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Opinion | When Closing a Very Small Campus Is a Very Big Deal

The first day teaching as an adjunct professor at a new university can be daunting: finding your way around campus, struggling to get access to web servers, office space and copiers — to say nothing of the ghastly compensation you receive for your labor.

But on a bright spring day in April 2022, when I walked onto the Staten Island satellite campus of St. John’s University to prepare to teach a philosophy course that fall, I could tell something would be different about my experience there. The warm, tight-knit community on the tiny campus — whose main, much larger campus is in Queens — welcomed me with open arms, making me feel that I belonged.

My enthusiasm was cut short, however, by an email sent to the entire school in August of that year by the university president, the Rev. Brian Shanley, announcing “with a heavy heart” that “after careful deliberation” and in the face of a declining enrollment rate, the board of trustees had voted unanimously to close the Staten Island campus at the end of the academic year in 2024.

As planned, the campus will close after classes finish this spring. Students can move to the Queens campus if they choose.

This may feel like a small New York story. But St. John’s is hardly the only institution of higher learning to either merge campuses or close its doors as a result of low enrollment or economic challenges over the past few years. More than 91 colleges closed between 2016 and 2023, including 15 in 2023 alone; 44 percent of the schools were, like St. John’s, religiously affiliated. The closing of the Staten Island campus is a gloomy harbinger of what’s to come for other small campuses that offer students something increasingly rare in higher education: a truly communal and intimate learning experience.

St. John’s was founded in Brooklyn in 1870 by the Vincentian Fathers, who aimed to offer a socially minded Catholic education in the tradition of the priestly community’s founder, St. Vincent de Paul. Though the university originally drew mostly Catholic students from the metropolitan area, it went on to take in a wider array of students — socioeconomically, ethnically, religiously and geographically.

The Staten Island campus, created in 1971, has traditionally been home to students mainly from Brooklyn and Staten Island, the majority of whom, being commuters, appreciated being able to get a college education in the vicinity of their local communities. The campus’s culture reflects that of Staten Island, whose residents often value planting one’s roots in the neighborhood and maintaining proximity to family over making frequent moves in the name of upward mobility. After hearing the news of the campus’s closing, many of my students complained to me about having to commute to or live on the Queens campus, about 27 miles away, which would require them to disrupt their relationships with their family, friends and jobs.

Rob Franek, the editor in chief of The Princeton Review, told me that the state of small colleges is not likely to improve in the future, citing challenges like “the enrollment cliff ahead in 2025 when the U.S. population will have fewer 18-year-olds,” as well as the fact that the majority of small colleges are almost entirely dependent on tuition income.

Far from being a mere side effect of market shifts, the closing of such campuses presents a grave loss for students. “Small colleges,” Mr. Franek said, “have been outstanding at offering their students an excellent liberal arts education. They generally have low student-to-faculty ratios and their campus communities are highly supportive, tightly knit environments.”

Students are not the only ones who stand to lose. Though I got to enjoy the Staten Island campus for only two years, I found myself socially immersed in that short time in a way I never had at other, larger campuses. Whether it was the students who invited me to participate in service events and pickup basketball games, or the office workers who helped me figure out everything from the dynamic between faculty members and administrators to how to fix the printer, or the Vincentian priest and the custodial worker who would make conversation with me whenever they saw me in the halls, the campus made me feel that I was part of the community.

To be sure, consolidating institutions of higher learning and streamlining their structures is likely to be more economically efficient and to make a greater array of resources more readily available to a wider population of students. Realism requires administrators to take market shifts seriously and sometimes to make tough decisions.

But the aspiration to keep small campuses open is not mere idealism. Many students and educators simply don’t flourish in larger settings. What’s more, the highly bureaucratic structures required to run larger universities invite the further corporatization of universities, which poses its own risk: allowing market-driven ideals to subsume the fostering of meaningful human bonds and experiences. Given the drastic rise in burnout, depression and suicide on college campuses, we’d be wise to question if prioritizing efficiency and sustainability is efficient and sustainable in the long run.

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