch University’s graduation for the last time this Sunday.

In early April, the university north of Milwaukee announced that it would close after this school year. The news stunned its thousands of alumni and hundreds of current students.

Stritch’s enrollment has plummeted from about 6,000 students in 2010 to just over 1,000 this year. The Franciscan institution has operated at a deficit almost every year in the last decade, according to tax statements.

President Dan Scholz says the situation became unsustainable this school year. Scholz sat down with WUWM for an interview about the decision.

"It was with our January financials," Scholz says. "So in early-to-mid February we started realizing we're going to have a significant cash flow issue ... if we don't hit our fall enrollments numbers and then the spring semester comes around and we get closer, don't quite hit it, we're going to have a shortage of revenue coming in."

Scholz says administrators and the board of trustees started going to donors, looking for grants and going to banks for loans, to help fill an about $6 million deficit.

"That's not unusual, many institutions our size, if they're facing that, they make those decisions," Scholz says. "It wasn't until maybe six weeks later, late March, early April where we realized we weren't going to make it."

Scholz says in the past, the university has partially relied on cash reserves, but those weren't sufficient this time.

He says university leadership didn't go public with a plea for help because it didn't seem to be a successful strategy for other universities on the brink of closure, like King's College in New York.

"We were watching universities across the country who went public with the financial situation they were in, and none of that seemed to a successful tactic — to say, 'Hey we need $6 million just to operate through the end of the term,' — we weren't seeing any success with that sort of option."

The closure decision has thrown hundreds of Stritch students' education plans up in the air. Other universities and colleges have agreed to Teach-Out and transfer agreements with Stritch, but some students won't be able to transfer all their credits.

Scholz says Stritch didn't mislead students about its financial situation

"It's not like we had that information for a year and we were under false pretenses enrolling students," Scholz says. "In fact all the numbers looked that this next fall numbers were going to be good, in terms of enrollment. So it was a question of can we make it to the fall, financially."

So was it a short-term cash-flow issue that prompted this permanent decision? Scholz says no, "It had been building up for years" with declining enrollment.

"In the end, we felt like we had to maintain Stritch’s quality education," Scholz says. "And if we can’t do that, if our finances aren’t going to let us deliver a quality education, we felt like we couldn’t in good faith keep going forward."

Nate Johnson, a higher education data analyst, says universities like Stritch are some of the most vulnerable amid the national picture of declining college enrollment. They don't have large endowments like some competitive private schools, and they don't get taxpayer funding.

"Community colleges have had some pretty steep declines in enrollment, but they get support from either the state or local governments, or both, that help them keep their doors open through those times," says Johnson.

Scholz has been at Stritch for 19 years, first as a religious studies teacher, then a dean, and eventually as president of the school — a role he took on about three years ago.

He says, this is a sad time at Stritch. But he's also feeling grateful.

"To think we've got over 40,000 alumni and literally hundreds of Sisters [of St. Francis of Assisi] who built this place — we're very proud of what Cardinal Stritch University has done in 86 years."

After its commencement ceremony on May 21, Stritch won't be totally closed. It will hold summer school classes, primarily for students within 3-6 credits of graduating. Scholz says no official closure date has been set, but it will probably be some time in the fall.

He says staff layoffs are happening in stages through the summer, depending on each person's role.

What will happen to the campus and its buildings? Scholz says the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the school and still have "reserved powers" have the ultimate say. He says he would prefer to see another education institution take over the buildings.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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