March 10, 2017
NASHVILLE, TN – Aquinas College in Nashville has announced it will reconfigure its degree programs to focus solely on preparing teachers for Catholic schools, and in the process 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 will begin 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 Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, O.P., 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 Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, O.P., spokesperson for the St. Cecilia Congregation.
While the school has been facing difficult financial, enrollment and fundraising challenges in recent years, “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.
“We wanted to be responsible with the resources we’ve been entrusted with,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “It’s a difficult decision because, obviously, it involves people. We want Aquinas to be viable for the long term.”
Of the current enrollment, about 60 of the 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 ever 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.
“Our vision at this juncture is to take care of everybody at Aquinas,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “Then we will consider the question about how to use the buildings not being used. The bottom line, I think we will use those buildings.”
School administrators met with the faculty and staff and the students separately on Friday, 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.
Aquinas College is one of three schools owned and operated by the St. Cecilia Congregation on an 83-acre tract in Nasvhille, known as the Dominican Campus.
The other two schools, Overbrook School for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students, and St. Cecilia Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school, will not be affected by the decision to reconfigure the program at Aquinas, Sister Anne Catherine said.
The three schools are independent of each other, each with its own budget, development program and endowment, Sister Anne Catherine said. Overbrook and St. Cecilia Academy “are doing well and we look for all that good growth to continue,” she said.
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.
“Over the years, Aquinas has educated thousands of teachers, nurses and health care professionals, as well as those in business and law enforcement. These individuals now serve the Nashville community and beyond,” said Sister Anne Catherine. “We thank God for our students, faculty and staff, and for their dedication to Aquinas college. We look forward to its future, grateful to the city of Nashville and the wider Catholic community whose friendship and loyal support continue to be a source of strength for its life and mission.”
“We’re certainly sorry to hear of the Dominican Sisters’ decision to reconfigure Aquinas College, closing most of its programs,” said Rick Musacchio, spokesman for the Diocese of Nashville. “We’re particularly sorry about the impact this will have on students, faculty and staff.
“Aquinas College for more than 50 years has been a vibrant and important part of the Catholic community in Nashville, but we certainly understand the issues facing the college and the difficult decisions the school’s leadership has had to make,” he added. “We also appreciate how the Dominican Sisters have been good stewards of their institutions over the years and, even in the most difficult times in their history, have persevered and prospered in their work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We trust, that in the end, this difficult decision will be proven the right path and we know that the Dominican sisters will continue to contribute mightily to the life of the Church in Middle Tennessee. We will keep the students, faculty and staff in our prayers as they move into the future.”