St. Joseph’s closing hits close to home

Leann Kooi poses for a photo in front of the Modoc’s mural on Market Street, which she repainted in 2016. Kooi told The Paper of Wabash County had it not been for Saint Joseph’s College, she would have never had the courage to take on such an important task. Photo by Emma Rausch

By Emma Rausch

Wabash native Leann Kooi will graduate from Saint Joseph’s College in May and then immediately lose her school forever.

Rensselaer’s St. Joseph’s College (SJC) will be “temporarily” closing following graduation and, despite being 80 miles away, Wabash locals will be feeling the effects, if not now then in the soon future, according to Kooi.

In January, the 127-year-old Catholic institution announced it would be “temporarily” closing as of May 12 due to financial distress. The college would need a cash influx of $100 million, with $20 million in commitments by June, according to Robert Pastoor, SJC’s president.

Despite Pastoor’s assertion that the community should have seen the closure coming, the declaration was met with shock and despair from the college’s alumni and students, like Kooi, a 2013 Wabash High School graduate.

The administration “completely blindsided” the students, especially incoming freshmen, according to Heidi Gusa, a SJC alumni and 2003 Southwood High School graduate.

“Shortly before the closure was announced, SJC had its annual Presidential Scholarship Competition,” Gusa said. “Prospective students came in from all over to compete for a variety of scholarship packages, including two scholarships for full tuition. I believe that the (SJC) Board had a closure plan in place before this date so it was completely unfair to put the panel of judges and students through the rigorous competition. … The underclassmen and incoming freshman are now forced to transfer.

“Many of them had their athletic careers abruptly cut short. I was fortunate to be a cheerleader and tennis player during my SJC career and I’m devastated for the athletes. The same goes for those involved in clubs, Resident Assistants, (and such) who may not get those same opportunities at another university.”

While the SJC’s administrative board has provided little information on what led to the facility’s announcement and what its next steps will be, according to Kooi.

“Directly from the administration, the information is mostly only on the surface level, like this is their general plan,” she said, “but most of the internal stuff I’m getting from faculty and other students (that aren’t being communicated with either).”

On Feb. 6, it hosted a question and answer session in which it eventually “blamed” the students for the school’s financial trouble, according to Kooi.

The school, which is currently home to approximately 900 students, claimed that its student scholarships played a large role in the facility’s debt.

“The whole meeting was condescending,” Kooi said. “The whole meeting lasted for three hours and basically the way that they explained it was that they knew this was going to be the outcome, but they didn’t do anything because they cared about the students.

“They said that the money was going toward maintenance and upkeep of the buildings, which is true. … Then they said it was their tuition scholarships (and) giving the scholarship incentives to the students to come to Saint Joe and that they needed to do this to have more incoming students, so essentially ‘We did it for you,’ which is something (Board of Trustees Chairman Benedict) Sponseller actually said. That made a lot of people very angry.”

The entire session is available to watch on the Saint Joseph’s College Involved for Life Facebook page.

Kooi asserted the announcement even left the Rensselaer community worried and uncertain of its future without the college.

Kooi’s ties to the college transcend past the four years she’s spent earning her art degree.

“Saint Joe’s has been a home away from home since before I was born,” she said. “(My mother) is a graduate of Saint Joe class of ’82 and so is my father. That’s where they met. Both of my sisters attended Saint Joe. I had an aunt at Saint Joe. … So my family’s been connected to the campus for a very long time.”

Even if the closing is only temporary, Saint Joseph’s College won’t be the same, she continued.

“They seem overly confident that they’re going to reopen somewhere down the road, but even if they do it’s not going to be Saint Joe’s any more,” she said. “Either they’re going to partner with a different school or another school’s going to buy us out. … What Saint Joe is right now, it will never be again no matter what they do.”

Since the announcement, SJC alumni have banded together to raise funds in attempt to save the school from its “temporary” financial distress, which its administration said the temporary shutdown should help alleviate, according to Kooi.

However, a Feb. 14 notice from the college’s administration to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development suggests otherwise.

“Although not yet determined, this action may ultimately result in the closure of the entire college and if that will occur the college will provide information regarding that determination,” Spencer Conroy, SJC’s vice president for business affairs, wrote in the notice.

While Kooi is still attending classes, she said campus is chaotic, split between three emotions: acceptance, anger and complete despair.

Juniors and the college’s staff are suffering the most, she opined.

“The administration did tell us they are having a Teach Out program where they’ve communicated with other campuses and colleges to help students graduate on time and give them what they need to graduate,” she said. “But it is true that the juniors are really suffering the most from this. They spent three years on this campus and now they’re being forced to go somewhere else, leave their friends who have to go to other campuses.”

Colleges, including Manchester University, are opening their doors to SJC’s students to complete degrees and offer new educational opportunities, but the invitations have also created an uneasy feeling among the students losing their “home,” Kooi continued.

In mid-February, “they started having campuses come and hand out information pamphlet,” she said. “So a lot of students had this feeling of being invaded by these other campuses to come and get transfer students. It’s been really hard for everybody.”

Alumni have reached out to offer their support to the students and staff as well as share their memories of the campus before the Saint Joe’s as they know it comes to an end, she added.

In hindsight, Kooi said she wished her student body were more involved with the college’s board and advises all Hoosier college students to be watchdogs of their university.

Kooi also attained that Wabash will feel the effects of Saint Joseph’s closing, specifically that local youth may not discover their potential that they might have found at the institution.

“Wabash is connected to Saint Joe in the way that if I didn’t get the art education that I did from Saint Joe, then the mural of Modoc would not be what it is today,” she said. “It would not have been repainted. I would not have accepted (the assignment) because I wouldn’t have had the confidence that Saint Joe gave me to paint something that special to our town.”

Posted on 2017 Mar 14