Barat to be shut down over money
- Chicago Tribune
DePaul University will close Barat College next year, shutting down a 100-year-old campus on the North Shore that occupies more than 20 prime acres in Lake Forest.
The university's Board of Trustees took action Wednesday in a nearly unanimous vote that came less than a month after trustees were presented with a bleak assessment of the Roman Catholic school's future, bringing to a swift end a school known for its distinctive redbrick Old Main building and highly personal approach to education.
When trustees emerged from their closed meeting and announced the results of the vote, a conference room filled with Barat students and supporters broke into sobs.
John Staley, chairman of DePaul's board, said the decision "came down to one issue," money.
"The facts are that during the period of time since the alliance of DePaul and Barat, we've lost money and we've put in about $18 million in investment in that campus," Staley said.
Officials said it would require as much as $39 million to renovate, repair and maintain the campus over the next five years.
DePaul President Rev. John Minogue said DePaul had misjudged the costs of modernizing the campus and student enrollment trends when it entered the alliance.
"The assumptions we used three years ago aren't valid today," he said.
But those admissions did little to ease the anger of Barat students and supporters.
"It's unfair to the last detail," said Grace Wire, a Barat sophomore from Western Springs. "I do not understand why they made this decision. They need to make us understand what their financial situation is."
Barat Dean Katherine Delaney called the decision a tragedy.
"I thought DePaul valued the small-college experience," she said.
Minogue and Staley stressed that DePaul would keep Barat open until June 2005, allowing students who enrolled there before the alliance to complete their degrees at the Lake Forest campus. DePaul will also open a "transition resource center" to help other Barat students explore academic options. Those students will be able to complete their degrees without penalty to scholarships, financial aid or academic progress, DePaul officials said.
Beyond June 2005, the future of the campus on the east side of Lake Forest is unclear.
Barat operates under a special permit on land zoned for 1.5-acre residential lots, city officials said. The Old Main building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and any changes to the property would have to be approved by the city or its Historic Preservation Commission.
"We're going to work with the City of Lake Forest," Staley said. "We've had conversations with them, and we're partners to do something with Lake Forest that really works."
Staley said that although DePaul owns the Barat property, the Barat Education Foundation, a non-profit organization that controls the small endowment, has the right to match any offer DePaul might receive for the property if it decides to sell.
Trustee Sheila Smith, Barat Education Foundation chairman and DePaul trustee, said the foundation is attempting to find a partner to keep Barat operating as a school.
"We have every intention of pursuing interested parties," said Smith, who said the foundation has assets of about $4 million. "We've already started discussions with other not-for-profits and for-profits that want to be in Lake County."
When DePaul and Barat merged in 2001, it was a meeting of two Catholic schools on different trajectories.
DePaul had experienced nearly two decades of rapid growth that had transformed the school based in Lincoln Park into the largest Catholic university in the country. The university has amassed an endowment nearing $160 million.
In contrast, Barat enrolled just 900 students and had a $2 million endowment.
According to records, Barat approached DePaul in 2000 "with a proposal to create an alliance."
Barat, which faced imminent closing, hoped the merger would infuse new life and resources into the campus. DePaul hoped to gain a stronger presence in the north suburbs.
DePaul told state officials that it would invest $5 million in improvements and technology infrastructure over five years after the purchase.
"Our expectation is that within five years the Barat campus will serve approximately 1,000 full-time undergraduate students and approximately 1,500 part-time undergraduate and graduate students," DePaul officials wrote to the Illinois Board of Higher Education in 2001.
DePaul agreed to pay $3.6 million to the Barat Educational Foundation and $2.5 million to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the religious order that founded the college.
But Barat failed to meet DePaul's expectations, prompting trustees this year to reevaluate the campus's future.
On Jan. 17 the DePaul board considered a report by a seven-member task force that concluded it would cause a financial strain to keep Barat open.
"Further investments in the Barat campus are judged to have a very high risk level," the report stated.
But critics of the trustees' decision Wednesday argued that DePaul never gave Barat a proper chance to demonstrate its viability.
Smith, a trustee and Barat's former acting chief executive officer and president, said that by the time there was serious discussion of Barat's financial performance "the train was already out of the station."
DePaul officials counter that the inequity of student facilities--spartan Lake Forest versus well-appointed Lincoln Park--underlies the decision to drop Barat.
"You can't have a facility that's perceived as being a second-class facility," Staley said.
Barat was founded in 1858 as an academy for young women in Chicago, then moved to Lake Forest with 22 students in 1904.
According to a history prepared for Barat's 100th anniversary in Lake Forest, students in the early years led a simple existence. The Old Main building was built without a provision for hot water, except for a small bath area. Early graduates wore corsages of sweet peas, and one graduate remembers the Sacred Heart nuns waking students each morning with a sprinkling of holy water.
During the 1950s and '60s, Barat experienced a modest building boom, with construction of the Hilton Center, a dining hall and conference center, science building and several dormitories.
But the school operated on a modest budget, sometimes ending the year in the black by only a few hundred dollars. Barat went coed in 1982.
As students on Wednesday faced the reality that their alma mater will close, some took solace in the campaign they had waged to keep it open.
"We went with grace," said a tearful Ludwig Duran, a theater major who had helped organize a "Keep Barat" campaign. "We did this nobly and nonviolently and followed the mission of DePaul."
Copyright 2004 Chicago Tribune