RENSSELAER — The auditorium at St. Joseph’s College was unusually charged on a Friday evening in February as it hummed with the sound of students, employees and alumni nervously chatting amongst themselves.
The crowd politely quieted as the campus minister approached a podium on the stage.
"Let us pray," Father Vincent Wirtner began. "For the mission of St. Joseph’s College, for its students, faculty, staff and administration ... for parents and loved ones who support it, and for our board of trustees who guide us. God, we need you with us right now tonight."
A few minutes later, the sound of students weeping reverberated throughout the room as the chairman of the board of trustees announced they had voted to temporarily shut down due to the college's dire financial challenges. The board would work quickly to find a way for the college to reopen, Chairman Ben Sponseller said, but no students would be there in the fall.
It has been a tumultuous two months since the impending closure was announced.
Students fretted to find new schools. Employees received their layoff notices and tenured faculty are now suing the college for allegedly failing to follow proper layoff procedures. Alumni, desperate to keep the college open, tried to oust the school’s leadership.
Still, many people have faith the 126-year-old liberal arts school can remain. It may take something short of a miracle to reopen, but one private college 230 miles east of St. Joseph's proved the impossible could be done when it reemerged a few years after shuttering.
“Once the word went out, it was as if a sleeping giant were awakened”
Mark Reynolds, a 1980 alumnus who’s now the director of marketing and communications at Antioch.
Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio closed in 2008 after facing years of declining enrollment and funds. The news shook the college community and, after a strenuous fight with its board of trustees, alumni were able to seize control of the campus and welcome a new class of students in fall 2011.
"Once the word went out, it was as if a sleeping giant were awakened," said Mark Reynolds, a 1980 alumnus who’s now the director of marketing and communications at Antioch. "I wasn't following higher education, so I didn’t know what issues colleges were facing at the time. All (alumni) knew was that Antioch was in crisis and we had to do something."