NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Aquinas College in Nashville announced March 10 it will reconfigure its degree programs to focus solely on preparing teachers for Catholic schools and will close its degree programs in the arts and sciences, business and nursing.
The school will no longer offer residential services or student life programming.
The changes, which will take effect for the semester that begins in the fall of 2017, will mean about 60 faculty and staff will lose their jobs and about 140 students will have to complete their degrees at other colleges or universities.
“Obviously, this decision has been extremely painful,” said Dominican Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, Aquinas College president. “We are deeply aware of the profound impact such a change will have on the faculty, staff and students at Aquinas, people whom we know and love. One of our greatest concerns is for them, and we are committed to do all that we can so that they will experience as little disruption in their lives as possible.”
Aquinas is owned and operated by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, also known as the Nashville Dominicans. The Sisters opened Aquinas in 1961 as a junior college. It became a four-year college in 1994, and in 2012 received approval to offer graduate studies with master’s degrees in education and nursing education.
“Aquinas has had a history of financial ups and downs,” said Dominican Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, spokesperson for the St. Cecilia Congregation.
While the school has been facing difficult financial, enrollment and fundraising challenges in recent years, the sisters “have been maintaining the hope, ‘Just around the next bend, just around the next bend,'” the school’s fortunes would improve, she said. But those improvements never materialized.
Last summer, “we were able to pay our bills, but it was close,” Sister Anne Catherine said.
With enrollment dwindling to 250 students and the school’s endowment down to $5 million, the congregation and the school’s board decided to make changes now while they still had options, Sister Anne Catherine said.
Of the current enrollment, about 60 students are Dominican sisters preparing for the congregation’s apostolate of teaching in Catholic schools. The school will remain open to continue preparing the sisters as Catholic educators.
Sisters from the St. Cecilia Congregation, which was founded in 1860 to open a girls school in Nashville, today teach in 39 Catholic elementary school, high schools, colleges and universities in 16 states. They also have sisters serving in Canada, Australia and Italy.
The sisters will make up the bulk of the students in the Aquinas education program, but some lay students would be able to enroll, particularly local Catholic school teachers seeking a master’s degree in education, Sister Anne Catherine said.
Several initiatives of Aquinas’ School of Education designed to support educators, catechists and those engaged in faith formation also will continue.
Because Aquinas will no longer offer residential services, Sister Anne Catherine said she expects most of the lay students now seeking undergraduate degrees in education will move to another school.
The school’s leaders had high hopes that the new $10 million residence hall, Siena Hall, that opened last fall, would lead to a boost in enrollment. It was the school’s first on-campus residential facility.
But the other challenges facing the college were too great to continue as is, Sister Anne Catherine said. No plans have been made about the future use of the residence hall, she said.
School administrators met with the faculty and staff and the students separately March 10 to announce the decision. Employees will receive a severance package and assistance as they seek positions elsewhere. Sister Mary Sarah is in conversation with colleges similar to Aquinas to help students secure placements in other institutions where they can achieve their educational goals.
Among the degree programs Aquinas will be dropping after the current semester is complete are undergraduate degrees in theology, philosophy, history, English, liberal arts, psychology, finance, management and nursing and graduate degrees in nursing education.
Aquinas students will be able to complete the semester, which ends in May, and some course offerings will continue into June to make sure current seniors can graduate with a degree from Aquinas, Sister Anne Catherine said.
Aquinas College is one of three schools owned and operated by the St. Cecilia Congregation on the same campus. The other two schools — Overbrook School for prekindergarten through eighth-grade students, and St. Cecilia Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school — are independent of the college with their own budgets and endowments. They will not be affected by the decision to reconfigure the program at Aquinas, Sister Anne Catherine said.
Overbrook and St. Cecilia Academy “are doing well and we look for all that good growth to continue,” she said.
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Telli is managing editor of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.