Baptism By Fire For St. Joe's 'Phoenix Team' One Year After School's Closure Vote

Feb 5, 2018

St. Joseph's campus in Rensselaer.
Credit Charlotte Tuggle / WBAA

This week marks one year since St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer announced it would be suspending operations. School officials say the college – as it was – is dead. And it’s still uncertain if – or how – the college might reopen.

Just a year ago, students were shuffling to and from class under the towering chapel on the St. Joseph’s campus. It’s since fallen silent.

The grounds are still manicured to look as if class is to be let out any second – save the concrete barriers blocking the entrance that read ‘private property – no trespassing.’

Across the road in Drexel Hall, only 17 employees remain. They’ve been dubbed ‘the Phoenix Team’ – working to get St. Joe’s to rise from the ashes of financial ruin.

Chief Information Officer Michael Kohlman says there’s been progress in the past year, but the future of St. Joe’s is still uncertain – including how long the current, albeit small, operation can be maintained.

“There is a presence and a pressure and a feeling that the clock is ticking in some way,” Kohlman says.

The college is currently negotiating with a bank to settle a $27 million debt. It was racked up by a group of trustees – most, but not all, of whom have resigned – whose financial mismanagement drained the school’s endowment over the course of 20 years and caused the shutdown. School officials insist the bank negotiations are going ‘well’ but didn’t give any details.

Even if the school can clear that hurdle, the question still remains: how can the college reopen? Kohlman says that’s a concern, especially after the momentum of a continuous stream of students was stopped.

“We do have the heritage of the college that was,” Kohlman says. “But the flip side is – for all intents and purposes, we’re a startup with a set of ideas.”

"For all intents and purposes, we're a startup with a set of ideas." - Michael Kohlman, St. Joe's spokesman

When the school closed down in May, the first priority was moving the several hundred students who hadn’t graduated to other colleges.

Marian University in Indianapolis took in about 80 transfer students from St. Joe’s – the largest number of transfers they’d ever seen come from one school.

Marian spokesman Mark Apple says the school is tracking the progress of students who use their two alma maters mascots as an identifier.

“They’ve adapted really well to the campus environment here,” Apple says. “They’ve kind of adopted their own identity – they call themselves the ‘Puma Knights.’”

As far as the teaching staff goes, the college had to lobby the Indiana Attorney General’s office to release enough endowment money to fund severance packages. About 200 employees worked there at the time of the close.

So, facing an unknown financial framework with no student pool or catalogue of professors at the ready, St. Joe’s spokesman Michael Kohlman says the likely solution is to partner up with another institution.

“If and when St. Joe’s does reopen, it probably will be a progressive process,” he says. “So what you would probably see, if we were to sort of look in the crystal ball here at the moment, is that it probably would reopen initially as a two-year degree institution in partnership with a four-year degree institution.”

Kohlman says that might be necessary for the school to regain its accreditation.

He says discussions about who to partner with have been ongoing since the close, but he declined to name potential partners.

If and when St. Joseph's College reopens, officials will have to decide how the school fits in a competitive, faith-based higher education market.
Credit Charlotte Tuggle / WBAA

There’s no shortage of Catholic institutions in the state – including Notre Dame, Marian University and Fort Wayne’s University of Saint Francis – who might either partner with or compete against a re-opened St. Joe's.

St. Joe’s officials say they hope the college’s differentiating factor will be that it’s historically accepted students who couldn’t get into those colleges because of GPA standards, money or location.

And Kohlman says the academic staff planning the school’s new model is being critical about how a reopening college could make its mark in a landscape where four-year, private school enrollment is declining – so the school wouldn’t be open for only a short time and have to close again.

“What is the educational environment going to look like five years from now, or ten years from now?” Kohlman says. “Not so much what was it last year, or even basically, tomorrow?”

Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities President Michael Galligan-Stierle says that’s the biggest challenge schools are facing. He says students are going to college for career readiness and to find meaning in their work. The latter, he says, is where Catholic colleges may have an established edge…

“People enrolled in college today continue to search for a meaning in life,” Galligan-Stierle says. “To find the role of spirituality as they encounter the human experience.” 

But, Galligan-Stierle says, colleges must find a way to provide that within a financially sustainable model.

St. Joe’s officials hope to release ideas for a restart plan in the coming months – ideally, before the May anniversary of when the college closed its doors.